UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Should Projects Be Required To Have Blogs?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 February 2009

The Context

Last week CETIS’s Mark Power started off a brief Twitter debate when he askedIs the use of project blogs becoming too formalised by JISC? Still strikes me that many set one up simply because they feel they *should*“.

Amber Thomas, a JISC Programme manager, responded by informing the Twitter community that she was “interested in what you all think about project blogs. for lightweight projects we like the idea of enforced transparencyconcluding this request with “… thats easier said than done. we don’t expect every project blog frequently but it does provide the chance to aggregate easily“.

The Tweet Debate

The responses received over the next few hours included:

Brian Kelly: @MarkPower I disagree. Project blogs mean words get written, content is public and content is syndicable. let’s encourage such openness!

Sheila McNeil: @briankelly but how much really gets written in project blogs? I think still an onerous task for many

Owen Stephens: @ambrouk don’t necessarily think you shouldn’t mandate, but keep in mind you are mandating a tech/platform not attitude. What to achieve?

Andy Powell: @MarkPower blogging is an attitude not a technology, so simply “setting one up” doesn’t necessarily lead to results anyway

Amber Thomas: project blogging: so … noone says make it mandatory, some say strongly encourage, some say don’t. good blogging good, bad blogging bad. ok

Brian Kelly: @ambrouk bad blogging ok as part of learning proces. Allow mistakes please

Amber Thomas: @markpower scoping a Call as we speak where we want to make it mandatory to use a blog or wiki

Paul Walk: @MarkPower not sure that JISC is culpable – but there are definitely examples of project blogs where you wish they hadn’t felt the need

Amber Thomas: @sheilmcn i guess community engagement and collaboration are one thing, reflection is another, transparency of progress is another again???

Andy Powell: @MarkPower blogging is an attitude not a technology, so simply “setting one up” doesn’t necessarily lead to results anyway

Mark Power: @andypowe11 Exactly right…that’s why they won’t always work for a project and why the use of them shouldn’t be mandatory…not that they

Paul Walk: @ambrouk the attitude of ‘publish early, publish often’ is worth cultivating. But team blogs are often terrible. Encourage – don’t mandate

Amber Thomas: ..but is the issue that they create extra “noise” that makes it hard to spot the real voices amongst the dutiful posts?

Brian Kelly: @ambrouk Project managers should encourage ‘noise’ and use good filtering tools . Noise is better than silence!

Paul Walk@ambrouk @briankelly ‘noise is better than silence’ just doesn’t work for lots of ppl – especially researchers. It’s not appropriate for all

Now as Paul Walk’s last tweet was preceded by@andyramsden nah – that one wasn’t James’s fault surely. The Calamity will come in the second half. The dropped ball came close though” we can see that this discussion was taking place at around 10pm, while people were also watching the Spain vs England match live on the TV. I think from this dialogue we can see that a useful discussion can take place using Twitter, and that JISC are getting their money’s worth from their investment in UKOLN and CETIS, with us (together with a number of others) being on call on Wednesday evenings, even when we are in the pub watching England, once again being beaten!

My Thoughts

But what of the discussion itself? Should projects be required to have blogs? I think the Twitter debate brought out many of the important issues, but as Mark Power commentedtwitter [is] not the best for such an in-depth discussion really“. However I do think it is worth exploring these issues in more depth.

I would very much agree with Amber’s comment on the need for transparency for JISC-funded project work and, as a couple of people commented, blogs can provide a simple lightweight way in which projects can make visible what they are doing, what they are thinking and what they are planning – and feedback can be easily obtained using blog comments.

However concerns were raised regarding the time and effort in may take to write blog posts, the associated (writing) skills needed and the dangers of too much information being published. There are also the dangers that blog posts will be written for their own sake, so that contractual requirements or expectations will be achieved to little concrete benefit.

But surely skills in writing useful blog posts will only be gained through experience? And we should remember that blog posts can be useful for a variety of purposes: not only should project managers find blog posts useful in seeing how project work is progressing and seeing how the project is engaging with its user community but benefits can be gained by other project partners (through open sharing)  and by the intended user community. There can also be a public record which might prove useful if project staff leave.

The benefits of syndication of blog posts, which allow the content to be easily viewed on various devices as well as on a range of RSS readers should also be considered. And this is where filtering capabilities and other visualisation tools (e.g. Wordle) may help programme managers and other interested parties to have access in ways which are appropriate to their specific interests.

Having said that, I’d still avoid a formal contractual requirement for project blogging, preferring, instead, an expectation that the benefits of  open engagement with the key stakeholders and ease of use and reuse of the content would be provided. I would hope then that the bidding process would see projects which fulfilled such requirements would be funded. This approach, it should be noted, should also be future-proofed, allowing  new technologies (Podcasting, micro-blogging or whatever)  to be included in the range of options.

So for me, project blogging would be a strong should rather than a must. But how do we ensure that blogs are useful? We all have come across the good, informative and perhaps opinionated blog with a clear voice and a passion which engages our interests – and this is no doubt something we would like to see more of. But how do we get there? And what about the dangers that we’ll end up with bland team blogs? Are such blogs an inevitable part of a learning process and better than no blog at all? Or are counter-productive?

What’s are your view of blogs to support project work?

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20 Responses to “Should Projects Be Required To Have Blogs?”

  1. Nicole Harris said

    It’s an interesting question. My concern is where do you stop? If a project has to have a blog, does it have to have a wiki, does it have to twitter? I think JISC should be telling projects to maximize their use of communication channels and providing the platforms to enable that, but i don’t think we should be mandating or recommending any particular route. I think blogging is very much connected to your personality type. I find it very easy but I have failed to convince other members of my team to join in though (with the exception of Mark, who has developed his own unique style of blogging!). I just can’t twitter though, it doesn’t suit my working pattern, my mind set or my need to reflect on what I am doing. I would be horrified if JISC required staff to twitter :-) Encouraging projects to write well and communicate clearly is important, and the blog style of writing up reflections and thoughts is very useful to support that goal, but I think the encouragement should be technology neutral.

  2. Joy Palmer said

    This is something I’m grappling with here at Mimas and w/ the teams I manage — how to establish a productive culture of blogging — to allow mistakes to be made (within reason) but plough on and learn from them. I think the tweets are right on that mark that the blog itself is just a medium, and more attention needs to be paid to audience/purpose of the blog. Mistakes are made, but no learning seems to happen as a result. We need to build in the opportunity to identify the mistakes and learn from them. Most good blogs seem to evolve and improve as they mature, finding a voice — it’s actually part of the process; the voice become stronger as the community/audience becomes more concrete. Can this be true of perhaps shorter-lived project blogs? How we can facilitate this learning process in the workplace so that blogs (project blogs, personal/professional blogs) can mature?

  3. If the idea is to provide the team members with a means of communicating then I remain to be convinced that setting up yet another blog is the way to go.
    If the premise is that people outside the project will be interested in what’s going on then objective one above falls by the wayside since team members may not be be as open about problems – unless they’ve been solved.
    Is it up to each team to decide on the best means of communication, with each other, with the JISC Programme Manager, and with the wider public? Is that three different means of communication?

  4. Sheila MacNeill said

    Establishing a culture of blogging is difficult – as I know from personal experience. At CETIS we are all encouraged (not required) to blog and our aggregated blogs create the content for CETIS homepage. I am getting more comfortable with blogging now but it didn’t come naturally. However there are benefits. I think if JISC want to encourage projects to blog they should be leading the way in terms of aggregating/ re-presenting the content. Wouldn’t it be great if more news from JISC was from projects and not just press releeases/bid calls? Perhaps using some kind of aggregation like we have done for CETIS.

    I can also see a place for services like twitter for projects – but perhaps this is a selfish project support view point. It would really useful to have a weekly update tweet to see how projects were progressing – but again forcing people to do that kind of defeats the strength of this kind of informal communication. However I am drawn to the potential of dipity etc timelines of activity to give an alternative view of programme activity.

  5. Mark said

    Nicole uses the term “technology neutral”, which is interesting because blogwrittering is so very tied into cultural style. Pedagogically we no longer expect students to learn all the same way or even all submit work the the same format. So for the Education sector it would be hypocritical to expect everyone to disseminate / engage in exactly the same the manner. I for one may well chooose to “blog” through the medium of dance for the rest of this year…

  6. PeteJ said

    I’m not sure the question as framed, with a focus on a particular technological mechanism, particularly one like “blogging” which is so often closely associated with personal style and preference, is really the one we should be asking.

    Or at least it seems to me it obscures a (to me) rather more interesting question.

    The question I would ask is something along the lines of “Should projects be required/encouraged to adopt more of an ‘open notebook’ approach?”, in the sense the term is used in the “open research” and “open science” communities, see e.g. http://drexel-coas-elearning.blogspot.com/2006/09/open-notebook-science.html and http://www.michaelbarton.me.uk/2008/02/a-short-essay-on-open-notebook-science/

    Certainly this too represents a (significant) “cultural” change, but it seems to me it is one that is consistent with, and a logical extension of, the emphasis on open access and open source, and the general principles of transparency and collaboration. And it is a change which recognises that there is value in the process of research, and in the inputs to, and the intermediate products of that process, as well as in the final deliverables – value both to the project in terms of getting the input of a broader constituency, and to the wider research community in terms of being able to access and (re)use data, and to understand and to learn from previous experiences and the discussions and choices made.

    Again, I guess it may not be appropriate in all cases, but personally, I get frustrated with the experience of finding references to interesting-looking projects and being able to uncover almost no information about what the project is doing beyond a superficial “home page” which does little but paraphrase the proposal, until a workshop or a report appears, maybe months later.

    Having said that, I recognise that I need to do rather more “eating my own dogfood” on this very point….

    Just going back to the technology for a moment, I’d suggest that it would be quite possible to have a “project blog” that didn’t function as an “open notebook” (because the content of the postings didn’t provide much in the way of detailed information on the actual research activity, e.g. focused only on the periodic availability of externally visible deliverables rather than the process of arriving at those deliverables, and the thinking, choices and debates which informed their creation.

    And conversely, it would be quite possible to deliver an ‘open notebook’ approach using tools other than a weblog, e.g. you could maybe do it on a wiki, or as updates to a plain old Web site, or email to a mailing list – though it does seem to me that weblog technology, with its in-built chronological dimension and support for the provision of “feeds” of one flavour or another, is quite a good fit for the task.

  7. PeteJ said

    P.S. I disagree that noise is better than silence though :-)

  8. Hi Pete – Thanks for your response. The question I raised arose from a Twitter discussion concerning policies which JISC should or should not mandate from projects they fund.

    I would very much agree with you that the culture of openness is a much more interesting – and relevant – topic. However this “(significant) “cultural” change” is something that is not possible to mandate in a contractual agreement, as I know you are aware of.

    I guess a danger of mandating/strongly encouraging a blog-style approach is that the blog could be used for spin-doctoring press-releases, which go against the openness culture you and I would both prefer, and yet would leave the providers of such blogs to state that they are following contractual requirements of expectations.

  9. [...] del projecte. Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus (enfocament en la web en el regne unit). [L'enllaç] [etiquetes: Recerca, aprenentatge basat en Projectes, accessos a la [...]

  10. Mark said

    I’m glad you blogged about this Brian, even though I initially thought, “eek…what have I started?”, as my original twitter was framed in a very throwaway fashion in some respects – which teaches me now to perhaps give a bit more thought to tone and flavour when twittering on certain topics. Having said that I did use the term ‘formalise’ and later Amber Thomas replied with her admission that she was involved in discussions about mandating the use of project blogs….so I guess I wasn’t too far away actually.

    The reason it had come about, my original tweet that is, was I had been on several project visits where projects were asked by the JISC programme manager, “Do you have your [project] website set up and do you have a blog?”. Now while this doesn’t necessarily equate to turning the ‘project blog’ into a formal requirement – unlike the website which most definitely IS – the fact that it is now asked after in the same sentence made me wonder what twist this was giving projects’ perceptions of JISC requirements. I’ve seen so many project blogs that do very little and so many reasonings that the project staff “didn’t really have enough to write about”….they do but I think that if the perception is that the blog is a fairly formal project output then it needs to be fairly formal in tone…and that of course could be very easy to perceive when the requirements of a project ARE very formal, heavily templated exercises as dictated by JISC.

    It does revolve around how comfortable people are when it comes to blogging I guess. It’s not for everyone so it’s certainly something that can only be – successfully – carried out through choice. Mandating I’d suggest is a no-no. Certainly encouragement should be made to get projects to be more transparent and open through their life though but their should be a clear understanding given the project that it’s not a FORMAL exercise. As PeteJ says, so many project websites are simply the blurb that you can read on the JISC page along with some standard links to project plan and contact details. We must be missing so much of the interesting stuff that happens. Yeah, some of which (most if not all hopefully) will go into final reports and suchlike…but come on, who reads them all??

    At the time of thinking this – while in the the meeting – I then thought on and wondered whether suggesting Twitter as more lightweight, informal outlet would be a good idea. But then I thought…”how long will it be before the question is ‘where’s your website, your blog and do you have a Twitter account?’ starts to appear?” :/

    One thing’s for sure and that is that I still think we’re missing out on so much flavour in JISC projects, flavour that generally gets presented to us through biannual programme meetings, and there must be a way to tap into this. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.

    And this is a perfect example of why I don’t blog that much but like to twitter….I ramble…and that’s hard to do with a 140 character limit :)

  11. Hi Mark – I do give some thought as to whether it is appropriate before citing tweets. I think about whether I am likely to misrepresent views, cause embarrassment, etc. In this case I felt your initial tweet sparked off a really interesting discussion which I felt was worth capturing – both to share the issues with a wider audience and also to demonstrate the value of Twitter in a professional context.

    I was interested to note, for example, that in response to the question posed in my blog post (and your tweet) “Should Projects Be Required To Have Blogs?” that Stephen Downes changed his views in the course of reading the post: “I started the post thinking “yes” but ended it thinking “no” – favoring, instead, a mandate that ‘projects ought to be open’“.

  12. Pete – in terms of technology, our open notebooks are actually on wikis – for example:
    http://onschallenge.wikispaces.com/list+of+experiments
    http://usefulchem.wikispaces.com/All+Reactions

    But I don’t think it is necessary for people to make their lab notebooks public to have an impact. As you say there is a lot of room between ONS and a project web page that gives little information. I think the way we use blogs – to summarize current problems or report on milestones for a project – gives people a pretty good idea of how the projects are going and can encourage collaborations. That also doesn’t require a lot of time.

  13. I should clarify that my colleagues and I were thinking of mandating blogs for a specific set of projects, not across all our programmes. That’s the distinction between “me”, “me in my job” and “me speaking for my organisation”. I’m not the only one who finds themselves slightly inhibited in these informal communications! In this instance its all good, all fine, but i can imagine getting myself into rather trickier situations!

    Some jisc-funded projects don’t communicate very well outside of formal reports, so some learning definitely isn’t shared. Where communication isn’t strong, its not because they’re lacking a platform, its because they’re not sure what or how to communicate. Developing a culture of open working is a good aspiration, but I guess all culture change takes time.

    On the other hand I can also really see though that as these sorts of less formal communications become more common , it does become more noisy, and the most distinctive messages might get diluted within the noise. So then the pendulum might swing back towards strong filtering?

    The Wisdom of Crowds is very important but it’s not the only approach to identifying what’s happening in the community. Aggregation, intelligent filtering etc take us so far, but maybe we’ll need more human editorial. And I guess from a JISC point of view, I’m interested in thinking ahead to how we’d sustain that sort of thing. I’m not sure we could, on a big scale.

    In a way, jisc innovation-funded projects have a certain sort of job to to: investigate requirements, try things out, build prototypes, implement new ways of doing things. There’s definitely a sort of attitude I value in projects: an openness, an iterative approach, with an eye on the big picture of why the taxpayer is funding this work. More informal and open communication would support that attitude, but even if someone has that attitude they may not manage to change the way they communicate. I twitter, talk too much in meetings, and think out loud a lot, but I find it very hard to turn my thoughts into blog posts. I sympathise with others who find it hard.

  14. I completely agree about ‘blogging’ being an attitude/culture not really about a technology – and this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. However, by requiring (or even strongly encouraging) then JISC do actually influence the type of people who are recruited to these projects – so this is not simply a matter of changing current behaviours, but influencing the valued skills. (As a blogger) I’m biased but I think it would be fantastic if we started to see ‘blogging’ as a desirable/essential requirement on some (appropriate) job descriptions!

    One point that I don’t think has been picked up in the comments yet (?) is the question of the ability to aggregate which Amber mentions. Blogging isn’t just an attitude – it suggests the use of a publication platform that can output RSS (or Atom, or both) – this is actually very valuable. Perhaps we can imagine a ‘mandate’ that specified a publication format (e.g. RSS) rather than specifically a ‘blog’ – this perhaps also avoids the problem that Nicole raises – do you require a wiki, blog, twitter etc.?

    There is also an issue about transparency – and here I come back to what JISC might want to achieve by mandating blogs – if it is the ability to aggregate, perhaps RSS is sufficient, if it is transparency perhaps ‘publish update on the web’ is sufficient. JISC reports submit regular check point reports – perhaps there could be some requirement for all or parts of these to be made available on the open web in html? It all comes back to what the purpose is?

    On the question of tweets and citation – I note that Brian omitted one of my later tweets – not sure if this was by mistake or deliberately because he recognised it for a slightly more light-hearted comment “i say mandate – let them write blogs!” – but I wasn’t entirely joking.

  15. My opinion is that it depends upon on the traffic that is generated to a website. If there is a great no. of visitors to my site through blogging, I would say well, blogs are certainly required.

  16. Owen, in response to your final point, I was aware of your tweet when you said “i say mandate – let them write blogs!” I didn’t include it partly because it came late in the discussion but also, as you suggest, that I suspected your remark was slightly tongue in cheek. Because of the informal nature and limited number of characters which use of Twitter entails I only wanted to cite tweets which I felt fairly reflected people’s views and my perception of what their views may be (I do know everyone whom I cited) and would be less prone to mis-understanding by others.

  17. [...] have argued previously on this blog that development projects should be encouraged to be open about their development work. This might [...]

  18. [...] used at the JISC MRD Programme Launch Meeting. In the talk I reflected on the discussion on Should Projects Be Required To Have Blogs? which took place initially on Twitter and then on this blog in February [...]

  19. [...] projects and services to work more openly. see Brian Kelly's post from February 2009 on should projects be required to have blogs?. I definitely see blogging as part of open practice and that applies to me [...]

  20. […] the online discussion during the webinar. I mentioned a discussion which I described in a post on Should Projects Be Required To Have Blogs? and argued that although it may not always be appropriate to mandate open practices, one should […]

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