Four more years

Team at the RA

Four years ago, I left the Civil Service and started trading, rather than simply blogging, as Helpful Technology.

This time last year, we’d become a team of three, and by this July, we’ll be six strong. A business that started out as some optimistic freelancing has become something that pays people’s mortgages. It’s all got rather serious.

Paul McElvaney of Learning Pool has a lovely description of himself as an idiot entrepreneur – a phrase which really captures my approach to business over the last few years. I’ve bumbled around chatting to folks, emails have materialised in my inbox, proposals been agreed, and invoices despatched. It’s worked quite well, albeit at a small scale – a sort of ‘freelance-plus’ model. But it’s felt increasingly terrifying not having much of a plan beyond tomorrow’s inbox. The Something Always Turns Up (SATU) school of business management.

So I commissioned a bit of consultancy help from Matthew Cain, author of the excellent Made to Fail and founder of two startups himself. He put me through a ‘small business MOT’, helping me to work out what I’m not doing in terms of managing the business, benchmark myself against my peers, and give me some tough love about my freelance-plus ways.

It’s been a richly productive experience with lots for me to digest. It also made me realise, both in how I manage things, but also in how I explain what we do to people, how much of it is backward-looking: to the last four years, but even more so my years before that as a civil servant. They’ve been great years, but it’s time to look ahead.

I’m not about to radically shake up the pleasant shambles that’s served me well so far, nor launch an aggressive sales and marketing push. But there are three things I’ve not been doing, which I’m resolving to work on now, to set the foundation for a bolder and smarter next four years.

Choosing

The SATU school of new business is certainly low-effort, and has a rather good success rate. We’ve worked with some really tremendous organisations and individuals in recent years, from the Royal Academy (team pictured above on a visit to our iPad app in situ at the recent Sensing Spaces exhibition) to the FCO and the Big Lottery Fund; Heathrow Airport to the Singapore Government.

The team is full of ideas and experience, and it’s time we made some connections with the inspiring organisations we can really help, and move on from the projects and tasks for which we’re not such a good fit – and which we don’t really enjoy either. It’s not about dumping the small and medium-sized client organisations which have got us this far: if anything, they’re often the ones we’re best suited to help.

Planning

I’m making some more time for myself to look ahead financially and in terms of planning new business and product development. It’s embarrassing how little of this I’ve got away with so far.

We’re also hoping to plan day to day life a bit more – like lots of small agencies, the struggle of balancing ongoing support against project and product work risks driving us into the ground without some proper scheduling. And just as important, we all need a bit more time off the clock to learn and experiment, participate and tidy up – and planning makes the space for that to be possible.

Linking

As a freelancer, you see the links between projects and people naturally. But as the team grows, it becomes more important to link up. We’ve tended to run our social media crisis simulation work entirely separately from our digital skills training and tools, which is a little daft.

The civil servant in me finds the concept of cross-selling somewhat alien and a little distateful, and I can’t picture myself doing it anytime soon. But our clients’ worlds have changed over the last few years (accelerated by the Government Digital Service for sure, and the rise in management interest in social media) and the line between websites and training, content and campaigns, consultancy and knowledge transfer have blurred quite a bit.

We’re a team with a great mix of skills now, with lots of smart friends and associates, and we can help people in lots of ways that – walking out of Westminster on that sunny day in May 2010 – I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

After the earthquake

The changes going on right now in central government digital communications are pretty seismic. Not least because thanks in large part to GDS, digital teams no longer view ‘communications’ as the limit of their ambition these days, as they mainly still did when I was part of one.

So what’s the role for a company like mine in a GOV.UK world? It’s just over three years since I incorporated this blog into Helpful Technology Ltd, and the world around us has changed quite a bit. So we’re making some changes too.

Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore

For a start, we’re properly plural now – Luke Oatham has flourished in his six months on board, delivering some awesome work for Wilton Park, CLG and DCMS amongst others. And from next month, there will be three of us, when my former BIS colleague Howard Gossington joins the team. Howard’s an actor as well as a solid gold webby, and I’m excited about what he’ll bring to the team.

We’re two separate companies now, too: the work we’ve been doing with social media crisis simulation is a global enterprise now, with export clients in the US, Singapore and Europe and hopefully more to come. It’s a very different kind of business too, from simulating tram crashes with Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, to throwing petitions-gone-wrong at the team at Change.org¬†(and they’re just some of the ones we can talk about).

We’ve also been working closely for a couple of years now, particularly on social media training, with our good friends at Claremont Communications, and we’re hoping to start sharing office space this summer, with a view to blending more of their social PR nous with our nuts and bolts digital skills.

But over the last three years, our bread and butter has been central government work, and as Inside Government gets smarter, there’s likely to be less of that around. That’s a good sign.

Like many small firms, at times over the last six months, we’ve found ourselves stretched in lots of different directions. So in 2013-14, we’re going to be trying to focus our work in four main areas:

  1. Digital engagement: effective digital engagement lives or dies by the strategy, skills and connections which underpin it and we’ve too often found ourselves at the end of a food chain, supplying a platform without the involvement to help make it effective. A year ago today, I launched the Digital Engagement Guide; now, I’m hunting for more opportunities to help organisations consult better and discuss policy online, and be a less peripheral part of the teams doing it.
  2. 21st century intranets: Luke’s work for the terrific team at DCMS has rightly been celebrated by GDS. What they’ve achieved with content, and how Luke has shaped a platform for it, is really impressive. There’s much talk (but few examples) of ‘social intranets’ and led by Luke, I’d like us to help more people turn their intranet from a waste ground of corporate guff, into something people use to solve their problems. Maybe it’s time for Intranet Club II.
  3. Power to the elbow of the little guys: a client once described themselves as ‘puffer fishes’ – able to do what appeared to be a big team’s work with a small team’s resources, thanks to the magic of WordPress and friendly, can-do support.¬†Working for one- or two-person teams at Involve, Wilton Park, LGIU, University Alliance, and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others has been really rewarding, and they’re the clients for whom we add the most value.
  4. Social media in a crisis: around the globe, organisations large and small are realising that bad news travels differently now, and we’re refining a platform and consulting service that rivals anything in the world. We’ve established partnerships with around half a dozen agencies so far to offer social media crisis simulation services to their clients, and we’re developing intermediate products focusing on practical writing skills and Twitter in particular.

So while it’s sad to see old friends like the Department of Health’s innovative WordPress site fade into the archives, even I can wish it a fond farewell. The good stuff is around the corner.

The year of living (slightly) dangerously

Kingsgate House

(Image: Google Street View, DIUS Kingsgate House, London)

This week marked a year since I joined DIUS as the first permanent member of staff working exclusively on social media, and roughly a year or so since Justin’s pioneering social media strategy started to take shape.

It’s been a fantastic year. From being a ‘Team Leader’ of a one person team, having merged with another team and picked up some great talents along the way, we’re now briefly a team of eight (give or take). Growth isn’t everything, but it means we can do more interesting things, more quickly, across a wider swathe of policy areas, and is hopefully a good sign.

Some of the highlights of this last year for me:

Exploring what we can do with consultation: The work Michelle did on the Innovation Nation white paper supported by a Commentpress site taught us a lot about the potential for niche engagement, and we’re taking the learnings from the ups and downs of Science and Society and the HE Debate into future projects which challenge the old slap-a-PDF-on-the-website, 12-week approach.

Maintaining a JFDI attitude: I’m proud that we’ve overcome the treacle of well-meaning bureaucracy and delivered quite so many projects – some relatively successful, others undoubtedly flops – whilst remaining on good terms with IT, finance, comms and policy. We’ve taken measured risks… and the sky didn’t fall on our heads. Yet. Best of all, we’ve given courage to a few others to do some of the same, only better.

Taking the broad view of engagement: Though based in Comms as most digital teams are, we’ve consistently argued that digital engagement has a wider role, from customer insight and consultation through to marketing and press – the Mature Students project in partnership with The Student Room is perhaps the most lovely illustration.

Open sourcing our stuff: A key plank of Justin’s strategy was open innovation through sharing of our tools and experiences – I’m pleased with just what shameless cross-government networkers we’ve become, and the open sourcing of Commentariat and Bookmarklist which seem to be helping others already.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy, of course. Some days, I feel like we’ve done little more than waste time, money or – even worse – opportunity. We certainly haven’t embedded digital engagement in everyday thinking yet. When push comes to shove, many apparent enthusiasts are still sceptics at heart. We still haven’t nailed some of the basics like evaluation, the business case or routinely procuring the right kind of suppliers (with some honourable exceptions, of course). And we’re still very much feeling our way as a combined online/offline engagement team. Three months into 2009, we still need to work harder to support pioneers within the organisation to stand any chance of scaling up the impact of our work.

As I’ve posted over on Emma’s blog, the lessons of the last year have taught us:

  1. Interactive websites need interactive organisations. Don’t embark on digital engagement projects without recognition from all involved that they need to actively engage with feedback – and then do something with the outputs.
  2. Focus on the content, not the platform. Don’t get too hung up on the tool, or even online as a whole. People engage with issues, so try and bring those to life and don’t let the medium become the message.
  3. Find and support the pioneers and champions. There is enormous latent enthusiasm and goodwill towards digital engagement within big organisations – find these people, get them the permission they need, and support them to do digital engagement for themselves. (Though self-evident, I’ve found this one tough to put into practice.)
  4. Be honest about scope and boundaries. Find out up front what is up for discussion, and what’s been decided. You’ll defuse arguments and minimise hostility if you’re open about identity, remit and agendas.
  5. Protect information that needs to be protected. Manage the risks of digital engagement – not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of how the tools are used, data storage and archiving.
  6. Integrate with other partners and channels. Combine things: be nervous if a project is based on a single platform or organisation. Build it and they won’t necessarily come. Be smart about your online PR.
  7. Make it enjoyable and interesting for your different audiences. Policy discussions work at different levels: facilitate a credible, interesting discussion for the experts, but also something more accessible and – dammit – fun for public/younger groups. And we’re generally not the best people to decide what constitutes ‘fun’.
  8. Enable remixing & co-design: ask who can help us do this? Providing open data lets other people do what we can’t yet imagine, or with a frankness we simply can’t say ourselves.
  9. Enhance progressively: build from inclusive and accessible base of information. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t a tickbox, and it isn’t pass/fail either. Choose social media platforms wisely but pragmatically, on the basis of publishing core information which is multimodal, customisable and platform-neutral.
  10. Evaluate intelligently and share openly. Write down what you’re trying to achieve, work out if you achieved it, and tell people what your learned.

Thanks to everyone who has helped us on our way so far: you know who you are. Here’s to Year Two.