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The future of source material. Learning to see the steps.

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I’m busy helping to build Akvo at the moment, an open source wiki and set of collaboration and finance tools that pool the knowledge that already exists in different NGO and government silos, to help the world’s poorest communities quickly build water and sanitation facilities. It’s worth doing – today over 1.1 billion people are without safe drinking water and, globally, 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Each year, as a result, 1.8 million children die of diarrhoea and other diseases, 440 million school days are missed, and in sub-Saharan Africa alone $28.4 billion (USD) are lost in productivity and opportunity costs.

The great thing about tackling a problem this urgent is that you can challenge every aspect of how things are currently done – the assumptions that keep us constrained. What has become quickly apparent as we’ve presented the prototype and raised funds from development sector groups is that this field is wide open to act as a test-bed for our first game-changing element – that open source principles of knowledge sharing can change how development is organised. This component was surprisingly easy to explain to an NGO audience, in fact, with a panel debate at Stockholm World Water Week demonstrating a sound appreciation from relevant parties of the opportunities it presents to reduce costs and improve participation and technology re-use and longevity.

Yet underneath there is a tougher issue to deal with, and it becomes more apparent when dealing with that other movement of the moment – the opening up of knowledge systems via social media, and the tensions that creates for organisations built on hierarchical, command and control lines.

The problem is that organisations that have evolved as a hierarchy, with a clear chain of command, are not particularly effective when tasked with gathering and refining content in an emerging infrastructure shaped by social media and by processes that share every stage of a product (or story’s) development with anyone who is interested.

Because while digital material, by its nature, can be updated whenever there is a good reason to do so, it often isn’t. Instead, the vast majority of digital material today continues to be written, approved and published as if it was print material – it just happens to be made available digitally. Almost all marketing departments work this way.

And here’s where I’m going to collapse my lessons from open source and social media together. The central problem in most modern organisations is that there is no culture of shared, authentic core content. Traditional marketing and communications teams have developed stories in a linear fashion, with source material being assumed to be the final polished product, rather than the raw facts and figures. The source becomes the brochure, rather than the original interview that created insights for each section of that brochure. While technology such as wikipedia-style databases allow it, established processes of information gathering make it impossible to easily reference original source material in end products, and when that source material changes it is unusual for end products to be updated without considerable management activity.

This linear process of content creation and approval, favoured today, is designed to discard the real source content and create an improved edited reality, usually a report that is distorted to answer particular questions, or a document that tells a certain story to a certain audience. The organisation – or more accurately individual actors – try to hide any ‘weaknesses’ in the original source or make decisions along the way about which portions of the source should be published more widely and which should remain confidential. In other words, they attempt to control access to the source content. With emerging social media processes – pioneered in particular by the open source software movement – the philosophy is that the source content is open to all unless there is consensus that an individual should be excluded from either reading (unlikely) or editing (more likely) that content. The aim is to encourage all to feel they can contribute to and edit the source code – all actors are encouraged to improve the quality of the source code itself, perhaps by making connections between it and other things, or even simply by tidying it up. In all cases, what is changed can be tracked and large numbers of content editors constantly watch over changes and rigorously review and tweak material.

Yet over decades we have created organisations that usually have two parallel organisational realities – an internal organisation that is quirky, has politics, problems, secret plans, good people and bad people, versus an external organisation that is coherent, polished and near perfect.

The key beneficiary of maintaining two separate organisations is usually the marketing (or legal) department. Millions of man hours are applied globally to take real scenarios and polish them into something suitable for external consumption. Maybe its time to refocus our efforts, giving people at every level and every stage in the process of product and service development the tools and skills needed to tell their own, real stories at every stage. Doing so is no longer a technology problem – it’s a management one.

Mark Charmer is director of The Movement Design Bureau. He co-edits Re*Move and is a contributor to Greenmonk.