Dr. Govlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog

(or even: Why you should join Twitter or start a blog immediately)
Note: This post contains GCPEDIA links only accessible within the Government of Canada network.
Blogging about blogging. How meta can you get?
Not long ago, I made the acquaintance of a young, energized public servant.  I was impressed by their1 enthusiasm, imagination, expression and boundless drive to create.  I encouraged this person to start their own blog and share their ideas with their colleagues at large.  To my delight, my challenge was accepted and the resulting material was as good as I'd hoped: a wellspring of inspiration and discussion.

Then, one day, it all disappeared.  Because of strong divided opinions within their shop about external social media engagement, my colleague had deleted their entire blog—without backing up any of the material.

I was saddened, but not surprised.  I'd experienced a similar crisis at the beginning of my own public service career.  There wasn't a heated internal debate, nor any direct warnings from supervisors about the content of my writing.  In fact, the awareness of social media within my division was only just beginning.

What I did experience, from orientation sessions and interactions with new colleagues, was the subtle and constant reminder that I was a public servant now.  As a government employee, my life was at greater risk of coming under the microscope.  Everything I said and did, everything I wrote, my personal and professional life—it all needed to be more carefully groomed and diligently managed.  Don't wear your ID off-site, don't publicly discuss any issues that are unfavourable to the Government, don't broadcast strong opinions that could be interpreted as partisanship, and absolutely do not speak to the media.  By extension, I interpreted that as a cue to try and erase anything I might have produced that might fall outside the lines of generic male public servant.  For expediency's sake I just deleted everything.  Some of it I'd backed up, some of it was lost forever.  The next morning the sun still rose and the stock market didn't crash, nor did Doctor Who arrive in the TARDIS to shake a stern finger in my face and lecture me about compromising the future of Earth history.  All considered, I take this as an indication that I must have retained the good material.

I reverted to homogenized anonymity, and all was well.

Then, in August 2009 I discovered2 GCPEDIA, and it was really hard not to notice the number of employees who were openly blogging or tweeting.  Furthermore, they had the brazen audacity to actually add themselves to lists, where other rabble-rousers had already neatly organized themselves into snappy little tables, complete with links to their potentially offending material.  Egads I was inspired!

Nearly instantly, intoxicated by equal parts of  "Hey! She's doing it! Why can't I?" and "Ha ha!  They can't fire us all!" I launched a Twitter account of my own and embarked on this little blog for good measure.

Fourteen months along I can honestly say, its been almost universally beneficial to my career.  Here's why you should start a blog (and/or a Twitter account) of your own:

1. You can't distinguish yourself if hardly anyone knows you exist

You have career aspirations; we all do.  But how can you differentiate yourself from the other 250 candidates in the resume pile?  How can you make sure that your resume remains filed on or near the top?  Don't be anonymous.

There's a reason that successful people have PR representatives.  For one thing, they can afford it, but for another it helps to keep them in the public consciousness.  But fear not!—less successful and less wealthy people like you and I have the option of  "promoting" ourselves by creating something publicly accessible (a blog or a Twitter account) and widely useful (insightful commentary, instructional articles, great links).

While I started working for the Government of Canada in May 2007, for all intents and purposes I don't feel like really existed here until August 28, 2008.  After that day, I started meeting dozens, then hundreds of other publics servants.  My definition of public service changed significantly with the realization that my engagement with my own colleagues through the GC's Web 2.0 toolkit and these external channels could be beneficial to Canadians as a whole... and a part of my job

I am no longer anonymous, and that's a good thing.

2. Increasing your personal network beyond your physical workspace

In an ideal world, I'd exist independently of the space-time continuum. I don't want to be limited by the number of hours in the day and the number of people I'm in close proximity to.  With social media, I don't have to be.  Now I can benefit from the experiences of people from everywhere in my government, or any government. They know the things I haven't learned yet; they've read the things I haven't found the time to search for; they've discovered the things I never believed even existed.

Now, unlike before, I know who to contact when I need something, and people know they can contact me for what I can provide.  My blog and Twitter accounts have transmogrified3 my voice mail and e-mail and Twitter DM boxes into conduits of opportunity: expertise inquiries, project collaborations, membership invitations, career opportunities, social gatherings, speaking engagements, training requests...  I help others in the ways I am able, and in return I've reaped great rewards from the enormous knowledge base, expertise, and connections of my network of colleagues.

For example:
  • How many Directors (or higher) did you meet this year?  How many of them made a point to make your acquaintance because someone else had told them about you?  How many of them phoned or emailed you for advice?  Until my blog, my answer to these questions was "zero".
  • I had four job interview opportunities referred to me in 2010.  Sadly, it wasn't a great year to change jobs: a lot of positions ended up being eliminated through attrition, including some of the jobs that I interviewed for.  However, one great interview I had resulted in another invitation to another interview.  I owe all of this to people who knew about a job, thought of me, and made an introduction happen between me and someone who wanted to talk to me.
  • My network of colleagues (and their emails, voice mails, and requests) created such external buzz about me that it created internal buzz in my own space. My Directorate actually became excited about the use of tools like GCPEDIA and GCconnex, not because of my internal cheerleading, but because other Departments were requesting my assistance.
3. Improving your engagement with your job

Social media's greatest hurdle in the workplace is the perception that is has no business use because  engagement is a distraction from real work.  There's that fear that people will spend all day watching stuff like  Charlie Bit My Finger (cute) or Man vs. Bear (funny).  In fact, the opposite is true.

Disengagement leads to distraction and boredom, which fertilizes the ground for the rapid spread of unproductive behaviours: idle websurfing, personal emailing, listening to soft rock commercial-free favourites, and those persistent, longing, ever-so-realistic daydreams about... well, never you mind that!
  • Real disengagement happens when a person is rarely challenged by their work, because they are employed in a position that only taps a minute subset of their overall potential.
  • Real waste in the workplace happens when people with valuable skills and knowledge remain unknown and unconnected to people who could greatly benefit from their resources.  
  • Real harm to productivity occurs when people don't know who to call when they've encountered a problem they can't solve, but may be too embarrassed to look for help within their immediate group for fear of appearing incompetent.
Creating an extended web of expertise where your skillset becomes known to others and their strengths become known to you can go a long way to re-establishing your sense of connectedness with your workplace, your job, your real purpose. That web exists already: you just need to begin weaving yourself into it.

Whatever happened to my friend?  For now, "blogging is still out of the question" in their shop.  But you?  I really think you should climb on board.  Write what you know.  Avoid the controversial and focus on the helpful.

Twitter (technically a microblog, but also called a status update service) is a low hurdle to get you started quickly—anyone can share useful information in a sentence or two.  Start there, then explore Blogger, Posterous, Tumblr, or WordPress to begin sharing even more content.

1 - Indeed, I'm using "their" to refer to a single person in order to avoid disclosing gender. While this may make grammatical purists boil in their own fluids, my I won't resort to the male-as-normative "generic he" nor the cumbersome "his or her". My prose is cumbersome enough, thanks.
2 - Well, "crashed it" would be a more fair description, I suppose.  Because I had administrative experience with GCPEDIA's system software I was promoted from user to Administrator in less than two weeks.  Not long ago, Thom Kearney told me that he still speaks about this as an example of what's possible, to inspire others. =)
3 - I can't believe I've never used this word in a blog post before. Even if it wasn't a staple of Calvin and Hobbes, it's still a fantabulicious word in it's own right.  Plus, it's a real word, unlike fantabulicious.