The network is the institution

Alan BelniakSocial Media1 Comment

On Monday, April 6, 2009, I had the opportunity to listen to Barry Libert speak at Babson College about his thoughts on Web 2.0 and its future.  The title of his presentation was, “Going Social … Lessons From The Front Line”.

What’s below isn’t a frame-by-frame re-cap, but rather some of Barry’s more salient thoughts, with my comments mixed in.

  • “This is a conversation, not a presentation” – There were a few interactive sessions in Barry’ one-hour presentation, and this was also a not-so-subtle nod to the theme of the entire conversation.  This is two-way.  If this were a traditional presentation (let’s call it a ‘1.0’ presentation), it would have been ‘broadcast’ or ‘push’.  This was more interactive.  This isn’t to say that there is no place for ‘push’ presentations.  The key, though, is knowing when a ‘2.0’ presentation style will be more effective than a ‘1.0’ presentation style, and vice-versa.
  • “Are you SA or SD?” – Barry asked the crowd if people were Socially Addicted or Socially Disabled.  This got to the core of how immersed the crowd was in social networking, social media, and, in general, how social (independent of technology) people are.
  • “The majority of today’s traditional leaders are SDs.” – Statistically speaking (no numbers were cited, but this could probably be easily corroborated), many business leaders in North America (and probably elsewhere) are white, male, and in their 50s or 60s.  This isn’t a bad thing, and Barry didn’t say this as a lightning rod for people crying PC.  Rather, he pointed it out that if this is the typical description of the leaders of these companies, then it is likely (again: on average; in general; your mileage may vary) that these leaders are not in tune with social technologies or anything ‘2.0’ related.  And they might not just be SDs at work, they might be SDs at home, too.  I think this isn’t as stark as Barry puts it, but the point was understood.
  • “The way it is today is one-way.” – In many organizations, there is this culture of, ‘take no risks; keep your head down and do your job; all good deeds go fully punished.’  I was amused, and agree with most of this; maybe my own personal career choices color my reaction to this.  In Barry’s experience, he’s seen organizations RIF the innovators and the people that did stick out their neck.
  • “Organizations think they still have control over their constituencies.” – This comment rang especially true with me, as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and research into this area.  Back in the 1950s, this indeed was true.  But that’s not the case today.  Computers and technology in general permit factories to run small-batch processing, and technology helps gives the consumer a voice.  If enough people are in the same boat, that voice can be loud.  Companies no longer own the brand – consumers do.
  • “Slow growth, low margins” – Barry stated that this is one of the fundamental reasons why companies today are not ‘getting it’ when it comes to interacting socially with customers.  If there’s no instant response, no instant uptick in revenues or website hits or positive feedback, then it’s deemed a failure.  Being social and truly interacting with customers to breed good will isn’t a sprint… it’s a marathon.
  • “This is a great time to innovate; but if you apply the same principles, then you get the same results.” – This gets to the core of ‘marketing 1.0’ versus ‘marketing 2.0’ and ‘sales operations 1.0’ versus ‘sales operations 2.0’.  For the companies that do ‘get it’, this is great, but they need to follow through with that change.  It’s understandable to be anxious to relinquish that control.  But, since companies don’t own their brand anyway, why not go with the flow?  Sure, providing some form of scaffolding around the idea is good, but keeping a death grip on what a company thinks is the message and the roll out is the same principles that were applied back in the 1950s… in the ‘1.0’ age.
  • In his book, Barack, Inc., Barry cited some interesting facts.  “25% of all white men will not vote for Barack.  25% of all white men will not vote for women.” – This was a stark fact.  On its surface, one might wonder how Barack Obama turned these statistics around in his favor.  This was a major “tax on his candidacy”, and would have been a tax on Hilary Clinton’s candidacy as well.  Instead, Barack Obama made it personal.  Two years ago, he started to reach out to people on an individual level.  He created MyBarackObama.com to begin to connect with people that wanted to hear his message.  He effectively used “we” instead of “I”.  He essentially let other people manage his brand.  This is in contrast to John McCain who used phrases such as, “I am the change agent; I will change everything.”  Statistically, it can be shown that Barack Obama raised $850m; he ran the first profitable campaign of all time.  He didn’t use a single dollar from the government.  Another way of putting it: his campaign did not tax the people who didn’t want him in office.  It was self- and co-funded by the people who wanted him there.  He made it personal.

(note: These are Barry’s words, not mine.  I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with what he’s stating.  This is not intended to start a ‘red vs. blue’ debate.)

  • “The network was the institution.” – Barry was citing an anecdote about Harvard University.  He recalls a line his son told him that went something like this: ‘From 9 to 5, you are on Harvard’s time.  From 5 to 9, you are on your own time.’  The implicit dichotomy in this statement is striking.  Students view this as two separate entities.  It’s no wonder, then, that Harvard was having a difficult time truly connecting with its students.  Someone was able to crack that code: Mark Zuckerberg.  He launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room in February 2004.  It began as a ‘Harvard only’ thing, and quickly spread.  Zuckerberg proved, in short order, what Harvard had been trying to figure out for a long time: the network creates the value of the institution.
  • “Let the customers talk to each other to learn…” – Barry was referring to a few communities that his company, Mzinga, manages.  Some of the best lessons learned in these communities (Communispace is also known for this) are the cross-talk conversations that happen between customers, and not so much from the company to the customer.  This is all well and good, but if a company isn’t fundamentally doing this (rather than speaking platitudes), then they are potentially missing out on huge, untapped insights.
  • “70% of all employees in the US are under 30.” – This is a baffling statistic.  I did some quick Google searching to verify this, but didn’t follow through.  I’m going to afterward, because I’m not so sure I believe it.  I get Barry’s point, though: the age of the workforce is changing.  I’d like to dissect those numbers a bit, and see which apply to different types of organizations, and if those numbers can be correlated to online activities, etc.  The takeaway: Generation y fundamentally connects and communicates differently than other generations.  To succeed in business in the next decade, companies need to ‘get this’.
  • “How to get started?” – Barry had three steps listed on this slide.  ‘Pick a process to innovate / use social software / moderate the conversation.’ I like the steps, but I think there’s more to it than this.  Barry seemed to gloss over the ‘Define Your Objectives’ step and the ‘Stop, Look, Listen First’ step.  Also, his entire conversation up to this point revolved around being social, and not specifically using social technologies.  This third step he listed led me to believe that he suggested using technology for technology’s sake, which I don’t fully agree with.  I think technology should be used if it facilitates reaching the objectives.

(Full disclosure:  there were a few slides that followed this that seemed to contradict what was here.  Maybe I misunderstood the message.)

  • Two examples – Two examples of communities that rally around a common theme and leverage social media are Innocentive and WeCanSolveIt.org.  Innocentive was a community formed by former workers at Eli Lilly as a way to essentially crowd-source R&D work (read or listen to Wikinomics to dig into this idea more).  This was a community of people with unsolved problems, and those willing to help.  Another is WeCanSolveIt.org, a community dedicated to solving the climate crisis.  It was formed out of the ideas and leadership from Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth).  This is a grass-roots campaign of people working together to solve a common problem.  There are many others, and a little Googling will uncover those.  Again, Wikinomics is great source, as is Groundswell.
  • “Social technologies are enablers.” – Barry concluded his discussion with this thought.  I’d make a friendly amendment to that and change the ‘are’ to ‘can be’.  I know it seems like semantics and nit-picky, but the change is fairly significant.  The comment should not be construed as ‘build it and they will come’.  In fact, that’s not the case at all.  There are many online activities (games, news, video, text, etc.) that compete for what I’ll call ‘share of eyes’; any new technology created (social or otherwise) needs to have a compelling reason for visitors to divert their eyeballs from something else to what you’d like them to see.  And not only see, but listen, talk back, and participate.

Below are some links that are referenced in the text above.  If you’re reading this, though, you are likely aware of most of this.