The Digital Civil Society

connectionIf you haven’t yet read the recent reports from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, do it. Now.  Then come back and read this–or don’t. This post is way less important than those reports.

They came out of the research done by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich through their #ReCodeGood series, which explored the ramifications of the “open data” movement on nonprofits and civil society. Their new Digital Civil Society Lab continues the research on how to use innovative technology to improve transparency and effectiveness in the nonprofit/social sector. (Examples of activity in this burgeoning field, include: Markets for Good, which explores how data can contribute to a more connected social sector; a recent partnership between GuideStar and the Foundation Center to improve nonprofit data collection; and an open online course on better philanthropic practices.)

The Digital Civil Society Lab reports cover topics on policy, the social economy, and the blurring of sectors between nonprofits and for-profits. In their report on the changing nonprofit policy landscape, they conclude by stating:

The framework for nonprofit institutions that emerged and thrived in twentieth century America focused on the resources of that age—money and time. The global digital infrastructure of the twenty-first century has brought forward digital data as a new type of resource. The economics of this resource—how it is used, shared, stored, and kept secure—are different in fundamental ways than its analog predecessors

This sums up the challenge for the social sector of our time: How do we better use the new resources presented to us?

However–this conclusion relies on one fundamental assumption: That our digital activity is a resource, similar to money or time. I do not disagree with this assumption–the rise of Facebook and Google as business giants clearly show digital interaction can be capitalized–but there is another way to look at our digital lives: As a process, not a resource.

Digital interaction has fundamentally changed the way we behave. It has broken down time and space barriers between individuals and organizations like no other technology (telephone, television) has done before. This restructuring of the way we interact makes it easier for us to be collaborative within our organizations and between our organizations. For example, Markets for Good, mentioned above, not only uses digital resources (demographic information, feedback on nonprofit programs) to increase the responsiveness of nonprofits to their beneficiaries, it also would not exist without the digital process that makes those resources possible. It is a collaboration between three different organizations–something that would have been very difficult at its current scale a few decades ago. I’ve talked with people involved and they are amazed at how much they rely on the barrier-eliminating tools we know and love–email, Skype, Twitter, etc.

The organization I am privileged enough to run, UnSectored, also wouldn’t exist without the digital processes of our time. We are a team of four working part time, and our primary communication interface is email and text, and the primary way we interact with our community is Twitter and Facebook and our blog. We literally could not have existed before the social media explosion of the last few years.

You draw different conclusions once you view our new digital activity as fundamentally a process, not a resource. The folks over at the Digital Civil Society Lab ask the question “Do outcomes matter more than the organizational structure through which they are achieved?” in their report on the blurring of lines between sectors. They conclude that yes, we need a clear division between the responsibilities of the public sector, nonprofit sector, and private sector,  since we rely on complex and sometimes contradictory social values when working on social causes.

However, when examining the fundamental digital process available to all organizations today, rather than the resource product, you see that the question of boundaries/outcomes is less relevant than the question of leveraging what we have today to produce more effective, collaborative organizations. (Which I believe will be inherently more socially focused.) This conclusion is not incompatible with the Digital Civil Society Lab’s, but a different take on the same observed phenomenon.

I have not seen much study of the impacts of collaborative digital processes on organizations (both internally or externally). We must research these developing organizational structures to reach the full potential of our new social economy.

Photo credit: TempusVolat

Who likes wearing suits?

suitWho likes wearing suits?

I know I don’t. Most people I ask this question to usually agree with me. Yet many get up every morning and put on a suit—or some another type of formal, restrictive clothing.


Suits were once synonymous with wealth and success. Now we have companies with no or minimal dress codes that are just as or more successful as the oldest and most buttoned-up corporations. So why haven’t people at the corporate top—who I imagine also hate wearing suits every day—overwhelmingly changed this outdated signifier of what it means to be successful and productive?

Probably because it isn’t about the suits. Our corporate/success dress code is really about the constrictive routines we fall into. Instead of opening up offices to true innovation, we fall back into old patterns because it’s easier than sticking our neck out on a new idea. Instead of trying things like flexible work time, extended family leave, less hierarchical management structures, or revised dress codes, organizations (particularly large ones) tend to rely on what they know.

And we suffer the consequences. Innovation and new thinking drives growth, and it’s difficult to be open and collaborative in a constrictive environment. Allowing employees to set their own boundaries and to pursue their own ideas within the parameters of organizational goals will only help the organization in the long run. If they want to wear suits to work—great. If they want to wear old Led Zeppelin t-shirts, who cares? As long as they keep driving co-workers and the organization forward with new ideas, what does it matter?

So will we ever see the death of the suit? Probably not, but we will see it lose its prominence in the collective cultural unconscious as our society becomes more open and collaborative, and we disassociate success with constrictive standardization.

And good riddance, too.

Photo credit: bagsgroove