A conference workshop last week gave me an insight into how far we have travelled in the past few years in the possible use of new media in the public and nonprofit sectors, and how we might explore this further.
It's a few years since I did much work in the field of social housing, when I co-authored a book on how Internet technologies could offer benefits to residents and their landlords - so I was particularly interested to catch up by running a workshop at a conference of the National Housing Federation last week. We played an updated version of a card game I had previously used in 2003 at an NHF IT conference.
Four years ago there was emphasis on giving people access, conventional web sites, training and support - plus ideas for community storytelling and multimedia. This time I had thrown in cards about blogs, wikis, social networking - plus wifi, mobile phones and Internet TV. How engaged would people be with these possibilities, I wondered?
At the start of the session I asked how familiar people were with these new media tools, and saw a sprinkling of hands - maybe a quarter. Others had heard of them, but few were generally using them in the workplace in order to communicate internally, with residents, or other organisations.
We then spent five minutes inventing a typical housing association - with a mix of rented housing and leasehold, some units for older people - and broke into five groups. I handed each group a pack of cards, and invited them to choose those most relevant to the situation, and also add their own ideas. As you can see, each card had an image - so they didn't all look the same - a brief description, and a number 1,2, or 3 giving a rough estimate of cost. Groups were allowed 15 points - so they couldn't choose all the cards.
There was a great buzz as everyone read read cards and discussed how they might be applied, then created a story to present back to other groups.
We ended up with a discussion, and the discovery that even after a few minutes conversation those not too familiar with the tools could learn enough from those who were, and see how they might be used in their work. It was really all just a conversation-starter, but convinced me yet again that helping people talk to each other is usually a lot more fruitful than talking at them. I've listed the card content below, and you can download a pdf of them here. Those at the top of the list below were chosen over those at the bottom. There was general agreement on the use of new media for engaging residents and other stakeholders, and often the need to move to a new content management system with more interactivity. There is high usage of mobile phones among residents, so text and voice messaging would be important. More services online was no surprise - but I was interested that several groups felt they should have a presence in MySpace or a similar social network. Clearly the message of go where people are, rather than expect them to come to you, is getting through. No-one felt that their chief executive would write a personal blog: as someone said, it would just be written by a press officer.
The workshop game, played at the housing conference, was just one of suite of methods Drew Mackie and I have developed over the past few years, which you can find at this Useful Games blog. We used a longer version of a similar game with Digital Challenge finalists: you can read about the Manchester session here.
The main difference with the Digital Challenge version was that we spent time after the initial selection of cards developing stories of how different people in the community could use the technology tool set. That gave a fresh set of even more useful insights into usage.
Reflecting on the workshop session - and others that we have run - it struck me that with a little development we could use this for some qualitative research into the potential for the adoption of different communication and collaboration methods in different settings. The virtue of these workshop games is that they offer scope for exploring most of the relevant issues: the context, history and culture (in the scenario setting); the different roles and beneficiaries (if you bring in characters); the range of possible methods (on the cards). In longer versions we throw in 'crisis' cards to the storytelling, and extend the stories told to impact on programmes.
Drew wrote a paper on Why games a few years back, which you can find here. 2003! Time for an update, highlighting yet again how effective a few bits of paper can be in getting people talking. More so than Powerpoint.
Housing cards content. Download pdf.