“Dreams of a digital nirvana don’t come true, but all is not lost.”


When I was asked to write a post comparing technology and tools across time, I was intrigued because I believe that the tools and technology we choose shape the culture of our workplace.

Twenty pages of draft text later, I decided that the topic was more suitable for a book than a blog post. So instead, here are a few reflections on technology and collaboration from someone who has been around a bit.

Collaboration to me, means a group of people working together towards a common goal. Technology helps or hinders us in that collaboration by finding the people to collaborate with, in sharing stuff we are working on, in co-creating stuff and in measuring our progress towards a common goal.

The past

Before the existence of writing, collaboration was strictly a face-to-face affair and probably centred around survival. About 5000 years ago writing came along, and information could now be preserved and shared independent of a human to remember it. For the next 45 centuries written information was the domain of the elite.

When the printing press was invented, rooms full of scribes were gradually replaced with new technology – machines that could accurately reproduce information at an accelerated rate. Ideas could now spread further and faster than ever before. Collaboration over distance was possible although it took a long time. Information was very physical and real.

Around this time, Information geeks the world over began a quest for the ultimate classification system. Every great power had a great library.

More recently, the Cold War and quantum physics research produced the internet and the web. The “interweb” changed everything if you wanted it to. Information could now be in more than one place at once, and it could literally travel at the speed of light. Physical artifacts became digital—making it at once more accessible and more vulnerable. Everything became miscellaneous. Digital networks evolved into complex adaptive systems, and Digimon appeared in popular culture.

The web was a new frontier, unregulated and exciting, a new crop of 20 something techno wizards rose in business fame. Apple was born. The Cluetrain Manifesto was written and there was a boom in tech stocks. At the end of the millennium we panicked over a couple of missing digits (Y2K), and spent billions correcting the short sightedness of the previous decades.

In the GC, Government On-Line occurred and the Funding Fairy provided the means for departments to put their information on-line. Canada became a world leader, but the paper-based mentality that prevailed caused many to completely miss the opportunity presented by hyperlinks and digital logic, instead “brochure-ware” prevailed.

At the top of the hype curve, the tech bubble goes pop and we are reminded that gravity works. After the crash, the Web was reborn as Web 2.0 with user-created content and social networking taking centre stage. The Long Tail made its appearance and command and control hierarchies began to sense a threat, while the educated masses saw opportunity.

Government CIOs scrambled to keep the information plumbing from backing up while Amazon and Google raised the bar of citizen expectations for on-line service.

Tagging and folksonomies entered the vocabulary of information professionals, curating became something anyone could do. Librarians and archivists struggled to catalogue and preserve some of the exponential growth while the cognitive surplus emerged to build things like Wikipedia—making human knowledge more accessible than ever before. CIOs were either bewildered or excited at the possibilities.

GTEC played an important role by bringing together examples and people. It became an annual, milestone event. It was at GTEC 2007 that Ken Cochrane announced that the GC was going to build a “Collaborative Library” and it was at GTEC a year later that we launched GCPEDIA —bringing people and technology together.


High speed wireless saturates the urban environment and ubiquitous network access is a reality. Digital natives experience continuous instant communication as part of everyday life while Government workplaces seem antiquated by comparison. The web and the collective forces that it enables are transforming all parts of connected society. Recorded information is produced at an accelerating rate.

Open source software matures and becomes a viable option for enterprise applications. Governments around the world join the Open Government Partnership, in Canada the Federal Government publishes the Open Government Action plan.

Holistic User Centred Design begins to challenge solutions approaches to designing technology. Humanists and engineers are learning to work together.

The digital divide becomes a social issue, web accessibility becomes law and massive resources are assembled to ensure all GC organizations become compliant.

Bureaucracies built to manage people, work and information over the last couple of hundred years are beginning to show their age. New groups emerge in the evolutionary sea of information we know as the internet. Powerful forces compete to control the new territory – Anonymous becomes an entity.

The GC invests heavily in GCDOCS, SharePoint and other technologies designed to manage/control documents. The idea of knowledge as a product of interconnected networks and not just documents takes shape. Social innovation tools appear in pockets. GCPEDIA, GCFORUMS, GCCONNEX and other grass roots tools struggle for institutional support while gaining users.

Examples of the power of social in communicating across silos and traditional boundaries accumulate. The idea of social networks in government becomes acceptable – as long as we call them “professional networks”.

Future – Sometime after tomorrow

There is no Web 3.0, but something else emerges— a diverse, complex adaptive system, no, a network of complex adaptive systems.

Control of information becomes less important, the cultural default is to share knowledge. Government is a platform and publicly funded data is routinely visualized by an army of professional and amateur big data analysts.
In the GC, Shared Services Canada provides reliable infrastructure, we share one email address across government, secure wireless is everywhere, non-government partners can easily and securely collaborate, the government cloud is a reality. Departmental CIOs become focused on transition and business improvement—information plumbing is rarely an issue. The government-wide technical architecture focuses on standards and interoperability, a diverse range of technologies and tools work together in relative harmony, vendors with “lock-in” strategies are shunned.

GC Ideas is in constant use, the GC App Store is the first place departments look when they need software. Government developers routinely contribute to open source projects. The Open Knowledge policy is promulgated across governments around the world. The Marvelous Mistakes page on GCPEDIA competes with the Fabulous Failures page for most valuable lessons. Risk aversion all but disappears in an organizational culture that embraces experimentation and sharing lessons learned.

Tablet computers are everywhere, briefing binders disappear. The Golden Tablet program maintains a knowledge connection with departing employees. The GC20 suite of tools is adequately funded.

Dreams of a digital nirvana don’t come true, but all is not lost. Networks of people who are comfortable connecting virtually emerge and disperse continuously. The definition of Public Service changes as the lines blur between indeterminate employees and partners. The GovCloud becomes a reality. Agility is an operational requirement, and government organizations re-invent themselves.

Leadership learns to work with the nebulous “crowd.” Connections are made and governance structures adapt to include interfaces to the crowd. The focus shifts from one of command and control towards engaging with self-identified stakeholders.

Serendipity becomes a business principle, the internet of things emerges, power

shifts to those who control the algorithms but a balance is maintained by the digital collective. The Virtual Government Network is an international network 200,000 members strong where new and innovative methods are shared. Public Servants feel more connected with each other, and with the publics they serve.

Global government becomes possible as a global consciousness emerges. The collective intelligence gets a handle on our wicked problems. Technology serves the three Ps of Profit, People and the Planet. Yes, life is good in my fantasy future.


The Government Organizations and leadership types we have today are a product of the technology and tools of the past. The challenge now is how to incorporate things like ubiquitous network access and dynamic peer networks into serving a self-organizing public.

In times like these it is important that executives demonstrate a willingness to experiment and learn. We are lucky these days to have a disruptor like @alexbenay in the CIO chair at the GC, but he is only

Collaboration is a popular word these days. But collaboration is not a technology or a tool. Collaboration is people working together towards a common goal. Collaboration is more about values than it is about tech. We should be discussing exactly what those values are, here are four that I can think of, what do you think?

Target slide

  • Open and continuous communication
  • Shared understanding of purpose/vision
  • Commitment to the greater good
  • Freedom from fear – respect and tolerance

New technology can open doors to new behaviour, but it is the people who share the value of collaboration who will deliver the outcomes.

Technology in and of itself will not save us. But if we take advantage of the opportunities it presents and if we shape the tools we choose to use in a way that reflects the values of collaboration then I believe anything is possible. What do you believe?

Thom Kearney can be found on the internet or in the crowd at GTEC.

This post originally appeared as part of the GTEC 2012 conference blog, I have updated it a little bit for 2017.


The Tesla image is public domain http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tesla_colorado.jpg

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About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Conference, Culture, Gov 2.0, Rant and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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