Is “Groundswell” Business Fad or Future?

   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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