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Associations Now

Getting Beyond the Blocks

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, June 2008, Feature Supplements

By: Mark E. Funk

If you build a Web 2.0 site and your members can’t access it, does it make a (virtual) sound? Luckily, there are ways to help them get over, around, or through IT blocks that prevent them from reaching important online resources.
Summary:

Crashes, traffic, slowed paths, dead ends—it sounds like a bad day on the road. Try a bad day on the web.

As our dependence on the internet and mobile technologies increases, so too does our frustration when those technologies don’t work as quickly, effectively, or efficiently as we would like. Lately, what I’ve found more frustrating than uncontrollable crashes and slowed servers are internal blockages—restrictions that IT departments place on certain sites, barring their coworkers from accessing them. I am not referring to controversial or inappropriate material but rather blockages placed upon Web 2.0 tools that professional associations have developed for their members. (For the purposes of this article, we will use the definition of “Web 2.0” coined by Dale Dougherty, vice president at O’Reilly Media, to indicate the transition of the web from a collection of websites to a computing platform providing web applications to end users.)

This past summer, the Medical Library Association’s (MLA) Social Networking Software Task Force—a committee of members dedicated to promoting Web 2.0 technologies—did a survey of nearly 500 association members and found that almost all of them had encountered some form of IT blockage or firewall while at work. The survey specifically asked about member access to social networking and social media sites. The findings indicate that that 16 percent of members were blocked from YouTube, 20 percent from MySpace, 18 percent from Facebook, and 15 percent from various blogs. These blockages can be more than an inconvenient headache.

To illustrate a point, take the recent real-life example of a medical librarian who was asked by a physician to find a video of a beating heart. Nothing very technical or too intricate—just a simple video of a beating heart. Medical librarians are responsible for making sure that decision makers—scientists, physicians, health consumers, and administrators—have the most accurate and timely information available. This particular librarian soon found something that looked like it could fit the physician’s needs on YouTube—but when the librarian attempted to access the video she found the site was blocked. More than 100 million videos are viewed every day on YouTube, but she couldn’t view a single one.

In this case, the physician needed the image for a presentation, but had he needed it for an immediate medical diagnosis or procedure, it could have been a serious problem. (And yes, there are serious medical videos available on YouTube. It’s not all frivolous stuff.)

The Social Web

The creation of the social web has been well underway for more than a decade, which is news to no one. Time magazine, in naming “You” as their 2006 Person of the Year, called the social web “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before.”

The rapidly increasing omnipresence of these technologies is impressive: In 2007, according to research from OCLC Online Computer Library Center (available at www.oclc.org/reports/sharing), 32 percent of U.S. internet users had used a social media site, and 50 percent of them had used a blog (up from 16 percent in just two years). Data such as these reveal that internet users are not just readers; they are now becoming its creators and authors.The layperson has evolved from using the internet to building it. That being true, access to social media and social networking sites is imperative for those, like medical librarians, who depend on being able to obtain the most up-to-date information available in the most useful format.

There are obvious reasons, illustrated by the librarian’s situation, why blockages can inhibit efficiency in the workplace. More importantly to you though, blockages can also threaten or weaken connectivity between association members at a time when finding effective ways to connect experienced members and new members is more important than ever. By blocking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Blogspot, organizations threaten both productivity inside the workplace and connectivity among association members outside of it.

Blockages prevent members from connecting. One of the paramount challenges facing associations today is how to unite their often three or four generations of members. From the time people began to form trade guilds in the Middle Ages to the present, associations have served to enhance and facilitate connections among members. Social networking sites and online communities are today’s most powerful digital conduits to unite members. This is especially true in small businesses. With few (or no) professional colleagues for quick consultations, social networking tools sponsored by associations make it easy to collaborate and share ideas in a comfortable, nonthreatening forum.

That is why MLA formed the Social Networking Software Task Force and why I committed my tenure as president to the theme: “Only Connect!” Online relationships are viable, legitimate bonds and can help your association to thrive. According to OCLC, 42 percent of social networking users agree these sites help maintain current relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Even more, 47 percent agree that social networking sites help build new relationships.

I have a presidential blog on our association’s web page, and MLA has launched a group on Facebook, which is attracting both new and seasoned MLA members. Subunits of MLA have also launched their own blogs and wikis. The intent is twofold: build stronger connections among members while also exposing Web 2.0 skeptics to new technologies and increasing their comfort level in using the tools. But getting members to shift gears to embrace these new technologies and practice using them is impossible if those technologies are blocked.

Blockages slow your association’s progress. When your members can’t connect to their association, you risk losing members, or at least their interest. I’ll guess you’ve considered or have already invested in a quality website in order to attract new members, retain old members, and educate the public about your association. A reputable association can’t afford not to invest. But if your own members can’t connect to your site or its resources, then the purpose of the site is moot. If even three percent of your members can’t connect to a key new blog or to your association’s RSS feeds, then that’s a considerable setback to a viable, useful site.

Your members’ IT departments may argue that they are imposing blockages for good reasons. Security is often their top reason: They are worried about computer viruses, malicious code that can ride in via rogue Web 2.0 sites, and the possible loss of proprietary information. Other top blocking reasons are the potential for time wasting and network-bandwidth concerns.

How can your members work toward unblocking Web 2.0 access?

Bypassing Blockages

Get comfortable. Before members can challenge IT blockages, they need to be comfortable with Web 2.0 technologies so they can explain why they need to use them. Unfortunately, many members don’t yet have that comfort level. Seasoned members are often in a catch-22 situation: They like what they know, and they use what they know, but they often don’t have or can’t make the time to explore what’s new by themselves.

That’s why the MLA Social Networking Software Task Force created an eight-week course of self-directed exercises designed to give hands-on experience with social networking software tools. (The course was adapted from the highly successful Learning 2.0 program developed at the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County. You can see the original at http://plcmcl2-things.
blogspot.com.) We’ve found the exercises successful in getting Web 2.0 skeptics or beginners to try new technological tools—and once members are comfortable with the tools, they will be much more likely to fight for access to them.

Keep in mind another catch-22: If your members are blocked at work from accessing some of these Web 2.0 technologies, they can’t learn about them at work. They will have to learn to use them at home on their own network.

Solicit outside help. While many of our members who were surveyed last year reported some form of blockage, there are some who experience little or no blockage. There is a wide range of IT reactions to Web 2.0 tools. Indeed, while some places have instituted complete blockages, many businesses are now starting to embrace wikis and blogs as useful communication tools.

Ask your members who have access to Web 2.0 tools to get talking points from their IT departments on why they allow access and how they deal with security issues. Share these talking points among members, so they can be used to approach Web 2.0-unfriendly IT departments. Talking points from other IT professionals can go a long way toward changing minds.

Present specific examples. When members approach their IT departments to request unblocking, they should bring examples of specific social media or social networking sites that will help them do their jobs better. For example, the medical librarian mentioned earlier might have requested specific access to YouTube, so physicians’ information needs could be fulfilled.

Many businesses expect, encourage, and reward participation in professional associations. It’s much easier to participate if members have access to their association’s Web 2.0 sites. Asking for access to specific sites is far more likely to succeed than asking for all blockages to be removed.

Do research. Shutting down access to large domains such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Blogger is an easy solution for IT people worried about security. But this procrustean solution blocks useful sites and can potentially cause a decrease in work efficiency. Newer technology is coming to the market that allows real-time code inspection of internet traffic flowing in and out of a business. This analysis acts swiftly to block suspicious traffic, while allowing innocuous traffic to proceed. Busy IT people may not be aware of these solutions, which would allow use of Web 2.0 sites while still safeguarding the network. Your association can research these solutions and inform your members of their availability, cost, and effectiveness, information that could be passed on to their IT departments.

Co-opt the boss (social engineering.) Are your members still running into a wall while attempting to convince IT to unblock certain sites? An end run might work better. There are blogs, wikis, and other social networking sites for just about all professional interests. Have your members investigate those that their bosses would enjoy or that would benefit their business. Start with serious sites like LinkedIn, Pronetos, Connotea, and Citeulike, and expand from these. (Employees may have to do this at home if they are blocked at work.) When the boss demands access to Web 2.0 sites, the IT dam has been loosened.

Build your own social web. As hard as your members may try, some IT departments will continue to block the big social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. Think of this as an opportunity to create your own social network on your association’s website. Using technology such as Ning, Me.com, or Flux, you can create your own customized, private social network on your own current domain name, thus greatly reducing the odds of your members getting blocked from connecting to their colleagues. This may require hiring a consultant or programmer, but the finished product will look and feel like it’s part of your own website, encouraging greater member participation.

IT cooperation is imperative to continued productivity and success in the workplace, but IT isn’t the only department one should try to convince of the need for access to Web 2.0 tools. Management also must be convinced, and it’s encouraging that the market intelligence firm IDC predicted in its report “IDC Predictions 2007: Prospering in an Era of Hyperdisruption” that “Web 2.0, community-driven information tools … will move center stage in the enterprise. Wikis, blogs, and other bottom-up information-generating and -sharing tools will become integral in customers’ product development, marketing, and customer service processes. A growing priority will be for products that bridge community-created, ‘social computing’ content back into the corporate information access and management platforms.”

I hope your members can use these hints to get improved and thriving connections with each other and fewer headaches from hours of frustration. We’ll save that for the real crashes, jams, and road blockages on the commute home. 

Mark E. Funk, AHIP, is president of the Medical Library Association, a nonprofit, educational organization with more than 4,500 health sciences information professional members and partners worldwide. Funk blogs at www.president.mlanet.org/mfunk/. Email: president@mlahq.org

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