Can user generated content change the world?

An organization is a collection of people and resources whose common goals create an interdependence between them. The methods used to achieve these goals create flows of information, services, people and resources that mirror exchanges between stakeholders in the different communities they touch. These infrastructures (and the organizations that utilize them) become more effective the more they mirror the human systems which depend on them.

Traditionally underfunded, non-profit organizations (more than anyone) have a lot to gain from web and internet technologies customized to match their needs. Until recently, most philanthropic organizations favored funding programs as opposed to building capacity within an organization by funding technological infrastructure. The irony is that, while the money does end up going directly to programming, the bulk of it gets spent on human beings who spend most of their time administering those programs instead of improving them.

Many non-profit organizations have not been able to afford effective systems for managing their work, at the detriment of their own effectiveness. With the advent of new web technologies, and a shift in funding priorities, this is becoming less and less the case. As a movement, we are on the brink of being able to provide non-profit organizations with integrated, comprehensive, easy to use, and inexpensive technological systems. This will not only democratize (in terms of access and cost) these technologies, but will fundamentally shift the effectiveness of these organizations. Multiplied by tens of thousands of organizations across the country, we are on the brink of massive social change. But what does this mean exactly? And what should organizations pay the most attention to in managing this transition?

Open source and proprietary content management systems (CMSs), like drupal, plone, joomla and countless others, have made it possible for websites to be constructed in modular pieces. Instead of having to build a website from scratch - file by file - web developers have the opportunity to create websites using function specific building blocks. Ranging from e-commerce to membership forms to blogs, these functions make it possible to add building block units of function to a site that integrate with one another dynamically as content is created.

In contrast to old html websites, once these blocks are in place, the ability to modify and create content on a website has become well within the capacity of staff and untrained user alike.

There are two significant opportunities that present themselves in this kind of an environment. Not only does the staff of an organization have access and capacity for keeping the site updated, the website can now also collect and store digital information that is input by hundreds or thousands of users who might visit and use the site on any given day.

One category of information consists of profiles, blogs, forums, and other creative user generated conversations in a virtual space. This is a typical starting point for conversations having to do with user generated content and networking: it is the most likely focus when addressing the subject of generating community using online tools.

There is another category of interaction enabled in this environment that has an even greater impact on an organization. The capacity of an organization to generate a niche for itself in the world is inherently about building networks and community. Content management systems, in that they enable the administration of that work to be automated, release the staff from it's rote administrative leashes into the vibrant world of creative social programming.

When a user surfs to a website and registers for an event, donates money, becomes a member or writes a blog, this information has become digitized. Capturing this information from hundreds of 'viral' users without human intervention or administration (the function of a good content management system), creates an enormous added capacity in the organization.

The current status quo for non-profit organizations is typically one where the information needed to do the work of an organization is kept in a separate database from the database recording user generated online interactions. Typically when a user interacts with a website and fills out a registration form, that information is sent to the organization via email, at which point it is manually input into the organization's main constituent database. The only tool in the entire world that can perform that transition effectively is the human being.

There are two problems with that. The first is that human beings are (and should be) more expensive than mechanization, and the second is that human beings do their best work when they are creative.

The solution is of course to integrate the two databases. Currently the most comprehensive and least expensive tool available to integrate these two systems is the constituent relationship manager. A constituent relationship manager (CRM) is essentially an online version of an organization's on-site constituent database: it can record membership information, event registrations, donations and purchases, class attendance, communications to and from constituents and other similar information.

Keeping all of an organization's data on the world wide web instead of on a locally housed database is a good idea for a variety of reasons. The first is the hassle and expense associated with creating synching mechanisms that are customized to regularly transfer website content to and from an local database and visa-vera. In the example above, these synching mechanisms are otherwise know as human beings, but custom automated systems can also be developed that serve the same purpose (expensive to create and maintain). In addition, having all of an organization's data stored on a remote server and accessible through the internet keeps the data safer, more stable, and it enables staff to access the database from anywhere with an internet connection.

So let's pull these pieces together. We have all the boring work being automated, we have staff able to access information about what they are doing from anywhere with an internet connection, and we have the staff resources freed up to creatively steer the programming of an organization instead of being bogged down by having to administer it.

Can we say engaged workforce? Can we say community building? Can I get an Amen?

Lets face it, the dynamic and engaged folks who are drawn to serving their communities as activists and organizers gravitate to their roles not because they want to manage a mail-merge, but because they want to change the world.

So why isn't this done more?

Well, up to this point, the bridge between these two technologies has been weak and expensive. Up to this point, these systems have been difficult to merge in a meaningful (and easily customizable) way.

This is no longer the case. At this point in time, the bridge connecting those systems is much more sturdy and comprehensive (notably in the open source world). If open source software developers play their cards right in continuing to work on bridging these systems, it will provide an unprecedented opportunity for organizations to inexpensively and creatively forward their programmatic work, in addition to being able to use the power of the internet as an organizing tool.

The kind of shift felt in an organization when it's capacity to direct it's mission is unencumbered by the need for administration is palpable: these organizations flourish. And when any organization flourishes, opportunities within the communities they serve abound, available funding is used more effectively, and communities grow robust and thrive.