Archive for March, 2009

Is “Groundswell” Business Fad or Future?

March 16, 2009

   It’s all about relationships and the need to engage people. Groundswell authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff didn’t have to sell me on that one. I’ve believed all along that the difference between success and failure in the business world (and in life) can be measured in large part by the ability to connect in a meaningful way with others and pick up on their cues. That these techies see technology as a merely a tool to enhance that link really resonated.  I’ve met too many IT types for whom technology is the means, the end, the ultimate reason we exist. It was refreshing to read that their world view:  first decide on the people, objectives, and strategy before employing technology, and define a credible community around customers’ “passions or pain points.” Now that’s a real understanding of what makes the world tick.

Perhaps that’s why Groundswell offers a somewhat limited view of IT people. When you’re about to transform your relationship with your customers, they ask, is it “a job for some mid-level IT or marketing person? The ultimate responsibility for this plan should rest with an executive who reports up quite high in the organization. ” Li and Bernoff seem content to relegate ITs to an advisory role.  Actually, it was rather shocking to read their account of an IT strategist at a fast-food company who wanted to know how her company could “become part of the social networking space.”  And the CIO at a furniture company who wanted to know best practices for starting a blog. Are they the exception or the rule?

From personal to professional, Groundswell offers some practical and enlightening ways new technology is transforming the way we work and play. As I was trying to think of how Twitter could be useful beyond keeping up with a yawning list of my friend’s monotonous motions, the authors educated me about a great use: Olin College folks built an application that generates tweets about the availability of washers and dryers in the dorm rooms. Not that I’m in laundry queue. But I immediately started to think of all the wonderful applications, particularly in the health world, where we wait endlessly as if our time is worthless.

I also was intrigued by the Parisian social network whose sole purpose is to connect people with others in their own neighborhood. Once upon a time, I might have viewed that as the height of stupidity. Why not just ring the doorbell? Or how about looking up, smiling, and saying hi next time you pass a neighbor on your block?  But unlike yesteryear, when kids actually played in the streets and parents (mothers) hung out on the stoop and connected with neighbors while watching their kids, we tend to be more insular. Perhaps this is the introduction to break the ice, tech’s version of the pound cake we used to schlep over to our neighbors to melt away any initial awkwardness.

And the many examples of groundswell’s diverse applications to the corporate world – particularly healthcare – also were fascinating. Businesses large and small appear to be catching on. Did you ever think your fund manager would “friend” you on Facebook? That’s precisely what  Charles Schwab does to woo younger investors.

But I found myself wondering about the investment businesses must make in “groundswell.” Having scanned the ROI table, I still was not completely sold. Why? The authors note a hefty consumer online survey – 10,000 people tapped in 2007 – regarding participation in groundswell activities. The results  seem pretty fragmented, with 29% being the highest category – those who watch video from other users.  Only 25 % read blogs, 20% update/maintain a profile on a social networking site, and a mere 14% comment on someone else’s blog.   And the “Social Technographics Profile” of the 18-27 age group in the U.S. reveals that some 60% are “joiners,” with only around 40% creators (41% men, 37% women).   

While I have to admit that it was fun to log on to and play with social profile data – the authors make this available at groundswell.forrester.com – I couldn’t help but wonder about the enormous commitment required of businesses, considering those rather fragmented stats.  To do it right, a company must hire another company to “listen” to the Internet – blogs, discussion forums, YouTube, and everything else on its behalf. This costly, full-time monitoring has fueled a cottage industry of nouveaux watchdogs. And Li and Bernoff tell us that we business people will  get “pitched” by the CEO or head of sales of these companies, but have us question whether their staffers – the likely people who will do the grunt work – are as smart as their bosses.

Furthermore, I’m wondering if blogging is worth the time and trouble for businesses that have a complex vetting process because of legal or regulatory concerns. The authors do acknowledge the need to develop an editorial process, but again, this is more investment of time and money. And to create an effective community, you must constantly support and maintain it, Li and Bernoff warn: “Communities need care and feeding – with content, new features, and redesigns – to stay relevant and successful.” Additional bucks.  It’s not that I’m negative on the need to tap into groundswell. To the contrary. And the authors rightly emphasize that analysis is critical to know exactly what part of groundswell will serve your business well. However, I can’t help but wonder: Is this the latest management fad that will eventually be shelved like the old MBO – management by objectives? Or is this a fundamental transformation that’s part of a new business framework?

I do understand the public value created by these connections, but privacy issues have yet to be shaken out.  Over in Congress, Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA), who has just replaced Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) as  head of the house subcommittee in charge of telecom, technology, and the ‘net, has indicated his wish to pass a bill to regulate privacy of Internet users; he has bipartisan support.  And the juggle between private and public continues as employers use Facebook rants to shed employees

How ironic – the tools that create conversations could actually be undermining their future. So the question is where will this all land?

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Community, Communication, and the “Bazaar”

March 9, 2009

 As I read Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” I chuckled as I my eyes caught something bizarre-looking in my downloaded and printed version: the formats for the open quotes and closed quotes did not match each other.
 I found this humorous, because it brought me back to several years ago, when I was writing and editing for a chain of Boston-area weeklies. Lo and behold, I had to endure that very same software glitch. It infuriated me that something so basic in a publishing tool was so wrong. But alas, there was nothing that I, the tech ignoramus, could do about it; surely, there were greater minds working on this problem. But why, I wondered, was this software released with such a basic flaw?
I found some answers in Raymond’s thoughtful, honest, and down-to-earth piece. And he is a master at explaining concepts in a way that invites us non-techs into his world, thereby showing us that he practices what he preaches:  that building a community is key. Raymond makes a solid case for the “bazaar” approach to software development:  “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” If you properly cultivate users to become co-developers and offer lots of encouragement, he says, your users will diagnose problems and suggest fixes more quickly than any one person can if unaided.
 Point well taken.  A community of debuggers will devote infinitely more time to a debug effort than one person possibly could. Raymond readily admits that design, rather than debug, is his strongest skill. So why not have a community of eager folks complement his best assets? I can apply this to the publishing world, where some are great writers and lousy editors, while others are terrific at debugging others’ work but less adept at or interested in creating editorial work.  We really are co-dependent in producing a seamless product. I found myself wondering if that software bug that bugged me endlessly an editor would have been easily unearthed if the “babbling bazaar” method of software development had been a choice back then.
But I find myself hesitating a bit regarding the “release early, release often” part of Raymond’s open-software philosophy. Raymond said he used to believe that this was bad policy for “larger than trivial” projects, because early versions are almost by definition buggy and you don’t want to wear out the patience of users. He no longer believes that holds. The problem is, I have a tough time letting go of that original outlook. Perhaps that makes me too inflexible. But here’s how I look at it. The techies he attracts to do his debugging are a self-selected bunch who are part of a shared subculture, and so by nature have more patience for bugs than I, the end user non-techie.
 I, on the other hand, just want things to work when I need them to work and have no knowledge about how to fix them. There are lots of me out there, who would lose patience for Raymond’s world.  So while it’s great that great minds are putting their heads together, where does that leave us? That’s why I believe timing of release is still important if “the long tail” of the population – folks like me – is part of the equation.
Kudos to Raymond for recognizing that communication skills are vital to building the community he needs for creating a “bazaar” framework:  “In order to build a development community, you need to attract people, interest them in what you’re doing, and keep them happy about the amount of work they’re doing. Technical sizzle will go a long way towards accomplishing this, but it’s far from the whole story. The personality you project matters, too.”  Raymond’s secret sauce: at least a little skill at charming people.  Raymond says this should be obvious, but we all know from our past endurances of pointy-haired bosses (a la Dilbert) that it just isn’t so. He’d be wise to take this one on the road – to all levels of management in all sorts of organizational environments.  Raymond should teach a course in “egoboo,” his term for ego-boosting.
I wish that Tim O’Reilly had made his work as accessible on an equally important subject that sometimes overlapped with Raymond’s: “What is Web 2.0. Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation.” http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/a/6228.  His piece seemed directed more at techies than a general audience, with several terms and references left unexplained.
  However, he did make some good observations that are easily grasped. “Great internet success stories don’t advertise their products,” O’Reilly says. Rather, their adoption is driven by “viral marketing,” that is, recommendations propagating directly from one user to another.  It was an integral part of Google’s success story, as John Battelle notes in his book, The Search. O’Reilly also notes that companies like Microsoft will have to shed “old patterns” if they want to compete with native 2.0 companies. As a Wall Street Journal post relates today, he’s not the only one with those thoughts.

In describing reaction to Microsoft’s pay cuts for third-party temps, one blogger was quoted as writing, “you’re working for a dinosaur. Word on the street is your brain-trust got raided by Google.”
Ah, winners and losers.  Only time will tell. And that time frame is getting smaller and smaller.

Success Breeds…Slogans

March 6, 2009

 Let’s give credit where credit is due. Could it be that much of the criticism heaped upon Google is actually jealousy over two twenty-somethings with the vision and perseverance to strike gold?  Face it, Google’s founders did have vision, while myopia misdirected everyone around them from the get-go.  Page submitted his first paper, an overview of the PageRank algorithm, only to have it rejected. The paper ultimately was published in conjunction with a Stanford project, no doubt softening the power of its punch.  But Brin and Page persisted on this resistance-filled path, cluttered with naysayers.

And they found treasures in others’ trash.  For instance, in the late 1990s, the goal was not to send people away from a portal, as search did, but to glue them there instead, notes John Battelle in his book, The Search – How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. Even Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle (how ironic) went so far as to “brag” in an analysts’ meeting that his search-related traffic was declining. But Page and Brin were gifted enough to see what others couldn’t. We should applaud them, not scorn them for this. 

That they carefully guarded their “baby” also is to be commended. A responsible “parent” not protecting its nurtured prodigy?  Let’s get real. Setting loose engineering managers who made their organization top-heavy was smart. So was dissecting employment decisions with the precision of a surgeon. Not spending a dime on marketing while their company was bleeding was responsible; bringing in PR exec Cindy McCaffrey to adopt a “press-first” approach was brilliant. Why spend money when you can get the media to spotlight you for free?  And the media were thrilled to oblige; Google became their do-no-wrong darling.

I do, however take issue with Page’s put-down of inventor Nikola Tesla’s reach, as related in Battelle’s book: “The Twelve-year-old Page was struck by this fact: regardless of how brilliant and world-changing Tesla’s work had been, the inventor received little long-term fame or fortune for his efforts.”  Now that’s a bit arrogant, considering the unit of measurement of a magnetic field is — Tesla.  So why would you care? Say you’re having an MRI critical to your future health. If the machine you’re lying in is three Tesla, you’re in state of the art. Two Tesla?  Not quite as much resolution. I’d say, “Give me more Tesla!”  

            And at least some have questioned whether Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” also smacks of superiority. Battelle notes that Amazon CEO (and Google investor) Jeff Bezos “summed up the reactions of many observers” in telling him, “Well, of course, you shouldn’t be evil. But then again, you shouldn’t have to brag about it either.”

 Journalist Jeff Jarvis also weighed in during a recent interview, calling the slogan “dopey” but valuable in spurring Google staff to question behavior and tactics http://onthemedia.org/transcripts/2009/02/27/06. “I know this is awfully optimistic to say, but I have to believe that a company that gives its employees the license to question its actions, based on its mission, is a good company,” Jarvis said.

I don’t really care much about slogans, because it is action that matters. And I certainly don’t view Google as “evil.” To the contrary, the company has created a lot of value. On the other hand, I do find some things a bit creepy for my taste. Take 800-GOOG-411. I tried it out after reading David Pogue’s New York Times post, in which he gushes over Google’s geniuses and “gems,” the 411 service being one of them http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/technology/personaltech/26pogue.html?_r=1. The information I received about delis in my area was right-on, but why did I hear the message, “Call’s recorded”?  I can’t recall any other 411 service recording my communication.  If Google as a company is entitled to some privacy, why aren’t we?

I was happy to read that Google has voluntarily agreed to blur images of certain locations, ranging from the White House to shelters for victims of domestic violence, on its Google Earth satellite service. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/california-lawmaker-wants-online-map-images-blurred/#more-2677. A California lawmaker has raised the issue of protecting “soft targets” like schools, hospitals, houses of worship and government buildings; he reportedly introduced a bill after reading reports suggesting that terrorists used online map imagery to plan attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere. An Indian court is considering a ban on Google Earth following reports that its imagery played a part in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The question is why on earth we need Google Earth. I can imagine more harm than help emanating from that service. Must we endure yet another blow to our privacy? Hey, Google, maybe it’s time for that reassessment: “Don’t be Evil.”