Obama, Changecamp and the World Economic Forum

This weekend Changecamp was held in Toronto. Inspired by the changes seen south of our borders, it is an event bringing together Canadians from all walks of life to answer the question:
“How do we re-imagine government and governance in the age of participation?”

Unfortunately I was not able to attend in person but many from my Overlap and Unfinished Business friends were there. Through their tweets (tag: #changecamp), their blogs and the event’s wiki I was able to follow at least from a distance this remarkable event.

In the course of the discussions my good friend Charles Finley tweeted the following question: “new models of engagement, or technology-enabled versions of what already exists? Will this change structures of governance?”. I find this to be a very good questions. Since the success of Obama’s new media participatory campaign became known, there have been a tremendous demand to learn the “secrets of the trade” and “how they did it”, and to apply learning to organizations of all sorts: corporations, agencies, political parties, and all levels of government.

In the rush to learn the recipe of that success, however, there is great danger to miss the magic that enabled the recipe in the first place. There are many, who can teach the tools and recipes better than me. But here is my take on the real magic behind it all:

The Vision

It started first and foremost with thought leadership, a renewed vision of a truly participatory way for governing. It wasn’t fundamentally new; we have been dreaming of it and seeking to achieve it for centuries if not millenia, but our implementations, even in the Western democracies of the past 100 years have been wanting at most. Instead of true conversations, there were and still are many on-way “broadcasts” from the governing to the governed with only a brief opportunity for real feedback, mostly through an election every few years, and frequently in a context of lopsided communications due to interests-driven media.

There is no denying of the inspiration injected into that vision by the Internet’s many tools for communications and collaboration. But inspiration alone is not enough to attain success. Even the leadership’s vision, while a necessary ingredient, is not sufficient.

Values & Willingness to Adapt

The vision had to be bolstered by strong leader values: authenticity, transparency, mutual respect, fundamental rights, trust in the people, acceptance of interdependency and shared future etc.
The vision had also to embrace a true two-way conversations with people, which meant really listening to what people had to say. It had to be followed to its ultimate logical consequence: the demonstrated willingness to adapt plans and precepts in accordance with the conversations with stakeholders. This is a tall order as most organizations only engage in conversations after they have developed a plan and a strategy and people come up with many ideas and preferences, not all easily reconcilable.


If the vision, values, and will are all there, the final prerequisite is for the enablers. Although a technological platform is a major one, it is not the only one. Other enablers include: organizational capacity not only to run the technology, but more importantly to aggregate, analyze, understand, and respond to the conversations engaging the organization. This requires a capacity for rapid decision making and a dynamically adaptive strategy responding rapidly to the evolving conversations. Not your standard business school curriculum!
Another enabler is the relevance of the subject and objectives of the conversations to the audiences engaged in these conversations.

Who’s Change?

Engaging in a new media strategy involves hence technological, organizational capacity, and cultural changes. What is important to realize is that these closely entwined elements force the organization implementing them to change significantly. From vision to values, to willingness to adapt, to capacity building and cultural change, the organization is driven by the requirements of a successful new media strategy to become a better, more transparent and capable organization, and to be better connected to its stakeholders and constituents. This is quite a departure from the past, where most media strategies aimed at changing the target audience, not the originating body.

The Moral of the Story

To achieve success all of the prerequisites are needed, technology being only one of them. To my friend Dave Gray and my fellow changecampers I say: Definitely new models of engagement, with serious changes asked of the status quo.

And to the elites of the world as they gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland) this week to discuss “shaping the post-crisis world” (twitter tag #davos), I say: You would be well advised to reflect on the need to change yourselves as much as changing the world, if not more. Therein lies the true promise of the new media for the WEF and for the world.

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