Nahum Gershon is Senior Principal Scientist at MITRE -- he is tasked with helping MITRE and the government “go social.” After his panel at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Santa Clara he opened up about technology, art and working with government in the age of social.

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Photo Credit: Andy Cleavenger, MITRE

Nahum Gershon likes to schmooz. Particularly if it’s schmoozing about collaboration. I met Nahum at the Enterprise 2.0 collaboration conference and was immediately captivated by his stories.

Gershon is the Senior Principal Scientist at MITRE, an independent, not-for-profit organization engaged in scientific and technical activities for government. MITRE serves organizations including the Department of Defense; the Federal Aviation Administration; the Internal Revenue Service; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and the Department of Homeland Security.

Gershon is a social media champion within MITRE and a popular speaker and expert on community collaboration and engagement.

Gershon moderated a panel at the Enterprise 2.0’s community management track “100 Ways to Engage: Confessions of Community Organizers.” The panel addressed how the social business success is as much a factor of practical anthropology, psychology and sociology than anything else. In addition Gershon’s panel discussed strategies for community adoption and social engagement.

The panel featured Adriel Hampton, Journalist, Gov 2.0 and New Media Strategist, Peter Slutsky, Strategic Relationships Manager, Kyle Arteaga, Global Head of Corporate Communications, eMeter Corporation, Ning, Rita King, Founder and Creative Director, Dancing Ink Productions and Joseph Porcelli, Community Engagement Strategist, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

It’s no surprise that Gershon is a sought after speaker as more governmental organizations become early adopters of social business strategy. In this interview, Gershon talks to me about working at a technology not-for-profit organization, his technology-inspired artwork, and the sea change unfolding in both the public and private sectors.

Blake Landau: Can you talk about what you are working on at MITRE as it relates to social media and community engagement?

Nahum Gershon: I am developing ways to take social media, mobile, real-time information delivery and location-based technology -- that were essentially developed for the public at large -- and implement them in enterprise environments. This involves developing ways to organize people in communities and keep them engaged so that they are able to produce something that is good for the enterprise as well as for the individual. This work is based not on information taken from textbooks but rather from mixing both the logical and the intuitive minds.

I have established and am leading a 1,000-person group. The discussions include future technologies and their implementation in the enterprise, collectively designing future social interfaces, and even helping to initiate and organize science fairs and unconferences where people can present and discuss (without being restricted by silos and walls...) their projects, future work and most importantly their ideas (initial and mature). This is an example of changing a culture in a constructive way to complement the positive aspects of the existing culture.

BL: What were key take-aways from your panel at E20 Santa Clara this year?
Here are some of the main lessons that were discussed:

NG: There is not one kind of engagement -- there are at least three types. This means that strategies for engagement should depend on the situation at hand. It is helpful to engage higher-level people in order to draw in the masses (e.g., ask them to fill in their profile, post their personal photos and have them follow the discussions and actively engage in the conversations).

It is important to recognize individuals and give them respect. Use non-threatening techniques, and if appropriate, expose the techniques to the audience gradually. If done right, you could use controversial issues handled in a balanced way to raise the passion level -- passion is important.

Exercise patience, and don’t expect big and fast results. Remember Rome was not build in a day. I also encourage people to constantly introduce new interesting topics for discussion just to get the energy flowing. The best way, if possible, is to try to add new methods and structures that will complement the existing ones.

BL: What counterintuitive or surprising insights did you glean from E20?

NG: In spite of their best intentions, people sometimes tend to use buzzwords that lack real content, like “metrics” or “aha” moments. I guess I was not surprised.

BL: Can you talk about the wall of technology that you helped create?

NG: The wall was designed for the U.S. Government depicting the history of technology from the dove in Noah’s Arc (the first information collection technology as well as a symbol of peace) to present day social media. The 28-foot long wall is composed of individual tiles not bounded by a rectangle (a “box”). This allows for content to be added or changed.

The design process is a point of interest because it engaged input from a live social network. A prototype was hung on a wall in a busy hallway and people were prompted to leave comments on Post-It notes. I have even organized an office “block party” to get people to engage in the process. 

BL: What is it like being a very public social figure working for a not-for-profit organization working for the public interest like MITRE and assisting the US Gov. in a number of areas?

NG: I try to separate my public social media activities from my work life. This enables me to speak for myself rather than representing the company. This gives me more freedom to express my personal points of view. But I have found that this public involvement is quite important for my work.

This is not just a passive process of reading information that is up there -- it can be a proactive process where you ask for information on specific topics. I have used it a good number of times. For example, I posted the question, “do you know about Twitter-like systems that work within organizations?” and got relevant answers.

In addition, the expertise I get from involving the outside world helps me a lot in my work.

BL: What are your predictions for how social will change the way people and companies communicate?

NG: As it has done for the private lives of millions of people, social media is going to change corporate life. It will enrich the communications among people and bring positive organizational change. For example, more ideas and activities will be generated from the bottom up (continue the trend set by email of flattening organizations) and thus it will make people more involved in their work. On the downside, it will continue the trend of blurring the differences between work life and private life.

BL: Do companies have to master internal social media before rolling it out to their external business ecosystem?

NG: I think it is a good idea. As far as I have heard, Cisco is doing it this way and this is what I try to do in my work. This gives the company more experience of using it in the enterprise and iron out the issues of successful implementation (instead of giving theoretical advice). It is important to remember, however, that no two companies are totally alike.

You can follow Nahum Gershon at Twitter.com/nahumg