Open Up to Working Less

For those of us who are responsible in some way for collecting, storing, managing, making available, and tracking our organizations’ data and knowledge, we sometimes find ourselves either reaching for yet another hat (knowledge manager, data analyst, social media go-to, web content manager, archivist, what’s next?) and/or trying to manage the overwhelm by more tightly controlling where and how our data and knowledge is collected and shared.

At IssueLab, we see this all the time—nonprofit and foundation technologists either working too hard at wearing too many hats or working too hard at controlling their domains.

I have come to believe there is a middle way; a way that is “not too tight/not too loose,” where we let go just enough to let things gain their own momentum, while bringing enough discipline and structure to our work to keep things from going off the rails. This might sound like the well-honed coping mechanism of a nonprofit techie, resulting from 15+ years of wrangling cross-browser compatibility, cajoling coworkers to use the organizational Intranet, or simply trying to keep pace with whether it’s best to produce the latest report as a PDF, a series of tweets, a Medium post, or a podcast. (Or how about all of the above?)

But there is more to it. Opening up and letting go can, in fact, be more effective than tightening the reins or doing it all. This is a tough lesson that many of our organizations had to learn with the advent of social media. But it also applies to knowledge sharing and knowledge management.

I believe that embracing open knowledge practices can actually make us more productive while working less. Here’s how.

Help Search Engines Find You

By making a few small changes to how you structure and share what you publish, you better enable search engines and open repositories to do the work of finding, indexing, sharing, and archiving your knowledge. Depositing a copy of your research in an open repository—or using Schema.org to mark up the publications section of your website so it’s more easily discoverable and scrapable—allows those of us who focus on open publishing and archiving to do what we do best. When an organization shares a copy of their research through IssueLab, for example, we index it, keyword it, sometimes even extract key findings, and make it available to other open archives and library systems like WorldCat to pass on to their users and patrons. But in order for us to make it available to new audiences, you have to take the necessary first step of letting it go.

To Do: Clearly and consistently display basic metadata—like publishing date, contributing organizations, authors, and funders—so repositories can easily index your work. Then deposit a copy in an open repository. If you’re game, learn more about Schema.org as a way to facilitate both these things.

Share and Share Alike

By openly licensing your knowledge products, you make it possible for other people to make use of it. A lot of organizations think they are giving up their intellectual property rights when they openly license their work. That’s just not true. In fact, open licenses, like Creative Commons, allow you to be as specific as you’d like about how you want your work to be used and possibly repurposed (e.g., use for non-commercial purposes only) while still requiring that you get attribution for that work. So much of why we produce research in this sector is so that others can use it. But in order to do so, the necessary first step is … you’ve got it: letting go.

To Do: Decide on what, if any, restrictions you want to put on the use of your organization’s research and choose a Creative Commons license that best fits your organization. The “freer” the better in terms of allowing people to reuse and repurpose your knowledge, but any open license is an important improvement over “All rights reserved.”

Just Imagine

By more effectively sharing what we know, we can all cut down on the amount of extra work and duplication in the sector. Imagine if we could spend less time searching for relevant research to inform our needs statements and grant proposals. Imagine if we could more easily find out whether a specific intervention or topic has already been researched before engaging in a research question that may already have been answered. Imagine if we could identify common pitfalls before we launch an initiative, so that we and the people we serve don’t bear the burden of lost time and lost dollars. In essence, imagine if we could work smarter, not just harder.

If anyone knows about the power and importance of distributed systems, it’s technologists. You can’t, and don’t, need to do it all. You just need to make it possible for other organizations, institutions, and parts of the information ecosystem to do their part with what you produce. So, if you are feeling overworked, consider letting go, doing less, and letting the open systems we have collectively built work to your advantage.

Photo credit: Lisa DeLange

Gabriela Fitz
Foundation Center’s Gabriela Fitz, director of knowledge-management initiatives, co-founded IssueLab, the Center’s platform for gathering and sharing what the social sector is collectively learning about social problems and their solutions.