The social (policy) network

In the week that Facebook announced its IPO, we’ve been thinking more about the social network aspect of our new think tank. This isn’t, we should point out, because we expect it to be worth $100 billion in eight years’ time (no-one goes into the think tank business to get rich, or they shouldn’t). It’s because of two big challenges we face in convincing customers and partners to work with us.

The first challenge is identifying more precisely the benefits from our approach – a think tank where the research is conducted by an online community of the people who use and provide public services. In the workshops we’ve been holding with charities we’re talked a lot about the ‘added value’ that new think tank could deliver for them as potential customers and partners. It’s an important question of course, but from a social network perspective it might also be entirely the wrong question.

In social networks it’s the community that creates value – and it’s the community that defines what ‘value’ is. The platform ‘merely’ facilities this or it doesn’t, and it’s in the flexibility and execution of this facilitation that fortunes are won and lost.

What are the implications for think tanks? We live increasingly in a world where it’s not stocks of knowledge that determine value, it’s flows of knowledge and the connections that enable these flows. Traditional think tanks are basically designed to generate and own knowledge in a closed, proprietary manner; this is reflected in everything from their organisational structure to their branding. They aren’t designed for the collaboration or sharing that knowledge flow relies on. This can make for poor quality research and analysis, because it severely limits the number and range of the participants in their work. In short, they repel what actually creates value.

We want to enable people to connect, share and collaborate to create better social policy. From a social network perspective then, perhaps the only honest answer to the added value question is ‘we don’t know’. We can’t know how the community will use the platform we’ll provide – the policy issues that they chose to engage with most fervently, the projects and collaborations that develop from within the community, the new alliances and coalitions that could form, and so on. Of course, we’ll start with a specific offer and we’ll try to strike the right balance between structure and openness in how the community works – but where we go next is up to them.

The second challenge is what will attract people to the community. Based on the reaction we’ve received so far, we’re increasingly hopeful that we’ll be able to attract an initial community – people love the idea – but again, the honest answer is we can’t possibly say what size this community will be or who it will be. We’ll do focus groups with target audiences and we’ll shape the platform and the marketing accordingly, but of course it’s also a living, breathing experiment. Is Facebook worth $100 billion? This depends on whether it will continue to attract more users and how they might want to use the platform. Meaning: nobody really knows.



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