In April this year (2010) I visited the US State Department in order to learn more about its highly successful e-diplomacy project. I expected to see a state-of-the-art computer centre, a crisis room with lined with computer screens, a battalion of consultants putting together high-tech flashy presentations – a sort of modern era replica of what Byzantine used to do in its golden age with its grand welcome parades aimed at impressing foreigners . How wrong I was!
We were welcomed by Richard Boly, the Director of the e-diplomacy section who walked us through corridors that were ‘under construction’ lined with boxed-up papers in preparation for a move. Even security was not as complicated as I have come to expect when I step into US officialdom. We sat around an ordinary table, on ordinary chairs. Our host made the coffee; there were no secretaries and none of the pompousness that can sometimes be found in similar set-ups. My stereotypical perceptions were being challenged on all fronts.
Boly’s talk was along the same down-to-earth lines – exactly the opposite of what I would usually experience in such a situation. No grand design; just an attempt to solve a concrete problem (the lack of information sharing within the State Department). While he had support from the top, the project was a real bottom-up exercise, which resulted in DiploPedia, a huge success in information management.
Boly’s explanation for this success was most interesting: ‘Thankfully, we had no budget and were forced to go with open source, lightweight tools that allowed us to innovate quickly.’ A lack of funds shielded them from the natural temptation to go for a grand design with big computer centres staffed by a battery of expensive consultants and software developers. In many cases, this road is one that often leads to failure, unveiling the paradox that more money can mean less success. Boly and his team took the alternative route. They installed free open source software and found blogging enthusiasts to share their stories with others, and the snow-ball starting rolling. Gradually they challenged the traditional diplomatic culture that usually hides information and knowledge (thought by many to be a key resource for professional advancement). Diplomats started to realise that, contrary to popular belief, sharing could actually benefit their careers.
Today, a major role reversal has taken place with the private sector now wanting to learn from the State Department (Boly’s presentation at the Enterprise 2.0 conference). Boly delivered two presentations at Diplo’s Malta conference in September. He impressively avoided falling into the trap of developing a grand theory from their success. Instead, quite simply, he told the DiploPedia story without any great pretension of making it universal. He left it to his listeners to learn from the experience and was quite clear in his message that we all have to walk our own path.
Have a look at Boly’s insights about DiploPedia:
- Do not mention the change…. Lesson from DiploPedia
- Social media complement, does not replace traditional diplomacy