How to Manage Social Media - Jerry Mechling, Harvard Kennedy School

Insights from Jerry Mechling of the Harvard Kennedy School
How to Manage Social Media - Jerry Mechling, Harvard Kennedy School
From blogs to wikis, Facebook to Twitter, social media have taken over the workplace.

But how do security leaders manage social media before all these new tools and technologies become unmanageable?

Jerry Mechling is a prominent author and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, and in an exclusive interview he discusses:

Social media's impact on public and private entities;
The inherent security and risk management challenges;
How organizations should begin to unlock social media's potential.

Mechling, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is Founder of the Leadership for a Networked World Program and the Harvard Policy Group on Network-Enabled Services and Government. He is also a Research Vice President of Gartner, Inc. His studies focus on the impacts of information and digital technologies on individual, organizational, and societal issues. He consults on these and other topics with public and private organizations locally and internationally. He is primary author of Eight Imperatives for Leaders in a Networked World, a series of policy papers.

A Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a Board of Visitors Member of the National Defense University, he received the NASCIO National Technology Champion Award in 2005, and is a four-time winner of the Federal 100 Award. Dr. Mechling was formerly a Fellow of the Kennedy School Institute of Politics, served as an aide to the Mayor and Assistant Administrator of the New York City Environmental Protection Administration, and as Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the City of Boston.

TOM FIELD: What is the impact of social media on organizations today? Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking today with Jerry Mechling, an author and lecturer with the Harvard Kennedy School. Jerry, thank you so much for joining me.

JERRY MECHLING: Glad to be here Tom.

FIELD: Just to get us started, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current work please?

MECHLING: Well, I am a government guy basically, Tom. I got started and inspired when I was quite young by Kennedy and wanted to work on big problems, and that turned out to be big problems that reformed and innovated in what government did. I worked for John Lindsay, who was the Mayor of New York City. I was the Budget Director for Kevin White, who was the Mayor in Boston.

And what happened around that period of time, actually, was that reforms were increasingly being influenced by information technology. And so when I went back to teach at Harvard in 1983, it was a focus on information technology, not for itself, but as a catalyst for the kind of information in the way a government did things and related to the public in a way that I thought was very important.

FIELD: Well, that is interesting. You got into the public policy at a time when social change was happening, and now we are here to talk about social media.

MECHLING: Sounds like we are coming around to the basics.

FIELD: Give us a sense - how prevalent are social media in organizations today?

MECHLING: Well, I really think that the honest answer is that it is much more prevalent in society than it is in organizations, and with the younger generation than with the generation mostly still in power. But it is clearly growing, and it is growing in governments for a number of reasons that I see.

One is that government is really strapped for all sorts of resources, finds that unlike a lot of technology-based innovation, it is inexpensive to start with blogs, with Wikis, with peer-to-peer kinds of communications. And it is something that doesn't have to be forced because individuals know, deep in their gut, that networking is really essential to them, and better tools for better networking is a very natural thing.

I think it is also interesting that politics recently has shown that networking tools can be enormously powerful in mobilizing an audience and a constituency, and that that is going to shortly have a big impact, not only on politics, but on how leaders in government think about how they can get things done. And so there is potential here that is very significant.

FIELD: So, we hear about this certainly a lot through out banking, our government, our healthcare audience. The cat is sort of out of the bag in their organizations. They have got people that are doing blogs and Wiki's, they are logging into FaceBook or LinkedIn. Give us a sense from your experience; how has social media started to change the way that we do business?

MECHLING: Well, again, let me start from the basics. It has started. I think there is more hype and hope than there is reality, and I think that is really true when you look at all the technology and all of what government does. It tends to start by automating and changing only a little bit what we have already done, and this whole shift to online 24 x 7, but it hasn't changed too much how much how the innards of government really work.

So with social media, what we are getting is an ongoing tension between controlling what we have already learned to do through the hierarchy and then running around the hierarchy and outside of the hierarchy into the larger networks to find new ideas or to mobilize a group when we realize the hierarchy and channels are wrong. And there is more and more recognition that success depends upon innovation, innovation depends upon a network, and so governments are looking to experiment and to try to understand this, but it hasn't had too big of an impact yet on the real meat and potatoes of government production and service delivery. I think it is powerful in potential. I think that campaigns have shown that, and the interest that we are seeing is showing that, but the big change is still for the future.

FIELD: Now you talked about how this is really bubbling up from sort of the younger generation of employees, and certainly I am the father of a teenager and I know that this is the way that my daughter and her friends live their lives--


FIELD: --but do business leaders, do government leaders really get it when it comes to the potential impact of social media?

MECHLING: Again, some do and a lot don't, and there is a sometimes unspoken but pretty near the surface worry among anyone in control of large groups of people that the social media is really a movement, and movements go out of control. It is not the hierarchy. It's not that you can approve in advance everything that is said. The energy comes from peer to peer sharing of ideas and interactions. That may mean somebody pretty far down in the organization is going to say something that seems to commit the institution to something that is either legally wrong or politically wrong, and historically bureaucracies have been slow partly because they want to vet those ideas, and carefully present one idea to the public. So there are a lot of people that are saying, is it worth the risk? Is it out of control? And in certain areas, certainly when you are looking for new ideas, or maybe in the business world what is very important is the recognition that the ability to really find and capture the long tail.

The fact that an Amazon and a NetFlix don't make most of the money off of their really hot sellers, but by aggregating lots of smaller, producer finds -- the small movie that wasn't seen by the huge masses becomes in the aggregate a real [hit] now and part of that is because of technology in general; search engines like Google and the matching algorithms behind the scenes in the large users of Amazon and NetFlix, those are powerful. But by opening up customers to deal with other customers, citizens to deal with other citizens, there is a huge amount of informal back and forth that is creating some value, and people are trying to understand where is it and what is it, what is it useful for, and that is all in the background of "and some of that sounds dangerous."

FIELD: You used a keyword a few minutes ago, Jerry, and that was "risks." What are some of the inherent security risks that organizations are going to have to mitigate to really maximize the power of social media?

MECHLING: Well a lot of the focus is going on technological risk-- technology itself, and that is important and it needs to be continued. I am pretty optimistic ultimately about the ability to do that, partly because when you look at the history of technology and the enormous extra power we have been creating, you see that originally there really wasn't much of an economic argument for investing in operating systems and control and security from a technological point of view. Now that the internet is the means of commerce so much, and for government the need to protect is taking a cyber dimension as well as a normal military dimension, there is a lot of technical work that I think will be making great progress. The real problem, as I see it, is the concern that leaders have and that the public has is not resolved on the tension between privacy, security and what can be done to control. That is, on the one hand we are really worried about enemies and the vulnerability that anonymity gives to systems where something can interact with something else and you don't know where it has come from, and you know we are under strong attack all of the time now.

So there is a concern to solve that problem, but when solving it means we make everything visible that everybody has done forever, and it sounds like we can never protect ourselves and have privacy the way we have come to hope we can give ourselves some freedom through that, then people are really worried. I think that that political problem is going to be solved much less rapidly than the technological problems.

FIELD: Well, certainly you have spent a great deal of time talking about this, writing about this, speaking with organizations. How do you see businesses and government organizations continuing to evolve as social media grow and sort of take root?

MECHLING: Well, the big picture on that, where I see social media taking off from is that historically technology was really expensive and we could only use it to automate the preexisting high volume, well-structured processes that already existed. That's why payroll was the prototypical sort of first application almost every place; financial control systems of large organizations and in large governments, that is where it was at.

The shift that has happened over the last 10 years and 15 years, with the internet and with browsers and with laptops and personal computing, has been to recognize we can deliver anything you can digitize to people without the horrible inconvenience of having them dropping what they are doing, coming to a government, parking the car, standing in line, and finally getting told that they forgot to bring the right stuff. So the big shift so far has been to online and not in line services 24 x 7 and that sort of thing.

What social media represents, in my view, is an extension beyond that to not only delivering something to your employees or to the public, but also interacting with them, having them co-design what needs to be delivered and co-produce it. Many services are really a dance between the barber and the person who is getting the haircut at some level. And that we are beginning to explore how to mobilize the creative energies of a lot of employees in government and a lot of constituencies of government to more effectively not consider the government as something out there and them, but to take the fundamental democratic premise, which is you are the government. And give them easier and more effective ways to engage with government and help identify, prioritize and act on the many thing government needs to do to protect a society.

FIELD: Jerry, one last question for you. I speak to lots of security executives today. and they acknowledge that sort of the social media cat is out of the bag and that their employees are engaging in this, their customers are engaging in social media talking about the organizations, but now they are realizing that they have to set policy and they have to have procedures. So for organizations that are struggling to incorporate or even understand social media, where do you recommend they begin?

MECHLING: Well fortunately, again in comparison to the way things were 15 to 20 years ago, the biggest shift with technology was that as the costs came down the time also came down.

I was surprised at a poll actually more than a decade ago when in the federal government the phrase that represented reform in the procurement system was "Go for 12." What that really meant was that if we decided to buy something today, that 12 months from today we could have the first unit of it finally escape from the procurement process and be usable. The average length of a federal procurement, even a decade ago, was three and a half years. And by that time of course, the technology had changed to a different generation, and all of this stuff was going.

The big deal now is that you can start smaller, do more things incrementally, more quickly see a real result rather than an imagined result, adjust from that and make some reasonably evidence-based sensible decisions to go forward. I think that that's very true for the social media and needs to be experimented with on that basis. Because it doesn't involve hundreds of millions of dollars of upfront investment and years to find out what is gong on, you can see what peers are doing, but experiment with your own institution and its planning process and its relationship with its customers and its citizen base and I think that that is really going to be very important.

One idea, for example, we all know that the real difference in the information age is we shifted from information that was scarce and very expensive to collect and hard to carry from place to place, and difficult to find, to just this firehouse of an incredible over-supply of information.

And even though we get Google and other search engines that find things much better than I find them in my mechanical files of old, even though that is true, most of the information for example, the government puts out is put out there by the people who speak their own jargon, who have their own mission and history and laws around their particular laws around their particular program, and it may very well not be the way that citizens think about what they want from the government, or what is available from the government. I think an interesting social project would be mobilizing the social networking tools to have citizens help define the tools that they use in thinking about government so that they can find, so we can index and find using citizen collaborative means of identifying the information that government has available. I think that would lead a lot towards transparency and trust, and Lord knows we need that.

FIELD: Well, Jerry, that is well said. I appreciate your time and your insight today.

MECHLING: Thanks so much, Tom. I think it is an important problem and an interesting time to be on it. It is something that we haven't figured it all out yet, but it looks pretty powerful, and I would like to hope that a lot of pretty smart and motivated people are going to work on this issue.

FIELD: We have been talking about social media. We have been talking with Jerry Mechling, of the Harvard Kennedy School.

For Information Security Media Group I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Tom Field

Tom Field

Senior Vice President, Editorial, ISMG

Field is responsible for all of ISMG's 28 global media properties and its team of journalists. He also helped to develop and lead ISMG's award-winning summit series that has brought together security practitioners and industry influencers from around the world, as well as ISMG's series of exclusive executive roundtables.

Around the Network

Our website uses cookies. Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing, you agree to our use of cookies.