Ken Cochrane CIO Government of Canada on social networking

Social networking tools, like wikis and blogs, will have a place in what the CIO of the Government of Canada is calling a paradigm shift towards a Government 2.0 workplace. It’s all about changing the way people work and collaborate, with Web 2.0-based technology enabling this transformation. Ken Cochrane recently sat down with editor Mari-Len De Guzman to share his thoughts on the changing face of public service, the aging workforce, and government’s green initiatives.

Q: A major theme at the GTEC 2007 conference is the government’s shift towards what’s called Government 2.0 and a significant component of that is transforming the workplace. What do you see are the biggest hurdles to attaining these goals of transformation?

A: Government 2.0 is really a concept; it’s a substantial shift from where we are to a different mode of operation. The reality is we are already starting to move toward that direction. Government 2.0 is about a number of things: it’s about the right environment; it’s about the right tools; it’s about the right management. There are some key challenges, and one of them is that we don’t just focus on technology, we focus on people and culture and to operate more effectively as an organization. We really need to focus on how we work together, how we use the tools in the workplace more effectively.

One of the things we’re doing is we’re using some of the Web 2.0 or social networking tools to help us solve problems in a very interactive fashion. So trying to get (staff) to use social networking software like wikis and blogs is difficult. I think our challenge is to get people to work with tools differently, to collaborate in a different fashion.

And that’s not just Web 2.0 tools but with implementing new systems, as we put in place more modern HR systems or more modern services inside government.

It’s about ensuring that departments actually work with those tools in a new way. We don’t want to pave the cow path; we want them to work with these tools in a new way so that we’re more efficient.

Q: There are organizations, including government, that have banned the use of social networking tools in the workplace, arguing that it’s a productivity killer. What are your views on this issue?

A: I know some organizations have blocked the use of social networking. What we’re talking about is bringing those social networking tools inside the organization. You’re right, if people spend a portion of their day on Facebook (for example) for personal purposes, they are going to be distracted.

What we’re talking about is using them in the workplace. So taking tools that have been developed outside and actually using them in the workplace that are directed towards specific issues in the workplace, I think is a positive thing.

That, once again, is another transition. It’s not for your personal use; it’s to solve business problems, it’s to solve workplace problems. It’s to allow people to collaborate together in the workplace.

I don’t see those as distractions. I see those as tools to help us collectively work together and solve problems.

Q: Is it more a cultural mind-shift then?

A: Part of it is learning to work differently. And it’s not just about Web 2.0 tools, I want to be careful that I don’t make it sound like that. We’re not just talking about those. The point I was trying to make is for government to claim that it’s a net new space.

We should see very key things. We should see that government is able to service Canadians more effectively in a way that is more consistent with what other enterprises are doing: providing services in a more creative fashion. But it should also be able to provide services to its inside organization – its employees – in the same, creative and effective fashion. So a worker in the government should feel just like a customer does. They should be getting the best possible services so they can do their job most effectively.

To some degree, Web 2.0 tools will be helpful but a big part of this, too, is fixing the basic back office systems, making sure we have the most modern capabilities. We have some older systems that have served us very well for many years. Our opportunity here is to put in place newer technology that enables us to do things like self-service that makes the job of transaction workers much simpler, that puts more tools in the hands of the worker or the manager to modernize the back office.

Q: The shift towards modernizing government service delivery and the workplace could be affected, directly or indirectly, by an aging workforce and the ongoing skills shortage. How is the government coping with this phenomenon?

A: Just like any other enterprise in Canada, the public service workforce is aging. We have a lot of workers in their 40s and 50s and we have not brought in as many people in their 20s and 30s. I think our challenge now is not so much skills, but it’s attracting the next generation of workers to play a role in government.

Our challenge is, I believe, that we are competing with everybody and it’s not just with other governments, but we’re competing with industry in a very active way to make sure that we get our share of the workers of the future.

Our challenge is to make sure that we do get that share of the workers of the future, that we are able to put forward a workplace that is deemed very modern, very forward-thinking. And that is why it’s not just about tools, it’s about having a reputation as having a workplace that is open and collaborative, that people can grow their careers in, that have lots of opportunities.

We need to be viewed as a progressive organization with the right environment that people would want to work for.

I think one of the selling points that we do have in government is that there are many areas that provide people the opportunity to do very meaningful work. Whether it’s protecting Canada’s borders or protecting the food supply or doing some of the other key things we do. I think that is another factor in attracting the workers of the future, sharing with people the broad range and choice of career they could enjoy in the public service.

Q: The ability for workplace mobility or do virtual working is a component of a Government 2.0 workplace. Can the government be a model for engaging a virtual workforce?

A: We need to be flexible and allow people to work where and when they can work. I think, like many organizations, we are looking at that in different ways. Some types of work lend itself well to being able to work from home or work from a remote location. Other types of work require people to be closer together.

I think the tools are there that will allow government departments in certain parts of the organization to make those decisions.

The question is: does that style of work, does it work effectively in the different workplaces we’re dealing with? Remember in government we’re dealing with about 150 different organizations, fundamentally150 different companies and that style of work may not always suit the different organizations.

Q: Green IT has been one of the more popular topics in the industry in recent years. What are your thoughts on this?

A: When you look at the Government of Canada, we are a big enterprise. We are 150 different organizations that are in very different businesses. Traditionally each one of these organizations has implemented their own services – so their own data centres, their own desktop computing, their own networks. Virtually everything was done separately by silo. One of the things we have been doing over the last three or four years is establishing common and shared services where it makes sense. One of the key areas where common and shared services make a lot of sense to us is in the IT infrastructure.

When you talk about greening, if every department ran their own service and their own infrastructure, a lot of those machines sit there idling for a big portion of the day. Maybe, getting 10 to 20 per cent usage. So one of the powers of consolidation is to bring that stuff together and get a much higher percentage of usage.

So rather than me sitting there with a box that I am only going to use for 20 per cent of the day, it’s now sitting in a consolidated place, where a lot of other departments have access to it. And it’s likely getting 75 or maybe 80 per cent usage. When you consider that across thousands and thousands of servers, that is a big factor in greening – reducing the need for physical floor space, reducing the need for heating and cooling and reducing the need for the electricity that goes into these boxes, which is substantial.

We have a shared services organization today in our Public Works department that provides shared infrastructure services to about 50 to 60 departments today, and we’re in the process of growing that and doing further consolidation in things like data centres.

Related content:

GTEC 2007: Government 2.0 targets online collaborative tools

Feds establish Web-based library

Skills shortage gets public attention

Cochrane to Treasury Board