It's Not About the Web :: Learnings from the Social Tech Training

Submitted by Jason Mogus on Mon, 2008-07-14 21:00.

Last week we convened Canada's first ever intensive web training event for the social change sector. Called the Social Tech Training, the event was a collaboration between Web of Change, a series of events owned by the community but managed by Communicopia, and the social innovation group at MaRS, a new player in the Canadian social entrepreneurship scene. 

The event was fantastic - a sold out crowd of 65 participants from across North America learned from nearly 30 of the best trainers, facilitators, and strategists in the growing "web 2 for social change" field. We had 3 days of presentations, sharing, leadership development, and fun in hot sunny Toronto.

It was great to see this snapshot of how organizations use the web to support their work, what's effective and what's not. Key learnings for me were:

  • everyone across the sector is struggling with the same issues in taking their sites and organizations to the next level
  • no one quite knows what to call this new field, and few of us know what skills are required to be successful in it
  • what we're doing is definitely not technology or HTML publishing! The closest thing we can call it is "engagement" work
  • very few people (even the "experts") feel they know everything they need to be successful at their online work. This is due to the broad range of functions we provide (variously fundraising, communications, group facilitation, and technical skills) and all the tech choices out there
  • a lot of orgs still need basic groundwork online before they can jump to the next level with high impact Web 2 tools
  • the resistance a lot of implementers are seeing when they do try and create social media tools, has nothing to do with the technology, or even the way they are implementing it. Bigger cultural issues are at play

This last piece is critical and informed the design of the STT. The first 2 days focused on the most exciting external parts of Web 2 - how to attract new supporters to your work, and how to better engage the ones you have. But we can brainstorm all the coolest web ideas in the world, but if you don't have support aligning an organization towards web principles (transparency, collaboration, participation, and storytelling) or creating an enabling environment, the tools alone will never truly succeed.

I've been noticing this for a while. The senior people (executives) control the culture of organizations, and they ask the younger staff to keep them on top of the latest innovations in the web. Yet actually taking advantage of these innovations requires a sometimes significant change in that very culture before they can have a hope of working in the web world!

Here's why: many organizations' operating models and underlying theories of change are based on a paradigm of control, centralization, and a "we know what to do and we'll get it done ourselves" approach. This creates barriers to connection with those outside of their organizations. There are many reasons why this is and many reasons why this approach has worked well, however the complexity of the issues of our times, the number of people who are "waking up" and looking for more meaningful involvement in change, and other larger cultural trends towards open systems and transparency, are causing great shifts that are worth paying attention to. And the web teams inside orgs are among the first to notice.

The models that produce breakthrough success on the web reflect web culture - open systems, decentralization, conversations, storytelling, and a chance for people to offer meaningful participation. Orgs with the most incredible stories of success online (like some of our keynote speakers: , Step it Up / 350.0rg, Nothing But Nets) were created in this new, open, people-driven paradigm.

Most traditional organizations are not geared up - operationally or emotionally - to maximize this new approach. It's becoming clear that orgs who:

  • try to control their audiences
  • centralize all communications flow through traditional "message controllers"
  • limit the empowerment of front line staff to engage with and respond to the outside world
  • and don't have a learning mind or appetite for experimentation (and failure, this stuff is hard!)

will never fully realize the transformative benefits the web can offer.

As one of the participants in the STT said in a private working session with her small group, "I get it, this isn't about the web at all! It's about everything: our jobs, our leadership, our programs...!". I loved that!

The web - and by extension the web staff - are the ears of organizations, they are the membrane that communicates out but also receives feedback - in real time - from the larger systems we all exist within.

And that's why we created this event - to train up the next generation of leaders who get this, giving them not just technical but communications, leadership, and collaboration skills. Because perhaps becoming more open, responsive, and participatory - and asking for help from those outside traditional boundaries - is exactly what is needed help our orgs better adapt and respond to the complex challenges we face as a culture, species, and planet. Working together for transformative change.

Thanks to everyone who worked together to co-create the Social Tech Training! Now let's get out there and create the case studies for next year's events!


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"This conference is small enough to really learn from the other attendees, and is very focussed on online social change, and what it takes to make it happen. It's very well facilitated and structured, with constant learning opportunities – and that's why I've returned year after year."
Eric Squair, Manager of Web Communications, Greenpeace Canada