Previous month:
August 2010
Next month:
October 2010

September 2010

Empowered: More Platform Thinking, De-Bureaucratization and Redistribution of Agency

Empowered-book The new book, Empowered, by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research, proclaims an inspiring message: social media is increasingly empowering customers to draw attention to their problems, and the best way for businesses to provide effective solutions is to empower their employees with the same tools. The book makes a strong case for universal employee empowerment by including numerous case studies of companies that have benefited from successfully empowering their employees, as well as a few cases where companies suffered as a result of bureaucratic encumbrances. The main quibble I have with the book is the use of what I consider to be questionable quantitative data, but I don't see that data as essential to the empowering message or case studies presented.

The book describes four technology trends - the proliferation of smart mobile devices, pervasive video, cloud computing services and social technology - and presents a number of case studies about how people are taking advantage of these trends to achieve their goals, sometimes to the detriment of institutions that are not yet taking advantage of them. The authors argue that employee empowerment is more of a management challenge than a technical challenge at this stage, and they effectively highlight the ways that proactive employees - called HEROes (Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives) - can use the same tools that empower customers to respond more effectively to their needs. I see many similarities between HEROes and the e-Patients ("engaged, empowered, equipped and expert") I first discovered via Regina Holliday, "e-Patient Dave" deBronkart, Susannah Fox and other Health 2.0 heroes who are advocating platform thinking, de-bureaucratization and the redistribution of agency. [Update: just saw a tweet by @ReginaHolliday to another new book, The Empowered Patient, by Julia Hallisy, suggesting even more convergence - and momentum - in this area.] At the risk of adding the ubiquitous version number to yet another class of agency, I found myself thinking that perhaps we're also entering the era of Employee 2.0.

ItSuckedAndThenICried The book starts off with a case study involving Heather Armstrong, a mommyblogger and author with over a million followers on her Twitter account (@dooce), who experiences a series of mechanical and customer service problems with her new Maytag washing machine during the first few months after her second child was born. In a blog post containing a capital letter or two, capturing the series of problems and failed solutions, she writes about an exchange with an unempowered customer service representative:

And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me? And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, "Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter."

I read this and immediately experienced a visceral "Uh, oh..." moment, sort of like watching a horror movie where the naive victim-to-be is about to open a door you just know they shouldn't. As anticipated, she then proceeds to share her frustrations with Maytag with her Twitter followers in a series of status updates. It is difficult to directly measure the long-term influence of this negative publicity, but I would imagine that many of Heather Armstrong's followers were / are young mothers with significant laundering needs who might also be in the market for a washing machine, and would be considerably less likely to purchase a Maytag after reading about her experiences.

Twelpforce This experience is contrasted with that of Josh Korin (@joshkorin), a recruiter with a more modest Twitter following (596) at the time of a suboptimal experience with an Apple iPhone purchased at BestBuy. Like Heather, Josh tweeted about his frustrations with customer service - they initially offered to replace his new iPhone with a Blackberry, even though he'd purchased the insurance plan. However, BestBuy had an empowered TwelpForce in place that monitors and responds pomptly to customer service problems expressed in social media streams (e.g., tweets addressed to @bestbuy or with the #bestbuy or #twelpforce hashtag). Even though Josh posted these messages on a Saturday, he promptly received responses from BestBuy CMO Barry Judge (@bestbuycmo) and empowered "community connector" Coral Biegler (@coral_bestbuy), and an iPhone replacement was arranged that Sunday, transforming a disgruntled customer into an advocate.

The second part of the book explores another acronymized set of concepts, IDEA: Identify mass influencers, Deliver groundswell customer service, Empower customers with mobile information, and Amplify the voice of your fans. I like the ideas [pun partially intended] in this section, and found the additional case studies presented interesting and compelling. However, this is where I encountered questionable data on peer influence metrics, which is based on Forrester's North American Technographics Empowerment Online Survey, Q4 2009 (US). The normal biases that arise in self-reporting (people generally tend to present themselves and their actions in a favorable light) are compounded when one is asking people - in an online survey - about how much online influence they have. I would expect natural "inflationary pressures" would lead respondents to overestimate the number of friends and followers they have, the frequency with which they post social media messages (e.g., Facebook or Twitter status updates) and the percentage of those messages that are about products and services.

To their credit, Forrester provides disclaimers on its web page for the survey, which very carefully highlight the sources of sample bias:

Please note that this was an online survey. Respondents who participate in online surveys have in general more experience with the Internet and feel more comfortable transacting online. The data is weighted to be representative for the total online population on the weighting targets mentioned, but this sample bias may produce results that differ from Forrester’s offline benchmark survey. The sample was drawn from members of MarketTools’ online panel, and respondents were motivated by receiving points that could be redeemed for a reward. The sample provided by MarketTools is not a random sample.

TheTippingPoint-cover Taking a cue from Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book, The Tipping Point, the potentially biased survey data is used primarily to establish categories of Mass Connectors - the 6.2% of online users who generate 80% of the online impressions (status updates) across social media streams, each clocking in with an average of 537 followers and making an estimated 18,600 impressions per year - and Mass Mavens - the 13.4% of online users who generate 80% of the online posts (blog posts, blog comments, discussion forum posts, and product reviews), clocking in with 54 product or service-related posts per year (vs. the overall average of 6 per year).

Now, just to be clear, as someone who ardently believes that all studies and models are wrong [including my own], but some are useful, I believe that these are useful categories, and while I might question the actual numbers, I do believe that some people are more influential - as mavens and/or connectors - than others. However, I think it's important to note that there are significant questions about the extent of influence mavens and connectors have. For example, Clive Thompson's Fast Company article, Is the Tipping Point Toast?, contrasts Gladwell's focus on an elite few with Duncan Watts' more expansive idea of the connected many with respect to the sources of real influence in society. And given more recent views expressed by Gladwell this week in a New Yorker article on Twitter, Facebook and social activism: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, I suspect he may have reservations about his categories of influentials being mapped onto social media at all.

Slack-getting-past-burnout-busywork-and-the-myth-of-total-efficiency The reason I delve so deeply into this issue is that I actually believe that the influence of the connected many is better aligned with the overall message of Empowered than the elite few, and that the authors do themselves - and their message - a disservice via this detour in an otherwise engaging and enlightening book. They talk of efficiency in many places where I think they - and their readers (and clients) - would be best served by focusing on effectiveness (as Tom DeMarco effectively focuses on in his book, Slack). Should HEROes only focus on addressing their efforts toward the Mass Mavens and/or Mass Connectors? That would be efficient, I suppose, but would probably not be very effective.

As an example, another compelling case study described in Empowered is the experience of Dave Carroll, a "not-very-well-known local musician" from Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose guitar was allegedly broken by United Airlines baggage handlers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on March 31, 2008. Dave responded by recording and posting a trilogy of songs, United Breaks Guitars, on YouTube (the first one, which now has over 9 million views, is embedded below).

As far as I can tell, Dave Carroll - while certainly talented - was probably not very influential at the time he recorded that music video, and if United customer service HEROes (if they exist[ed]) were to focus their efforts primarily on Mass Mavens or Mass Connectors, the empowered response by Dave Carroll may have still slipped under their radar. And yet his video turned out to be very influential: according to the authors, Sysomos estimates that positive sentiment for United Airlines in the blogosphere decreased from 34% to 28% and negative sentiment increased from 22% to 25%, while the proportion of positive stories about United in traditional media went from 39% to 27% with negative stories rising from 18% to 23%. [I recommend Dan Greenfield's analysis of the the social media impact of the United Breaks Guitars video at SocialMediaToday for anyone interested in more details.]

I've written before about how everyone's a customer. I think the central message of Empowered is - or should be - every customer matters.

In another inspiring case study - and this is the last one I'll share here - Kira Wampler, former online engagement leader for the small business division of Intuit (maker of QuickBooks) and now a principal at Ants Eye View, said that her primary customer service goal at Intuit was not to deflect as many calls as possible, but "how do I get you unstuck as quickly as possible?" This reflects a wisdom so clearly articulated in Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users blog, e.g., her post on keeping users engaged, in which she so pithily promotes an empowerment strategy: Give users a way to kick ass.

As Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler convincingly show, customers have never been so empowered to "kick ass" as they are now. I hope that more businesses will follow their prescriptions to "unleash your employees, energize your customers and transform your business" ... or, as Kathy Sierra might put it, Give employees a way to kick ass!


The Starbucks Digital Network, Engagement, Enlightenment and Third Places

In a recent interview at TheGrill media and entertainment conference, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz extolled the virtues of video streaming and other proprietary media that will soon be made available via free Wi-Fi on the Starbuck Digital Network. At the end of the interview, he briefly mentions the unique opportunity that Starbucks offers as a third place in America. Offering customers more engaging content through their wireless devices while they are in the stores may well represent some unique opportunities for the content providers and consumers. However, it is likely to diminish the real-world conversation, sense of community and potential for serendipitous enlightenment that are central elements to the ideal of a third place.

Ironically, in a blog post by Josh Dickey about Schultz' interview at The Wrap, Schultz is quoted as saying

We’ve got to completely allow ourselves to engage in conversations that we’d normally be afraid of.

As might inferred from my earlier post about the coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I completely agree with this sentiment, and while this new network - and Starbucks' extensive social media presence - may promote online conversations, it is likely to do so at the expense of the kinds of interactions traditionally cultivated in coffeehouses. I won't rehash that entire earlier post, but I would like to review a bit of context about "third places":

Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

In his interview, Schultz speaks glowingly about values, guiding principles, emotional connection and customer loyalty. He talks about research showing how Starbucks customers had traditionally used Wi-Fi primarily for synching email, but increasingly use Wi-Fi in more "engaging" ways. He shows a slide highlighting the ways that Starbucks has become "a powerful force" in social media, and is clearly excited about how they will now take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by "captive" customers in their stores. He talks about the 9 million people who have registered a Starbucks Rewards card and the potential for integrating a "national physical footprint" with a new digital network. But as far as I can tell, all these new developments will simply promote more public privatism, portable cocooning and the more effective use of devices as interaction shields through which people can be alone together and enjoy joint solitude.

StarbucksSocialMedia-TheWrap

All of this is all the more ironic given another video I recently watched (not in a Starbucks) - Steven Johnson's TED talk about Where Good Ideas Come From - highlighting the importance of the "liquid networks" and serendipitous interactions in traditional coffeehouses to the evolution of innovative ideas:

The English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment ... it was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share [ideas] ... An astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.

I have shared positive perspectives in the past about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership and my own Starbucks experience. And I have written about the research and development through which I have partnered with others to design and deploy technology to promote conversation and community in coffeehouses (although this work was focused primarily on independent coffeehouses). The new Starbucks Digital Network may provide many benefits to many stakeholders - especially those in the media and entertainment industry - and I have no doubt it will promote digital engagement and perhaps even enlightenment, but it is largely incompatible with the idea of Starbucks serving as a true third place.

But who knows? Maybe someone will watch Steven Johnson's video while sitting at a Starbucks, and decide to disengage from the Wi-Fi long enough to expose themselves to the potentially enlightening people and ideas surrounding them right there in the store.


Creativity, Distractability and Structured vs. Unstructured Procrastination

I have been practicing structured procrastination while allowing a few blog posts to, uh, ferment a bit longer (not to mention other things I want to get done). As evidence, after reading Jonah Lehrer's recent post about unstructured procrastination - Are Distractable People More Creative? - I feel inclined to write about that, rather than finish the other partially composed posts ... not to mention other important items on my todo list. But I'll postpone writing about unstructured procrastination until I write a bit about structured procrastination.

Several years ago, I encountered Stanford Philosophy Professor John Perry's inspiring account of structured procrastination, which offers a more elaborate and erudite rationalization of a practice that I'd previously justified by way of British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's famous quote:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

image from www.structuredprocrastination.com Perry defines structured procrastination as a practice in which one chooses to postpone working on the most important thing(s) one needs to do by working on other, less important, things. He finds that he can be tremendously productive by this dynamic prioritization, getting all kinds of things done while avoiding the thing(s) he thinks he should really be doing.

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Drive-DanielPink Gtdcover Although Perry doesn't describe it this way, having read and written about Dan Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (in the same post - ironically in this context - that I also wrote about David Allen's book, Getting Things Done ... which I still haven't read), I believe that Perry's practice of structured procrastination may be an unconscious prioritization of intrinsically motivating tasks over extrinsically motivated tasks: choosing to do things he wants to do, such as writing the essay, while postponing other tasks that others want him to do, such as grading papers or ordering textbooks. And as Pink points out, through his review of several studies, intrinsic motivations typically win out over extrinsic motivations. [Note that I do not mean to imply that Pink promotes or even condones structured procrastination; I'm quite sure Allen would not.]

Returning to Lehrer's rumination on the costs and benefits of distraction, he defines latent inhibition - the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant - and cites a 2003 study showing that decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals, i.e., people who are more distractable may also be more creative. However, he points out that the study includes the important caveat that "low latent inhibition only leads to increased creativity when it’s paired with a willingness to analyze our excess of thoughts, to constantly search for the signal amid the noise" [and I'll note that one of my fermenting posts is all about signal vs noise]. Having recently been inspired by Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, I'm glad he is not promoting distractability ... or, at least, not promoting unrestricted or unstructured distracability.

I would define distractability as a form of unstructured procrastination. Whereas structured procrastination is working on - or attending to - things that are important, but not the most important things, unstructured procrastination may involve attending to things that are not important at all (i.e., completely irrevelevant). Indeed, this blog post itself may be more of an example of unstructured rather than structured procrastination ... but I'm going to postpone further consideration of that train of thought ... and having indulged my impulse to fire off a quick blog post, I will turn my attention back to other, potentially more important, tasks.