Government // Leadership
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6/29/2009
10:51 AM
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Does Twitter Match The Mission?

A CIO with the U.S. Air Force argues that government-technology decision makers must apply cost-benefit analysis in determining whether Web 2.0 tools make sense for their agencies.

There's a great deal of public discussion about the federal government’s use of evolving communications technologies—Twitter, Facebook and similar Web 2.0 applications loosely grouped under the subject heading social networking—to carry out the government’s business. It seems, however, in the race to start leveraging these new tools, policy makers may be skipping right over important questions about what exactly they expect these new technologies to do for them and their agencies. It's critically important to ask these questions because the hurried and or ill-conceived implementation of these new tech tools can generate as many or more problems than they solve.

The unambiguous message suggested almost daily in coverage about the growing number of state and federal agencies using social networking doodads of one kind or another is this: Senior-level policy makers better get on board or risk getting left behind. Some social networking tools may indeed provide valuable capabilities that help organizations do all sorts of things better. On the other hand, used incorrectly they squander limited time and resources on unproductive, techno-enabled bureaucratic overhead.

Text-only forms of communication, like e-mail, have become the staple communicative tool of the information age. According to experts in a growing field of academic study, referred to as Computer Mediated Communication, text only communication—lean media in CMC speak—can be an efficient and effective way to communicate quickly about simple subjects. The more complex the subject matter, however, the less effective lean media is as a communication medium. Social cues, such as facial expression, vocal tone and tempo, and a host of other contextual factors present in face-to-face communication are absent in lean media. That absence, along with imprecise writing, can generate ambiguity and misunderstanding.

Twitter is a text-based Web application that lets users post short messages in a way that allows others to receive them via their computers, cell phones, or PDAs, as soon as the messages are posted. These messages, or "tweets," are limited to 140 characters in length.

There are undoubtedly some great mission-related uses for these 140 character broadcasts. For example, public health agencies can spread messages about tainted food, product recalls, or pathogen outbreaks. The weather service and emergency response organizations can share information about evacuation routes or the availability of beds or supplies in shelters and relief centers. But one techno gadget's size doesn't fit all agency needs. The mere existence of a new IT capability, in and of itself, shouldn't drive such a manic urgency to start using it unless there's good reason.

E-mail has morphed from what was widely considered a valuable way to augment communication in organizations into the principle means of business communication. The problem is, it's so easy to use that it's also easy to over use. Major corporations are searching for ways to try to recapture some of the efficiency and effectiveness their knowledge workers surrender sifting through e-mail boxes bloated with inconsequential and time-consuming stuff they usually don't need, but can't afford to ignore.

According to Basex, whose published reports on the impact of information overload captured international media attention earlier this year, the problem has grown so pervasive that American companies surrender over $900 billion a year in lost productivity. That's a "virtual bailout" plan available in pro rata shares to any company that can simply get its arms around what appear to be the massively time-wasting impacts of misused or overused techno tools that once held such great promise.

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