Archive for the 'Listening' Category

Five tips for corporate Twitterers

Today is the deadline for her Twitter book, but Danish entrepreneur Natasha Saxberg is impressively un-flustered. The manuscript is more or less ready, and she’s time for a quick chat about what makes Twitter work so well as a business tool.

“The border between the internal and external operations of an organisation is melting away…the big potential here is for a company to get out there with product development and talk to the customer before it launches a product, listen to what the customer has to say and learn and innovate from that.”

These are Natasha’s tips for connecting with customers via Twitter:

1. People relate to people not organisations so make your profile as natural as possible.

2. Be confident. Remember the format for Twitter is simple: everyone has something to contribute.

3. Be completely aware of your reasons for using Twitter: is it to listen? To learn?

4. Find role models. Seek out people who share your interests and follow them. Ask yourself what is it about their updates that makes them interesting.

5. Choose some subjects that really interest you, that you really ‘burn’ for, and focus on these – that way you’ll sound more passionate and others will connect with you more.

Natasha’s book on Twitter is due out soon; unfortunately it’s in Danish, but if you’d like to find out more about her work (in English), you can follow her on Twitter and/ or visit her blog.

“The spark of what we do is community”

With strong, heartfelt convictions and a background in PR for trade unions and leftist politicians, Matthew McGregor comes across as a charmingly un-reconstituted, died-in-the-wool socialist.

But his company, Blue State Digital, has pretensions way beyond the political arena.

In 2006, Blue State Digital was hired by Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign to build and manage its fundraising website. The site went on to become the most effective campaign website in history, enabling over three million individuals to donate over $500 million online, supporting more than two million user profiles and soliciting more than 13 million email addresses.

Blue State Digital was identified as Obama’s “Secret Weapon” by Businessweek and “the future of politics” by The Guardian.

Last year, Matthew was employed by Blue State Digital to set up its London operation. That’s where we are now: chatting on the sofas on the ground floor of Freud Communications’ building in London’s West End, where the UK office is based.

Although Matthew was not directly involved in the Obama campaign, he spent time alongside his US colleagues in the run up to the US Presidential Election last November. There he witnessed, first hand, the tremendous drive and dynamism of Obama’s support base which was constantly captured and reinvigorated via the campaign website.

Blue State Digital’s suite of online tools include a powerful mass e-mailer, a phone bank – which readily identifies “hot” or “warm” contacts – and an invite tool. These might be considered as typical campaign tools, but Matthew is keen to see their application across the board:

“The spark of what we do is community: where people are able to come together in terms of a common goal, not just political – it could be in terms of test-launching a new product. Politicians generally are really unpopular but look at the spark of engagement you get from someone wanting to test a new Blackberry! Companies have more sense of community than they realise.”

It’s unsurprising that Matthew refers to politicians less than favourably: we’re meeting on the Tuesday after a long Easter weekend which has brought disastrous news for the British Prime Minister and the UK Labour Party: Gordon Brown’s advisor Damian McBride has resigned after authoring a leaked email outlining an alarmingly misguided plan to spread nasty – and unfounded – rumours about rival MPs via the web.

Though he sighs and shakes his head at the thought of McBride, Matthew cites John Prescott and Tom Watson as two UK MPs who really “get” how to use the internet: “They understand the fundamental kernel of authenticity”.

“It’s all about engaging with people directly, on an authentic basis – engaging with people on their issues, in a language they understand.”

And this language of engagement can apply easily in business, believes Matthew.

“Maybe it’s a peculiarly British thing, to be so under-stated. I’m really struck by the language of sacrifice that permeates the UK. In Sweden, their language is of solidarity. In Britain, it’s a sacrifice. In the US, it’s hope. But the language of sacrifice is not inspiring!”

From his political and advocacy campaigns, Matthew has learnt that people need to be given positive messages to make them feel it’s worthwhile to take part in something, and this is just as true for business projects as it is for everything else:

“Being authentic, being engaging and putting people to work applies across the board.”

“You need to encourage people to take action: they need to be encouraged, incentivised, given a reward to take part in the bigger picture.”

In this, Matthew echoes the mantra of all successful social networks: give people a genuine personal motive, and they’ll participate. The importance of a strong underlying community cannot be under-stated:

“Obama wasn’t the first person to do this but [he’s been] far and away the most successful. So people see that campaign and want to emulate it. There’s not a huge amount of difference between Obama and Howard Dean in terms of the actual campaign but in terms of success, yes! Obama did get new media, yes, but what he got was community organising: the principles of good new media community.”

Matthew would love to get more corporate clients, but he’s not completely indiscriminate: true to his party roots, he draws the line at working for one David Cameron.

That’s a shame. Blue State Digital could do great things for the Conservative Party. No matter. I get the feeling that, sooner or later, a beleaguered Gordon Brown (or his successor) might just be giving Matthew a call.

Bush in social networking ban shocker!

I was intrigued, amused and not particularly surprised to read John Naughton’s report in The Guardian about the IT system used by the Bush Administration at the White House.

So, Bush’s team used a six year old version of Windows, then? Hmm.

Naughton’s source was an article for the Washington Post entitled “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages,” in which reporter Anne E Kornblut talked about the Obama team arriving on their first day in the new office, brimming with iphones and mac laptops, only to be confronted by reinforced firewalls and ageing Microsoft technology.

Karin Robinson, a regional field director for Obama’s presidential campaign, laughs wryly at the memory:

“It was hysterical. Some of the fundraisers, they Facebook’ed and they IM’ed and a lot of their tools were blocked in the White House. When they got in there, they couldn’t contact anyone. They said “I don’t have anyone’s numbers!” They were used to having constant real-time sharing of their lives; their assumption of how to interact with the world is different.”

It’s ironic that the Bush Administration only appeared on Twitter in the dying days of George W’s presidency:

“Send a farewell letter to President Bush—Email gwbfarewell@gmail.com [no attachments] and I’ll give him your note on January 20”

wrote Karl Rove on January 16th.

Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post thought this was simply a cynical ploy to get hold of loyal Republicans’ email addresses. Surely not?

The Bush Administration was wrong in so many ways, and its handling of new media seems an apt metaphor for the way in which it connected with world opinion. As to George W Bush’s handle on social networking, Australian copywriter Johnathan Crossfield has a great take.

Something light for a Friday evening – read and enjoy!

The Listening Yank

It’s the day before the G20 Summit in London and Karin Robinson should be out on the streets, leading the pro-Obama rally she’s been promoting. Instead, she’s put her back out, so she’s confined to her flat, going a little stir crazy and watching news of the various demonstrations (mostly peaceful, but more anti than pro G20) online.

“There’s all these protesters and my question is: let’s say you got what you wanted? But do they have an agenda? My philosophy is to have very clear goals. If these protesters are trying to influence the [G20] meeting, they should have a lobby list. One of the signs I’ve seen says “Abolish Money”! Personally, from a ‘liking things to work well’ point of view, they need to know what they want.”

As a US citizen based in the UK, Karin knows all about agenda-setting. She worked as a regional field director on Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign between July and November last year. Her remit was to mobilse as many US Democratic voters as possible across the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and South Africa.

Despite her London base, Karin was in daily contact with the campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.

“I was reporting back [to the US] on a daily basis,” she says. “And every day we’d get reviewed targets back. David Plouffe, the Campaign Manager, was looking at very detailed data.”

“There was a lot of pressure to reach targets, we were really working our tails off. But it would have been easy to miss the opportunity to capitalise on all those volunteers. There were stories that McCain volunteers were being sent home because the campaign wasn’t prepared for them.”

By contrast, the Obama Campaign was meticulously organised at every level:

“In some of our key states we had forty per cent of people having some kind of contact with the campaign. [The campaign organisers] made it clear from the start that they wanted an unprecedented level of contact – face to face contact – the ability to use social media to make that happen was a very clever exploitation.”

Karin goes on to describe how the campaign used sites such as Facebook and MeetUp as an adjunct to, and extension of, face-to-face contact.

“We were using [social networks] to find people and to communicate and to directly organise…Every single objective [was about] getting people offline. Every YouTube video would end with “Go volunteer, go give money, go do this!”. One of Obama’s signature endings for his stump speech, his generic campaign trail speech, was “So if you’ll work with me, come out and vote with me, we’ll do this!”. The whole tenor of the event was geared towards getting people out.”

This emphasis on calls to action was present at all levels of the campaign. Karin remembers the Democratic Nomination Convention which took place in a 75,000 seater stadium in Denver in August 2008:

“Under every seat was a piece of paper with a list of names. Before people came out and started doing speeches, the voter registration director asked everyone to take out their mobiles and call four people on their list. We wanted to send a signal at the highest possible level that this was a volunteer-led campaign.”

One famous revolutionary aspect of the Obama Campaign was the fact that it was the first in history to be majority-funded by small donations. By the end of the campaign, the official White House website was transformed from an authoritarian, text-heavy front page to a welcoming portal, a smiling Obama beaming from the top-right corner.

On Obama’s Change website, Google Moderator has been used to enable US citizens to vote up issues of importance to them (although the “Open For Questions” function raised eyebrows earlier this year when marijuana legalisation topped the poll). MyBarackObama continues as a thriving community, with the “Obama For America” campaign now rebranded as “Organising For America”. Obama’s Twitter stream, MySpace, Bebo and Facebook profiles all remain active.

Obama also has an offline way of getting a feel for what’s bothering people at a grassroots level. Every day, according to Karin, he asks for a selection of letters from the public to glance through: “He’s really concerned that once you become President you become detached from reality. He’s very serious about not loosing touch.”

And Karin adds that despite Obama being a great listener, sometimes our expectations of him run impossibly high:

“Obama really is listening to people but what you’ve got to remember is he’s not just listening to you. People sometimes mistake listening for acquiescence.”

Friends in different places

Photo: Juggzy Malone

As cries continue for Gordon Brown to apologise for flawed financial leadership over the past ten years, and for ex-CEOs of the heavily indebted banks to pay in some way (usually financial) for the state in which they’ve left their previously profitable companies, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not just individuals but the system that’s at fault.

As Ruth Sutherland wrote in the Observer recently:

“The crunch is not a Manichean battle between good and evil, or a narrative of hubris and nemesis. It is the result of an intellectual failure on a grand scale – the wrong-headed belief that markets are efficient and rational – coupled with a web of self-congratulatory and self-interested links between financiers and politicians.”

Sutherland talks about the “dangerous group-think of the Bush/Blair years”. She makes so many excellent points that it’s probably best you just click through to the article, but the one that resonates most is that above: “the web of self-congratulatory and self-interested links”.

In short, the bankers gave the politicians thousands of new jobs, a surge in tax revenues and the economic feel good factor; in return, the politicians gave the bankers influence (eg: Sir Ronald Cohen, both advisor and donor to New Labour) and knighthoods (eg, Sir Alan Greenspan who “hilariously” as Ruth Sutherland points out was knighted in 2002 for his “contribution to global economic stability”).

As Sutherland points out, any economist worth his salt and therefore qualified to criticise had usually been offered a lucrative position on the board of an investment bank, so a conflict of interest was inevitable. Clever.

What’s the best way to beat this group-think? Sutherland suggests a re-introduction of the checking process that used to be performed by civil servants (“in more sober times”):

“One simple practice the financial world could adopt is the idea in post-Iraq intelligence circles of an official devil’s advocate to check and challenge policy.”

And the implications for business?

When Bill Gates hired Robert Scoble in 2003 as a “technical evangelist” and producer the Channel 9 video division, probably the last thing he expected was that Scoble was going to start criticising his employer in public.

By the time Scoble left Microsoft in June 2006, his blog, Scobleizer, was one of the most popular in the tech world with millions of hits every month.

Via his blog, Scoble was openly critical of Microsoft; one example was in January 2006 when Microsoft shut down a Chinese researcher’s MSN blog because it was critical of the Chinese government:

“The behavior of my company in this instance is not right…Guys over at MSN: sorry, I don’t agree with your being used as a state-run thug.”

He also blogged freely about his love of Apple Computer and admiration for Google.

Gates let the blog run because he realised the importance of dissent. The fact he let Scoble criticize actually made Microsoft look good.

As a journalist for Forbes.com wrote at the time of Scoble’s departure:

“One man has shown how a blog, plain-spoken and irreverent in its tone, could be a tool to significantly help soften the monopolistic bullying image of a corporate giant like Microsoft.”

We are now coming to the double bluff endgame: it’s not so much the bad press, as how you handle it. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his recent talk at the LSE, consumers are becoming media-savvy: Barack Obama’s campaign was not harmed so much as bolstered by the deluge of media tributes to him: some well-done, some badly-executed. The American public knew that Obama was not directly responsible for these tributes, and it knew not to blame him directly for them.

The importance of allowing all voices to flourish: however critical, however inept, cannot be over-stated. Trying to stamp such comments out, or cover them up, is like using a garden hose to fight a forest fire. And these voices are worth listening to, because one day they might even come up with some solutions that could be of interest (see the we20 project for one such example). Rather than worry about having friends in high places, maybe it’s time we all started cultivating friends in different places.

The slow boat to China

It’s 1873 and the Reverend Henry Parkes is in Canton, China, writing a letter to his boss, the General Secretary of a Methodist missionary society, in London.

“By next spring I shall have been resident ten years […] My objective in writing by this mail is to request permission to return home […] For myself, and more especially for my wife and family, I feel it’s necessary, soon, to have a change. In this view my medical advisor concurs.”

Henry is a Wesleyan Methodist minister and one of a small group of priests who have been asked to take Christianity to China following China’s defeat by the British in the second Opium War of 1856-60.

Henry and his new wife, Annie, and their children live on the eastern side of Canton Province (now known as Guangzhou), an area where smallpox, cholera typhoid and bubonic plague are endemic. Hundreds of thousands will die in the region over the next few years. With four children under the age of six, Henry is understandably concerned for the health and safety of his family.

Henry has now been in Canton Province for ten years, having arrived in China in August 1862, after a five month voyage from Southampton. As a missionary, his job is not only to preach, but also to help establish schools, hospitals and orphanages. Apart from the Parkes and a few other missionary families, there are no other Europeans in the region.

In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, there is little love lost between the Chinese and the British. Henry and his family live under threat of attack. Mandarin Chinese is not an easy language to learn and the lack of communication with the people around them, in addition to getting used to the local food, manners and customs, means that life is extremely difficult.

Henry studied to become a Methodist missionary at Richmond College, London, but although well-versed in theology, he received no practical training in the life skills needed for coping with this new environment. As a result, the Parkes family are incredibly isolated.

Henry would have expected a response to his letter to take around six months to arrive by ship. From the wording of a second letter, written seven months later, it’s evident that no response has been received. In the meantime, two of Henry’s children have tragically died. Over the next ten years, Henry writes a number of letters to the General Secretary; in each, he requests permission to come home. In 1882, nearly twenty years after arriving in Canton Province, the Parkes are finally allowed to return to England.

I watched celebrity chef Rick Stein tell this story on BBC1 on Monday as episode three of the latest series of “Who Do you Think You Are?”. Henry Parkes was Rick’s maternal great grandfather, and Rick traveled to Hong Kong to find out more about his life. The scene in which Rick reads the letters written by Henry is incredibly moving.

It’s an sad story – and all the more shocking in the context of today’s hyper-connected world. For us, the idea of being stranded on one side of the planet while your boss, manager or CEO chooses to ignore you on the other is unthinkable. Today, it would only take a handful of well-written blog posts, a campaign organized by your friends on Twitter or Facebook and/or a few hundred signatures via an e-petition before your employer was forced to address your needs – and relocate you.

It’s true, employers don’t always behave as they should (the same goes for employees, of course). But at least now we have the means to ensure all voices, however troublesome or inconvenient, are heard.

The funny thing is, in some instances, particularly in established organizations where there is a legacy of doing things a certain way, it seems some managers still behave as if that slow boat to China was the main method of communication. A friend of a friend who works for the UK civil service sums it up:

“Two hundred years ago, people wrote letters and it would take four weeks to get a reply, so you could basically go ahead and do what you wanted without waiting for permission to be given – or denied. People still run their own fiefdoms like this! Even if you’re a child of this generation and you get posted to Tonga for 25 years, you might have to ask, what are you going to learn [about the UK technology sector] in Tonga?”

To borrow a phrase from George Orwell, it seems all people are networked, but some are more networked than others. There’s no prize for guessing which type of person has the edge.

One last point: it’s interesting to read on Wonkette that one of US presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign advisors, Mike Murphy, is now, literally, on a slow boat to China. As one of McCain’s more savvy advisors, he’ll no doubt appreciate the irony more than anyone.

Time for a diverse Davos

Davos is over for another year and the obligatory pictures of middle-class, middle-aged white men in suits are all over the media.

This year, the meeting was more pertinent than ever with the small issue of global financial meltdown weighing heavy on the shoulders of the 2,500 attendees.

Last Sunday, The Observer’s business Editor, Ruth Sutherland, expressed her dismay in seeing only five women on the abridged list of business leaders attending the conference. In a comment piece for the paper, she didn’t mince her words:

“The male Davos elite remains mired in its own preening self-regard and complacency. They have wrecked the world economy, but seem oblivious to the idea that they may not be the best people to rebuild it.”

Ruth Sutherland makes some suggestions to help re-dress the rebalance – including Oxfam director Barbara Stocking’s idea for Davos to broaden its definition of leadership, by introducing female community leaders from Africa, for example.

Someone I know used to work for the World Bank, and someone else I know for the World Economic Forum. I need to check whether or not they’d like to be named because they both speak less than favourably about the experience, in essence saying these organisations are among the most badly run they’ve ever come across. Not good in a world that needs thoughtful, enlightened leadership now, more than ever.

I’m not saying that women are the only answer, but more diversity across our leading financial and decision-making institutions is essential.

OK, so now I’ve got that off my chest, it seems that some good things did come out of this year’s Davos. Firstly, there seemed to be a great deal of social media types attending, which can only be a good thing.

As Robert Scoble said on Twitter: “The execs at Davos were very curious about Twitter and Qik/Kyte/live video. It will be interesting to see how many pick up these new things”.

So, what actually happened at this year’s Davos?

Well, Umair Haque’s ideas appear to have been well-received (by Tim O’Reilly, at least).

The “illuminating” Jeff Jarvis (thanks Steve Moore for that lovely adjective), hosted a workshop where a model for open banking was hotly discussed and debated (via Sam Granleese).

And Joanne Jacobs and the Amplified team ran a successful experiment in using social media to drive citizen participation to the sessions.

Robert Scoble complains that there wasn’t enough focus on small businesses, but then, maybe that’s no surprise in an arena where big business dominates the invite list.

Again, more diversity, more voices – that’s what we need to really move forward, and that’s exactly where social media can help.

NB: I picked up the above “news items” from www.hashtags.org. If you’re aware of any other Davos developments significant to social networking/Web 2.0, please let me know!

Tears are us

Luis Suarez writes eloquently about the joy of seeing leading sportsmen who are not scared to show their emotions.

His post reminded me of the final episode of the BBC’s Million Dollar Traders which we watched on the iplayer on Monday night. This three part series took eight “ordinary people” and gave them basic training followed by two months to run their own (£1m) hedge fund. The two months happened to be September and October 2008 – possibly the worst two months in the history of hedge fund management.

In one scene, the two self-made millionaires who are running the operation (one of whom is actually donating his own funds to the “experiment”) discuss the lacklustre performance of a highly intelligent but nervous rookie – they decide it’s time to ‘let her go’.

The discussion between these two powerful men – ‘she’s going to cry, I know she is’ – is fascinating, as is the interplay between the dismissed girl and her fellow rookies – half of whom walk out with her. The two “bosses” stand in their glass-fronted office and watch awkwardly as the walk-out takes place, agreeing that it’s best not to “interfere”.

Of the three novice traders that remain, one, an ex-soldier, seems genuinely perplexed that there should be any gesture of support, asking, repeatedly, “what’s going on?”.

Another (interestingly, a single mum), then goes on to be praised by the fund managers for her “impressive” (ie: lack of) reaction to the entire episode. She is told that this cool-headedness is essential for City success. There is much talk of how emotions, and emotional ties to others, can only get in the way of making money.

Interestingly, there is a whole separate incident where another novice – an environmentalist – despairs at his inability to make money through ethical trading. He is singled out for criticism – the suggestion is that ethics will only interfere with profits.

This portrait of City trading as the towers of mammon begin to topple is excellent and should be set viewing for business studies students everywhere. I wonder if the two men who led the show have reconsidered their stance? I suspect there’ve been quite a few tears shed on and off the trading floor in the past few months.

As Luis remarks on his blog, now is surely time for businesses to reconnect with their emotions:

“Now, can you imagine the corporate world of the 21st century, the one we all feel social software is slowly, but steadily, humanising and shaking itself inside out, behaving in such powerful way? Can you imagine your business re-gaining that human side of things? Those feelings? Those emotions?”

Here, here to that!

This same week, we’ve seen a report from the Children’s Society saying that the “selfishness” of UK parents is a major factor in the unhappiness of the UK’s children. Once again, working mums are singled out as particularly self-centred.

Why, oh why do we keep going back to this same old, broken record? Blaming working mums is the easy solution. Talking about how to construct more family-focused, humanised workplaces is far more difficult. And how to re-construct and support not the family but the extended family.

To be fair, The Guardian and The Scotsman, among other media, were up in arms about this, too.

Because this type of work is the future. It’s good to see that someone of Julia Hobsbawm’s intellect thinks so, too – she’s got a new book out which champions flexible working as the most significant trend of the 21st century.

I know my 2 year old daughter wants to spend time with the parents she loves, but in seeing myself and my partner go out to work, she’s learning that it’s normal to work, and that work can make you happy and fulfilled. She’s sat in on business meetings from the age of 12 weeks and listens in to conversations about work, between her parents, our colleagues etc. This has improved her vocabulary and I’m sure in later life will make her more instantly at ease in business situations.

And the flipside is that the workplace also benefits from having the input of parents (especially mums) who spend lots of time with their children. These people have vast lives outside the boardroom and inevitably see things differently.

OK, so maybe women are, on balance, more likely to show emotion (eg: cry) in certain situations, but why do such outbursts need to be a problem? Can’t we just learn to deal with them?

Diverse voices, thoughts and interpretations are key to the worldly governance that today’s companies need if they want to survive in this fragmented, global marketplace.

Whose direct reporting line is it, anyway?

For the past six months, Mat Morrison, Global Head of Digital Planning at Porter Novelli has been developing a network analysis tool called Rufus.

Rufus aims to map online “influencers”. This means that a client can, for example, see who’s talking to who in about a certain product – and, more importantly, who’s listening. What the tool has been great at, says Mat, is in demonstrating how peripheral a company’s influence can be, particularly where its own products or services are concerned.

Rufus works by processing information freely available on the web. Starting with a keyword (eg, diabetes), Rufus acts like a smaller version of Google, using a spider to go through the search results looking at links, and reciprocal links. From this, it can see who the key stakeholders in a conversation are, and who’s listening to who.

This is the first time I’ve started thinking about social network analysis tools. Matt tells me that the free app, Netdraw, is probably as good at visualising Twitter relationships as Rufus. There are no doubt dozens of other apps out there I’ve yet to get familiar with.

I’m wondering how this type of mapping can help organisations learn more about their own internal communications. Any corporate org chart can show who reports to and who oversees who, but the real power (ie: influence) can often lie outside these lines. Tracking relationships on social networks could be one way of learning about these informal structures.

Years ago, when I worked at BSkyB, I remember the Facilities Manager had a tremendous amount of control. Partly because she had a gatekeeping role, but also because she had been with Sky Television since the day one, had watched everyone else come in, and was acutely aware of who talked to who and what else was happening in the company. If Facebook (or an internal version) had existed then, Mandy would no doubt have had the most friends.

Mat cites the example of the only bi-lingual guy on the production line in a US factory employing a large number of Spanish-speaking workers – if this one person goes off sick, productivity inevitably falls.

In her book, “The Stone Age Company”, organisational behaviourist Sally Bibb calls it “the network versus the hierarchy”.

In “The Starfish & The Spider”, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom even go so far as to question the whole idea of the pre-eminence of hierarchy compared to informal networks, saying that it’s the strength of the one-to-one personal networks that actually define a company’s success.

Understand these informal patterns, know who these people are, and you’ve got a great map to start knowing how to really get things done in your organisation.

I’m wondering what different organisational maps might look like. Two of Mat’s Rufus maps caught my eye. One showed the conversation flow between educational policy makers, the other showed conversations around research into diabetes. Each data set generated a very different graphic. Without bringing up the titles, can you guess which is which?

These Rufus maps remind me a bit of that great French book introduced to me by Cliff Prior, Notre continent intérieur: L’atlas imaginaire (The Atlas of Experience), by Jean Klare and Louise van Swaaij which shows imagined relationships between thoughts, emotions and feelings. How about a mash-up between the two?!

But now I’m stepping into that realm that Arie de Geus currently inhabits, with his quest for more research into the way decision-making processes at work actually make us feel.

Mat tells me that back in “the days of Enron”, before email (and Enron) became much-maligned, he used to refer to a a study of Enron’s inter-office email flows carried out by Jeffrey Heer at Stanford University as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s investigation into Enron. This study found that a “healthy” organisation benefited from the communications through informal relationships and weak ties.

One of the first things Mat did when he arrived at Porter Novelli was send around an email with a surveymonkey survey to find out who’d been talking to who about digital in the previous two months. This helped him map out the influencers and get a sense of the network he needed to connect with.

I’m going to try and pick out some more tools in the coming weeks to see which work best in mapping – and thereby better understanding – internal corporate communications.

Any suggestions appreciated!

The wonderful wisdom of the table tennis ball

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m drinking tea with cultural theorist Michael Thompson in the RSA’s crowded coffee shop.

In between chats with Andrew Summers, RSA trustee (whose friend, it turns out, is also publishing a book on leadership) and Alison from Triarchy Press (who’s treating us to carrot cake), Mike and I discuss how the internet helps with problem-solving.

“The internet is clumsy by design!” says Mike, enthusiastically.

In Mike Thompson’s world, “clumsy” means “good”, even “best”. He is keen for us to find broad, all-embracing, “clumsy solutions” to problems. These are win-win resolutions where each party gets “more of what it wants (and less of which it does not want)” (“Organising & Disorganising“, p4) – in essence, all voices are heard, and responded to.

Cultural Theory argues that there are four ways of organising – and all too often we focus on just two: individualistic (eg:a free market economy) and hierarchical (eg: a heavily-regulated market). The other voices (fatalistic and egalitarian) are frequently neglected.

Our love of the “pendulum” model (arguing between one of two extremes) and desire for an “elegant solution” (using single definitions) leads us to favour a simplistic decision-making process where alternative voices are excluded; additional viewpoints become “uncomfortable knowledge” and are inevitably dismissed without serious consideration.

Mike has just finished giving a lunchtime lecture at the RSA, a lecture in which he proposed we start solving the current economic downturn by incorporating egalitarianism (equality with fettered competition) and fatalism (inequality with unfettered competition) more rigorously into future decision-making models.

Mike’s model is a holistic, 360° one, so maybe it’s not surprising he has drawn it on a table tennis ball which is passed around the room.

The world is now “effectively one colour” says Mike – individualistic, market-orientated: representing a “self interest ideology”. This world has been hit by what Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, calls “a once in a century credit tsunami” and it’s inevitable that something “hierarchical” is going to happen: this is what we are seeing now in the effective nationalisation of major banks.

According to Mike, we need to consider egalitarian and fatalistic approaches in order to encompass all viewpoints, move forward, and stop ourselves from simply swinging the pendulum back.

Financial institutions are just one example. Mike opens his lecture with the story of Arsenal Football Club [an individualistic player], who approached Islington [hierarchical] to build its £60,000 seat Emirates Stadium. Within days, a third actor appeared – The Highbury Community Association – and “all hell broke out”. But all three voices were heard, some under-used land was found, and a “clumsy’” solution emerged. The new stadium was built on time and on budget; all parties were happy.

Mike also cites Coca-cola in India: the soft drinks giant recently ran into trouble over its use of local water in soft drinks production – the company was accused of making a private good of something which was, essentially, a public good. If the egalitarian view (as expressed by the local villagers) had been accommodated into the planning process, such negative publicity may never have surfaced.

Another example given by Mike is that of the Brent Spa storage and tanker loading buoy which Shell wished to dispose of by sinking in the Atlantic Ocean in 1995. Shell [the individualistic player] obtained consent from the UK Government [hierarchical]. But Greenpeace heard of the plan and launched a world-wide campaign against this type of disposal. A heated debate ensued and “new paths were exposed that had been hitherto hidden”, according to Mike. Eventually, Shell agreed to to re-purpose much of the original structure.

Mike’s argument is that if we stick with the pendulum model, we’re going to be confined to just four of nine provinces in a three dimensional grid – and those four provinces are “most impoverished in terms of deliverable quality”.

I’m not saying this approach is always going to be workable – clearly it takes time for a business leader to seek out and listen to opinions, especially those that disagree with him/her, but I do like Mike’s metaphor of “clumsiness”. It ties in with the web’s propensity for democracy and its ability to throw up the “long tail” of human opinion.

You can listen to Michael Thompson’s lecture again via the RSA events page.

If you’d like to read more about Cultural Theory, RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor gives a nice every day example on his blog.