11.24.2007

The mistake

I'm showing my Touch to one of my brothers in law and he plays around with it and then tells all about the Nokia similcrum that's waiting for him in a package at home. Yeah,it's bigger but it has all these other things you can add on. He seems to lose interest in my toy when I tell h that that's all there is, no addons in view. He isn't the same kind of user as me. He's buying devices. He has seven mp3 players that he sorts different types of content among. He's generous in accommodating design flaws. I'm not. My 16 year old played with the touch for a few minutes in a Starbucks and she understood the package immediately-- and somewhat offensively said that I wasnt really the target market (she was, she sez). Like iPod and iTunes from the start, the product is a designed experience. So, she sez, with that trademarked heavy-lidded incredulity, "They just made guesses?? They just guessed what people would want to do with it??! That is so random!"

But that is exactly it. Its a nice package of supremely confident guesses. And for me anyway so far all the guesses are correct.

So what's the mistake? It's in evaluating the objects in terms of technology rather than the integrated package of process and tool and use.

11.01.2007

Community Landscape

There's a confusion rolling around right now about the difference between a community (as a group distinguished by a shared interest) and the software that supports the current style of online community tools. Communities have made use of a wide variety of communications channels since the year dot. We're just adding to the channel options right now. And like the telephone, some of these tools and tricks are profoundly changing the behavior of communities. But I don't think they're changing what a community is.

I've been involved in online communities for more than 15 years now, since when your email address was a string of numbers (remember CompuServe?).

Anyone involved in a discipline requiring audience analysis and the analysis of communication channels develops a keen understanding of the attributes of a community.

Here are some examples of different styles of online communities for later discussion:
  • A forum for experts on hot button topics
  • A reference resource for specific types of business advice
  • A user group
  • A group of employees of a single company
  • A working group
  • A national sales organization, out in the field
  • A team of catastrophe adjusters in the field
  • The admins in a large company
  • Wine collectors
  • Yacht owners
  • Bentley owners
  • The members of a family trust
  • Usability experts

It's a mixed bag, but each has its distinct online channels.

Next: More on each and the difference and similarities.

9.29.2007

Twitter meets Corporate America

I'm posting this to find people working on cracking the same nut -- I need to share ideas and I need to share my pain.

I work for the Man.

I'm selling Twitter internally as a solution to some enterprise channel needs and it's a slog. First, it's free -- very hard to sell. Second, it's outside -- what if it stops? Third, it's hard to understand -- what are you talking about? or worse, they listen hard and still don't get it but think they do and start talking about it in a way that just won't be successful. But god bless em, they're trying.

Underlying these small barriers is the big, intransigent one: the people I need to persuade don't understand the concept of Channels.

Oh, BTW, here's a magnificent discussion of Twitter on the threshold -- if you're interested in Twitter, you should not miss this. I am a big Blue Whale Labs fan. But, hey, Stowe and Greg, your wonderful PDF White Papers do me more harm than good in the corner offices. I need less truth and elegance and more "ROI solutioning." (I kid you not - When I hear it, I imagine the speaker slowly dissolving entirely into a liquid medium: I took Chemistry at Berkeley and I know what a v.t. form of "solution" is likely to mean. I took Linguistics there also. )

I'm telling open-minded people to think of Twitter as a kit of Zoobs. It's a bundle of tubes that can be connected to many types of junction (one to one, broadcast, many to many, back and forth, etc.), ending up at most types of communication hatches (phone, web, SMS, RSS). And it's pretty non-denominational.

It's too open and too free for the corporate person, however smart, to grok -- at least right away. There must be a catch. It's clearly something that IT should approve, but if they don' t need to be involved...or do they. People get fearful.

Anyone else trying to do this?

9.28.2007

A Fabulous Thread: Parts is Parts

I'm about to give you a link to a magnificant discussion now underway -- you can actually hear the egg cracking open. Thank you, Leslie Elledge, for the alert.

Watch him challenge entrenched concepts and categories: and watch him be right. It's rare and it's great. Here he is: JeffCroft.com and "the new layers of web development"

-- if you're not technical, hang in there anyway because this discussion provides you with a nicely compact tutorial on the component parts of a working web site -- and you do need to understand that model if you're going to work here.

I remember opening a copy of InfoWeek and having a folded up poster tumble out into my lap -- it was an illustration for an article outlining the ISO layers: what they were called, what they were for, what the alternatives within each were. I grabbed it like a shipwrecked moviestar grabs a piece of floating furniture. I tacked it on the wall. I studied it often. I cribbed from it. I put my lunch in front of it every day as an offering.

When my husband started selling training programs to network hub companies and their neighbors in Silicon Valley (business training, not technical training), I gave him a tour of my wall poster and ceremonially handed it over to him. He tacked it on his wall. He's been using it to amaze his routerhead clients with his astonishing grasp of their business environment.

Sometimes you find the one perspective that makes everything easier -- and I think this is another one.

Newsletters in the Inbox

I was editing a "real" magazine when the tidal wave of desktop publishing hit the consumer market. The newsletter as we know it was born. Early ancestors of the blog, the newsletter suffered from that most hideous of curses -- design flexibility. And believe me, it was flexed. Until its spine broke. Okay, so newsletters got a bad reputation as a result. Like one notch above the mass-produced Christmas letter in terms of egotistical editorial endeavor -- and that Christmas letter had suddenly become -- what? -- the Rognar Family Newsletter!

My editorial co-conspiritor at that time, Les Cowan, actually went on to be editor of a magazine called -- oh so self-referential! -- "Desktop Publishing." (With the editorial stance of: "We do this so you don't have to" I suppose.) Here's a newsflash: novelty happily wears off pretty soon.

But newsletters remain. And I found myself sucked into a project that required me to puzzle out this question: where does the newsletter end and the email marketing begin? What exactly is a subscription when I'm more incented to send it to you than you are to read it? Seems like a fruitful topic for examination. After three years of practicing and testing, I'm still examining it.

So I met a fellow online (properly introduced) who has the right stuff and has some experience with the magazine/newsletter/email/subscription nexus, and we got into a conversation about it. His name is Vince Golla, and I'm still waiting for his next comment, but I wanted to talk about it here a bit.

Here's what I said to Vince:

"I'm interested in finding a better way to present a "magazine" style experience via a web browser -- or something that takes the essence of that special experience and improves upon it - have you done any thinking about this? Our solution was to handle each issue as a standalone microsite, to minimize distractions from the key messages that were most important at that moment in time -- using a stripped down web format to really suppress the interconnectivity of the web presesntation and force it into a more focused box -- it made for a 10 minute monthly bite of info for the audience (which helped with repeat visits), and the glories of cross-links were right under the surface -- one link down. (See, I don't think a website is the same animal as a magazine -- and I see the same sort of thinking in your online magazines). I'm pleased with how that worked, but am still interested in other approaches.

I've also been thinking about the interesting interface bumptop (bumptop.com) -- which is presented as a desktop, of course -- but what about if it wasn't used for a desktop (I already have a desktop that works pretty well right in front of me) but was used instead as a form of magazine presentation? I'm really interested in this -- I'm sure you've been at editorial meetings where the issue's articles are being sorted, sequenced, rearranged, deferred to next issues -- needs for sidebars are uncovered in these discussions, and in general the group does a mashup on the issue's projected content.

How about if the online magazine offered this type of "push it around and arrange it as you like" interface, in addition to the more formal serial interface? For a very conservative model, I've been interested in the eBook concept for digital magazines for years, but SO clunky and prioprietary -- have you seen the web site: http://www.websitemagazine.com/ look on the low left side for the "sample digital issue" -- they've applied the eBook model to a flash presentation -- one big drawback, though -- could it possibly load more slowly?

And what about offering both interfaces for the same magazine and letting the reader choose? Why not?"

Why not, indeed? But Vince is busy right now, so I'm waiting for his next comment. In the meantime, I decided that it was time to look at the face of the world beyond my own inbox. I sent out a call for help via LinkedIn's new question feature:

Constructing a list of very good and very bad online magazines/newsletters/subscription sends -- do you have any examples to share?

I got 17 direct replies and about 150 examples sent to my inbox. All the examples sent were in the good category -- I can say categorically that no one remembers the name of a bad email newsletter. It's kind of the opposite of the Anna Karanina definition of families (remember? All good families are the same, all bad families are different?) In this case, all the good ones were very different from each other in any way you can think of, and the bad ones were all the same: "They were bad -- I don't remember them."

I'm still paging through the examples, but I promise an analysis at some point soon -- Oh, and in a tidy coincidence, a v. smilar topic has just popped up in Ask E.T: Recommended Magazine Layouts...

Oh, and I can tell all question-responders to knock it off on the "it depends" answer, designed to show off your own excellent analytic skills. Of course it depends, you nitwits, why do you think I'm asking for concrete examples? I bet their spouses are delighted that they're addicted to the internet. I can hear them now: "Honey, do you think we should talk to Sara's teacher about her appalling grades?" "Well, now..." pause for puff on pipe "I think it really depends, dear." rich chuckle "You have to consider what the teacher is trying to tell us when she sends those grades home -- of course our response would depend on our understanding her motivations." He'd be killed if it were me the mother of Sara -- but no, she's taken the easy way out and pushed him out of bed and towards his computer in the family room and here he is answering my question with the same kind of self-insulating, conditional, nonsense.

This passion has roots in that primal self-loathing -- it's the preening type of answer I was guilty of before I caught myself in a little self-examination. The answer you should be writing is to "tell" not to "show."

More on newsletters soon.

9.17.2007

Online Ephemera

Darryl Siry writes about a wish for exploding emails in his blog, Marketing 2.0. I started thinking about how very limited our settings are for the email communication channel, and also how rigid the walls are between different types of online communication channels. I started writing about this in a response to his post, and just to be really annoying, I'm going to copy it here:

"You're talking about establishing a set of "types" for email, I think, and the one you describe is the "ephemeral" or perhaps "touchback" email -- yeah, I wish they would just dissolve after a day or so -- I'd put subscriptions that arrive in email in the same type.

LinkedIn has recognized the issue of time value in a communication by offering the sender the option of withdrawing a message -- but you know they're not digging into someone's email inbox to extract a sent message.

It's an information architecture for electronic messages -- you're asking for type-specific features: Dissolve, for instance, or I can add, file or strip attachment or announce yourself in red -- some of these are built in to email clients now, but they're all receiver-set. Your innovation here is to recognize that this is a mature enough medium to drive some standards that we can all agree on and so can set up some new sender-set categories (aside from URGENT and DO NOT FORWARD)that help us all with inbox overload.

My husband teaches this stuff day in and day out so it's a nearby concept for me. Yeah, it's a great idea -- I'm sending you an email and I know because I'm smart that the message is ephemeral and should fade if not read in an hour, so I have that setting on my email client -- and the mail will disappear if not read in that time.

I'm sure there are other useful categories that we can all agree on -- and here's the inevitable question -- Is it technology or training? or a combination? Maybe this is finally the time for the etiquette of electronic messaging.

The messages you describe probably ought to be delivered in an IM type interface, rather than the lockbox of email -- or twitter perhaps. Isn't it time for all our messaging systems to start to integrate with each other based on our communications intentions rather than the type of application interface I happen to have open at the moment?

I send a lot of IMs into email inboxes, and I send messages that should be leaving an audit trail into an IM conversation, just because that's where the conversation started...I think this is a cresting issue."

I'm still thinking about this. I spend some minutes each week explaining to some colleague what Twitter is. I've come to decide that it's just a pipe with a very small diameter -- and you can set up the pipe to send from or receive to a wide variety of -- what? -- sinks? clients? It's so fun because it's like Legos or Hot Wheels tracks or Zoobs. For a while,you can amuse yourself just setting it up and taking it down again. (Reminds me of the ancient Kliban cartoon that was captioned, "Henry could amuse himself for hours with a pencil," and it showed a dazed looking fellow standing up and holding out a pencil for inspection.)

But the concept that sticks in my head is this: we're very hide-bound about the ways things work right now when it comes to communication channels, very conservative.

The phone rings, you answer it. People tell my husband all the time that they'll be fired if they don't answer all their e-mail. (It's probably for a different reason, BTW) I've watched my pre-teen daughter try to juggle tens of IM sessions at the same time, growing increasingly frantic as I hear the dings and the doors. When I looked over her shoulder, every single one of them was dull to the point of absurdity -- to me at least. She did not seem to enjoy the experience much, but she never turned a chat away that I ever saw. You poke me,I answer?

Surely one of the things that will change as we move towards universal instantaneous connection is this one: At some point, the receiver gets to say, "No, Thank You." I think manners is going to have this one turned around: It will be rude to get all snitty when you don't get an immediate reply.

My godmother, Mary, is like that, and I love her very much for her understanding. "Oh, heavens!" She says, "I don't know how you young people manage these days. But do stay in touch."

9.16.2007

Why Can't You Start Building the Web Site?

For any site, basic target audience definitions (personas), content goals, and site-specific content categories mark a starting point for the development of content strategies, information architecture, and a site’s content plan.

Are all these things necessary? No, they are not necessary to build a site.

But they are necessary to build a successful site.

Without these elements, the site has no defined role in the business strategy. There is nothing material to measure that would demonstrate the success of the site. The task of collecting content for the site will always be an exhausting and demoralizing scramble.

The first step in planning for a web content strategy (or any web strategy), is to invest in the development of these elements in sequence:

  • Business goals with respect to the target audience,
  • Target audience definitions (personas),
  • Content goals that support the business goals, and
  • The content categories that will create a connection between the voice of the web site and the person who represents the target audience for the site.

These elements are also the first step in assessing a site’s ROI, both for investment in content development and all other investments in the site.

The most crippling gap in this sequence of planning elements is this: Specific business objectives.

If the site’s sponsors have not identified specific enough business objectives, it will not be possible to determine how they relate to the target audience – and that connection must be clear before anyone can create clear and specific content goals for the site. As a result, the site will fail.

Some Specific Examples

Chances are good that your subject matter experts already have a good idea of the audience persona (keep in mind that their assumptions ought to be tested with some validating research.

For instance, a starting point might be:

Real Estate Product Persona

Real estate owners and property managers who control a medium to small portfolio of non-habitational real estate. Their primary concerns are maximizing revenue, minimizing expenses and providing services to tenants. They make the buying decision or have significant input.

  • We assume that this person really knows the business.
  • This person is over-extended, always responding to emergencies.
  • They are managing staff in several locations and may frequently face the loss of a key employee, like a building manager.
  • They choose the timing of maintenance and renovation investments.
  • They may not have the daily structure to schedule maintenance and inspections as systematically as they would like.
  • They are concerned about interest rates, the quality of their tenants, their contracts and changes in laws that affect them.
  • If they report to investors, they spend time developing these reports.

(And now you have something you can really work with as you think about how to build and populate the site)

Once the persona is defined, you must develop one or more specific business goals with respect to this target audience. “They will buy our product again” is not specific enough to drive a content strategy. “They will buy again out of loyalty” is an example of a specific enough business goal (though it's pretty minimal) – to support this business goal we can develop a content goal like:



“The Real Estate Tycoon will strongly identify with the voice of the site and will see and come to trust that the site’s voice is always sympathetic to his primary worries and that the site’s content will provide an immediate, usable action plan against his primary worries so that he can sleep better that night.”



Loyalty is an emotional quality, so the responsive content goal is likewise oriented to an emotional response.



A content goal that clearly states the nature of the connection between the specific business goal and the audience’s actual reality will permit the creation of a site content strategy and content development plan that is likely to succeed.



For instance, in the example above, the resulting content plan might call for the creation of an industry team persona (a sort of real estate Betty Crocker) who speaks to the site visitor as a person talking to another person. This is not hard to do, and if it is likely to create a sense of personal loyalty at the time of renewal, then it’s an idea worth testing. The content plan will include many such ideas:

  • The tone of the article headlines and intros is sympathetic rather than matter-of-fact.
  • Loss Control content for this site must include immediately usable action plans and must not include long-term maintenance advice.
  • Content must be focused on the top of the mind worries of this person, and must not include content that he would consider trivial (even if our Loss Control experts disagree).
  • Since we’re assuming he’s plagued with worries, we don’t want to publish the “gotcha!” Lessons Learned on this site – these are the stories of tiny errors creating large losses.

The selection or commissioning of content itself should be easy with an adequate content plan.



A more business-like example of a persona-specific business goal that can feed a useful content goal is: “They will renew because they know that the loss-control tools that this vendors has supplied have saved them money in the past year and they expect the savings to continue.” This goal is not emotional – the responsive content goals will feature cost savings in the lead position.



What I refer to as content goals here are closely related to High Value Scenarios (HVS) in the world of interaction design.

For a site to be successful, its developers must see at least one specific business goal with respect to the target audience that can be accomplished, supported, or influenced by the intelligent use of web content or a web-based application. Further investment in content for a site for which we cannot articulate this connection does not make any sense.

Oh, and without the objective or goal, how in the world will anyone even know if it's been successful?

8.20.2007

The Emotional Appeal: Bambi

Contextual note: Pathos, Ethos, Logos, the trinity of types of suasion.

And for today, Pathos. The appeal to the emotions.

Once upon a time, when I was consulting in communications strategies, I had a client, a very nice organization, a non-profit who hired my company to provide advice and training for their directors in their pursuit of money, the annual capital campaign. They already had enough money to pay us, happily. They knew they could do better in these annual campaigns, so they were looking to tap into our expertise.

So the first thing we did was arrange to tour around their many sites in the greater San Francisco area, to get an idea of what they were asking for money to actually support. They were wonderful about the tour, very friendly, knowledgable, clearly passionate about their work -- and here's a surprise -- they were all friendly knowledgable and passionate. I began to wonder about their fabulous recruiting process -- usually there are a few clinkers. So we met tens and twenties of friendly, knowledgable and passionate staff members, and toured tens and twenties of sites, centers, and programs.

And what they did there, what they did for each community they became part of -- well, it was what was needed, whatever was needed. Childcare, preschool, after school teen basketball leagues, esl classes, temporary housing, a subsidized lunch, a safe place to meet up with your kids, parenting classes, swimming classes, summer school, elder outreach, social dancing, bridge tournaments, whatever.

Okay, so I'm ready to write a check at this point.

We go talk to the program directors -- the people who needed training in how best to ask for money in this capital campaign. We asked, "Who are you asking?" and it turned out to be foundations, big local companies, civic organizations, whatever, whereever. They had all the speaking dates and appointments, they just weren't sure what to say.

So, a little non-plussed (seemed obvious to us, but then, we're the experts...), we arranged for a three day training session and wrote the curriculum. And the day dawned, we all showed up and got to work on helping these kind people learn to ask for money by tugging on heart strings.

And it was really hard. They really didn't want to. They were hoping we'd give them charts, a cost benefit analysis, a way to reach the cynical and hard-bitten on their own terms. So, we also did that, but never swerved from our recommendation -- use pathos, not logos. Or if you just can't bring yourself to use emotion, then at least use ethos -- speak from your own authority as a person.

There wasn't any solid logic available to them, but they had a powerfully compelling case. They were just uncomfortable about presenting it that way.

We had twelve people to train, and they all felt this way -- it just didn't seem fair. It felt manipulative, it felt undignified. We showed them the video tapes of their arguments based on emotion -- they were good -- they'd work! And yes, they agreed that this was so...but still. And that was the end of the first day.

We went back to the office, puzzling over how to rehabilitate the argument to the emotions, how to make it professionally respectable.

The next day, we showed up with a newly edited tape for the group and we started off with a quiz: "We're going to show you an argument and you're going to tell us if it's to the emotions, to logic or based on a person's authority." Okay, they all agreed, as nice as ever. And we rolled the tape.

A minute later we stopped the tape and said, "Well?" The hands shot up, and we had an excited discussion. We rolled the tape again, stopping it after thirty seconds: another lively discussion. A minute, 30 seconds, a minute, a minute, 15 seconds. More discussion, more excitement.

By the first break, the group had figured it all out. After the break, we had them do their presentations again, leaning on the emotional appeal, as we'd taught the day before -- and they were GREAT! Dignified, professional, and very heart-rending. They told tales about specific children and how their organization's services had made a difference in their lives, specific seniors, people ill unto death, new immigrants, a whole collection of specific faces came out in their presentations, and it was great. They added on -- going to places we couldn't lead them (after all, we're not altruists, and can only think along those lines so far...). They talked about how grateful they were personally to be able to put their life's work into these types of meaningful programs -- they turned the corner on the pathos and brought it back to ethos. Very elegant.

And what unlocked them? We showed them commercials. Commercial after commercial and asked them to apply the concepts of persuasion that we'd taught them the day before -- how is this company trying to persuade you? What type of appeal? Did it work? Why did it work? How could they have made it work?

All the participants jumped in to this fascinating parlor game -- not just watching commercials, but evaluating them. And they saw that the argument to emotions is very powerful, very commercial, and it can be very dignified.

Somehow, the commercials gave their own campaign for donations a sort of commercial validity, and they saw that to fail to use all the tools that capitalism uses to sell a sponge would be no service to their noble organization.

They had a very successful annual campaign that year, and for years after.

Rhetoric and IA: I see no differences

Okay -- that's why I called it Rhetoric - IA. I actually have a university degree in Rhetoric -- it's right there on the diploma -- from Berkeley, no less. I really like the idea of becoming expert in rhetoric in the city that deplores its use. But it's okay, I'm a Berkeley native, so I guess whatever I do anywhere is a reflection on my home town.

I had a point to make, however -- I wanted to illustrate the complete overlap between the two disciplines, and it's a celebration of sorts because it looks like there's finally a real job that goes right to the heart of what I love. AND OH YES I love rhetoric -- it's engineering with words. I was an exhausted engineering student when I stumbled into my first rhetoric class: Rhetoric 30, taught by Dan Melia -- and I was a deer caught in the headlights after that.

It was an article of faith that half of the class (which was the introduction to the basic principles of rhetoric) did not stick around to the end, but I really didn't notice. I moved my seat from the back to the front row and came early and stayed late. It was amazing to me that people, other people, really thought this way, and I'd been hiding my bizarre compulsion to analyze communications all these years...and now I could get A's with it. After the first passion, I noticed that my former engineering classmates thought my new discipline was ridiculously difficult -- and yes, it's not for anyone who isn't just fine generating reams of prose. (et tu blogosphere?)

And people were passionate about it, too. Dan hated the deconstructionists -- and he thought I should too, but I was actually blown away by the ideas -- and I'm still deferring my judgment on this philosophy...maybe it's the way communication is indeed mediated by the web...maybe the writer disappears into the text...maybe the reader is the one doing the writing. That's what's going on in user experience one-on-ones, after all. But Dan was all about the page and the podium, not the web. And the medium is the message after all.

The deconstructed web is the coldest place of all (in media terms) -- particularly the web environment of an anonymous corporate site.

So the curriculum lead the little student sheep along the path of the classics -- We actually studied Aristotle in the same way a mechanic would study a Merck's Manual. Here's the piston, here's the camshaft, here's the pathetic trope, here's the catharsis, now you do it. Then we looked at Plato -- not all of him, just a few dialogues, but what dialogues they were: Gorgias!!! My darling Gorgias, gorgeous Gorgias.

Okay, now this is reealy important in today's evil world: Plato held that no one could be allowed to take up the hideously powerful tools of rhetoric unless they had first been grounded in and ground down by the puffing, strutting strictures of Ethics. Like handing a gun to a -- what? an evil person, I suppose. Here's a digression: long long before Jesus and his Good News, Plato was the earliest person I've read who clearly believed in the transforming power of having something explained to you. So, he didn't say that only good people should get to use rhetoric -- his desire was far more mechanical -- only people who had been lectured to about Ethics should get to use rhetoric. I hear and obey, master.

But, you know, Berkeley is always conservative and obedient, so, in tune with the Platonic stricture, we sheep were also dipped in the bath of Ethics before we were turned loose with our weapons. Now, this was in the early 80's, when Greed was Good -- in fact, it was at Berkeley, just across campus, in that same window of time, that Mr. Boesky was busy telling a B-School class that very thing. The rise of the faceless giant corporation -- what are one's moral obligations with respect to non-human entities? That wasn't covered.

Next time: Bambi, the pathetic.

7.25.2007

The Cult of the Amateur

I'm going to have to buy this book. I don't even know if the author is just noting the trend or deploring it or celebrating it. Here's my one-line bias: we're all amateurs -- it's just a matter of degree. The rhotoric training keeps me unable to draw that line between expert and know-nothing. In a deconstructionist way, it's the quest for expertise that itself creates the expert, the student who creates the teacher, just as the reader creates the text.

So, Wikipedia has always seemed to me to be a fine place to find a "fact." But that's because I don't actually believe that a "fact" can make it intact through its negotiation with language and all its variants, colors, and degrees of lister inattention. So, this current view of the demise of expertise has me puzzled -- did it ever really exist? Surely we've always needed to be careful not to be taken in by the plausible blowhard.

7.20.2007

Web 2.0 Expo: Stowe Boyd on Building Social Applications

Attendee Notes: Abby Shaw (abbyshaw@earthlink.net)

This 3 hour workshop provided a walkthrough of the current state of “social applications.” There were about 700 people in attendance and the discussion was lively.

A Social Application is one designed to guide human behavior into paths and patterns, to counter prevailing ways of interaction. These can also be called Social Tools and can be defined as software intended to shape culture. In the “post everything” world, the environment of the social application can be called the ‘new third place.’

The individual is the new group. Social tools speak to the perspective of “me first.” The sequence goes: Me to Mine to Market (see drawing below)
In this case, Market is not just buying and selling, but “something” that is being exchanged. The goal of social applications is to make that sharing more liquid.
While the standard computer interaction is as a large central service dictating the terms of the interaction, the social tool, in order to be successful, must operate differently. This difference can be called “bottom-up belonging.” “The edge dissolves the center.” The dominance of the person and the person’s needs in the market success of a social application leads to a situation where the traditional “large central service” can no longer dictate the terms of the interaction. Only the person’s satisfaction with the interaction can drive success. In this sphere, usability is not just a good idea, it is an absolute requirement.

Satisfy the person’s needs first, then get to the market, then get to the payoff. These edge-in approaches to markets are degrading the power of the center (e.g., the death of newspapers, the decay in television viewing).

“Belonging” comes from a person-to-person relationship, not from an organizational affiliation. Formal affiliations are declining (see Robert Putnam’s book, has “bowling league” in the title.); fewer people are becoming Kiwanis. What’s taken the place of these organizational affiliations are “ad hoc affiliations,” in which people join together to accomplish a shared objective and then disengage. This distinction calls for some defined terms:

• Groups are defined, have boundaries, may have rules, are “symmetric”(?)
• Groupings are assemblages of people with similar interests.

Social tools provide mechanisms to enable groups, groupings, affiliations, etc.

(See notes for more on comparison between traditional “domain” oriented applications and those oriented to serve the needs of the individual.)

Many popular web tools are semi-social or asocial. iTunes, for instance, is a big, impersonal database. Aside from the ability to create compilations, there is no person-to-person interaction. (One workshop exercise was to imagine what a social version of iTunes would be like.) Other asocial or less social sites are Best Buy, and Pandora (now adding changes), and other sites that have added social elements after the fact are: eBay, Amazon, Netflix, and BaseCamp.

These add-ons are ineffective, as the social aspects are not core to the tool’s value, and additional social features are hard to continue to add as needed. It is better to build for the social needs from the ground up.

When developing a social tool, keep in mind that the desktop environment is the world that instant messaging has made. For many, their workstyle is based on a new type of interruptive collaboration. The model is one of being available to help move the whole group’s work along, rather than sticking to being personally productive. This difference in workstyle is creating some generational and cross-industry conflict right now. Is it better to give up some personal productivity to move the network’s productivity forward? Group productivity is a new target: called (by fans) “the 21st century paradigm.”

In this model, the value of the network is the number of connections (? Not sure I agree…?). IM and mobile IM (texting + Twitter) have replaced email for some workers – people under 25 regard email as a tool used by parents and schools – a medium of authority, not collaboration. In fact, kids, always on their cell phones, tend to ignore their voice mail. Ray Lane, COO of Oracle, asked about the requirements for the success of a collaboration product, once said, “Sometimes an entire generation needs to die off before change can happen.”

NOTE: Social tools do not replace the need for or urge towards off-line meat-space interactions. (Personal note: among the mobile, I’ve noticed that texting is replacing IMing for some people – the power of mobility is very strong.)

The social architecture described is completely different from the standard domain architecture now in use, which is mostly based on and centered in the design of the central database, with functions radiating outward. Now, the user experience needs to be the basis. For instance, people don’t want to run a database query, but they do want to ask a question – what they want is to temper the query through a social interaction.

The “mine to market” interaction can contain the payoff: the recommender can be paid for the recommendation. (As is an insurance agent.)

Audience Question: What about the perception of corruption, of co-opting if the advice is paid for?

If the payment is transparent and the value is honest, then there seems to actually be more weight given to the recommendation – the recommender is a professional, with a stake in the game. A key requirement is that the recommender be known to the community, able to stand by statements, proven out in history – open, open, open. Reputation is fragile, and it is an attribute of a person, not an organization.
Another positive example of this is the Amazon affiliation payment – this is not seen as a corrupt business relationship. A negative example of this is a campaign where a corporation is pretending to be a person – as with the Toyota Tahoe campaign (see notes on later presentation.)

What is the abiding motivator?

The wish for “Things” is a red herring (as is the generic “Content”). “Places” and the “People” who fill the places are indicators, but not motivators. “Discovery of self” is the central, dependable motivator – the self is the “still point at the center of the turning world.” Validated by the Franciscan nun who runs the highly popular Vatican web site.

People are trying to discover themselves and you can’t do that without people, so people aggregate themselves into “groupings” (ad hoc assemblages) to engage in discovery.

Chicken and Egg

We’ve got this functionality and no people – how do we get them to come? (Persistent question across the conference – no brainer to me: if the functionality fills a need, they will come – if you need recommenders to jump start the functionality, pay ‘em.)

When does the network join you, instead of you joining the network? (koan, but very important question.)

A key concept: flow networks. Flow networks are those you set up so that things flow to you rather than your continually going to them. Twitter is a (weak) example. RSS news feeds is another example – and older example is any type of workflow automation (as ours for governance) or white collar factories automated paper and form processing workflows. We’re all familiar with being in the midst of a flow network – this concept differs in that, with the “me” at the center, it’s you inserting yourself into a flow network – a flow network that serves your needs, rather than extracting step-wise work from you.

The inexorable power laws

Boyd posts a critical comment in his (popular) blog and within a few hours gets a call from the CEO of the company discussed (Mark Andressohn, Bradley Horowitz). This is power. There will always be more popular people and this popularity (esp with flow networks) can translate into power. (The reach of an opinion is much greater due to social networks.)

Vox populi is always vox humana. And what’s wrong with this type of power?
There will be gaming, people will always try to game the system – but systems will emerge that counter the cheating, if it’s not wanted. You can Digg it out, for instance. Don’t feed the troll is a good technique. Delete the abusers. But the best defense is the mechanism of reputation and “swarmth.” (Swarmth is the reputational warmth an individual gets from the swarm.)

How do you measure swarmth? How do you reward it? (unanswered question – except for earlier note about using reputation to earn money for recommendations, which applies here – also see below.) Harnessing nets: using swarm intelligence (digression to define, using old tale of jar of beans and fair guessing game.) Boyd points out that all nets are not the same in value – and asks the question: Is swarm fungible? No, it is not. Research shows (wish I had citation) that your reputation in one system does not carry over into another. (NOTE: Very Important for Thought Leadership advisor qualifications – should be respected IN INSURANCE.)

When the power of influential people grows, they want money. There is a 10,000 hour rule (wish I had citation): across all human endeavor, it requires 10,000 hours to gain real expertise in something (about nine years of professional time, btw). And people should be paid for their contributions when they have invested in that expertise.

The next section of the workshop focused on walkthroughs of examples of applications and tools that were more or less social, with evaluations of the success of their design.

Last.fm

This is a social application that lurks and captures. You join and you are introduced into a musical neighborhood, first based on what you say you like, but ultimately based on what you are playing on your computer and your iPod. Boyd found out that his musical tastes are those of a 23 year old British woman in Manchester. He finds no overlap with the people he knows and associates with in other communities. This is a true ad hoc grouping.

Purpose is to find new music that you are likely to enjoy and to provide a place for you to review music for a receptive community. Two layers: people participate by doing what they came to do (play music, look for related music) and people participate by creating content that is judged by standing in the community. (See later discussion of view only and creator visitors, ratios, etc.)

On the Chicken and Egg question, they did this right from the start. First created interesting groupings, then let the participants drive the ongoing shaping – the participants define what is a “musical neighborhood.” Compare to the rigidity of iTunes categories. This is an example of an emergent taxonomy – and since it is outside of a hierarchy (using tags), it is an emergent ontology.

This is a social motif, with an underlying domain application. For instance, if you write about a band in your last.fm blog, the site checks the spelling and creates a link to the band page or the actual song. There’s a back and forth in the way the social tool is used. Network effect is created.

But even a winner makes mistakes: Why aren’t the tags the source of the groupings? (That’s what tags are for). Instead, the site uses old-style groups. And, frustratingly, you can’t search for groups that you know you would be interested in. There are some groups with exclusionary rules (have to be invited? Don’t allow anyone who likes Madonna to see this group?)

Upcoming.org

Who is going to this event? (West coast phenom) As a participant in this site, you can ask: Which of my friends/associates are going to this event? You can view events by people attending, you can see a discussion thread about a specific event. The site is focused on one thing: Events, and it is oriented around the social dimension. (Note: it satisfies the needs of all the visitors around event-oriented information.)

Facebook.com

This is the most interesting large-scale social connection site (compare to Myspace and LinkedIn). In this application, you have many rich options that the others don’t offer: you can stream content from Facebook to an RSS feed, you can push updates to those interested and more and more. (LinkedIn is more limited – no stream, no blog, no pictures). Allows you to create layers of “mine” here in one place.

Photos, you can share things you find on the web.

Boyd used social networks to find more work in Europe – nothing from myspace, but 2 nibbles from Facebook and both well-defined groups that lead to new assignments.
(First mention of need to integrate all these multiple memberships, different instances of Me, different aspects of Mine. Call to Google to integrate what they buy. Also note Yahoo 360 as attempt to do this.)
Thisnext.com
Here is the social dimension of recommending cool stuff that people might want to buy. The role of being a recommender drives the whole site – this is not a catalog with a sidebar of recommendations as other sites are. Everything is tagged: people as recommenders, categories, things. The site drives you to participate by recommending. Individuals can become featured content by the richness of their contributions – which are voted on. (Voting is very important element of web 2.0 – Swarm intelligence )

You can see list aggregations automatically because of tagging.

Bad examples

Basecamp and federation of work

Federation of work is great idea – this is a bad site to support the concept. Why can’t I see all my Basecamp projects in one view? Independent of account. (work is an attribute of person, not project owner is his point.) I need a separate login for each project. This is stupid. This uses a pervasive static model, with hardly any flow.

I have no dashboard – and that’s stupid because a dashboard is obviously what I want. I can’t link to other projects – I must cut and paste. This is oppressive security. (what is a boundary case in this context?)

Identity issues

The real problem is in how do we share identities across tools? Multiple logins is an absolute barrier to the integration of the user experience. We need a more fine-grained control of identity, and we need to understand identity issues better: not just identity in the sense of permissions, but also in the control of identify exposure. Who knows what about who?

1. Trusted authority where you can register your identity
2. Being able to control your own identify exposure

Work is going on now with OpenID, which is a unique url that represents you and you alone. If adopted, this would provide a trusted ID authority where you can register your identity. (Many of the apps and tools shown at the conference and expo offered an OpenID registration option along with their native registration.).

Some discussion of the role of anonymity in the online world. Oddly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a group fanatical about openness) suggests in its guidelines that if you are employed by a company that will be sensitive (skittish was the actual word) about your expression of your opinions openly, then you should use an anonymous identity for open discussions. The use of an anonymous identity will undercut a key element of this social dynamic – your value as a recommender is evaluated according to the value of your opinions, and, unless your whole online life is through the avatar of your single anonymous identity, you will not be able to partake of this “halo effect.” (and even then, it would be tough to get speaking or consulting engagements.) It’s uncertain how meaningful and valuable recommendations are when they come from an anonymous source.

The halo effect is also called “personal bank building” (note, this concept is in opposition to the idea that reputation is not fungible.)

However, the problem of a single identity registration is necessary for the integration of flow applications. Once the id problem is solved, look for the flow applications to knit all this together.

Once there is a way to knit the whole together, you will see the collapse and the falling together of the different worlds. Except for the little, specific apps, you’ll see no more than 20 or 30 large social apps left. (To me, this is not yet clear)

Outsidein.com

This failure is an illustration of the need to get the tool past the tipping point. Outsidein was designed to be a hyper-localized social networking system. The need filled was “Who are the cool people who actually live near me and what do they recommend locally?” The site was launched too early. You could register, but the experience was: “Here’s Me, where’re the other people?” Don’t race to the market before you get the social dimension right – you will just have to relaunch and you’ll have taken a hit to your reputation that you may never recover from.

Wait for both the social features to be ready and for the concept to be fully functional. Without the social features, the site will die, because it will not have a way to spread. (Very relevant to plan for Thought Leadership)

It is a mistake to see content as static object that people will come to view: High Value Scenarios encompass all types of things, but there’s nothing that just sits there that satisfies a visitor’s need.

Last note on Yahoo: Yahoo provides a host of small-scale examples. Where’s the integration? Where’s the grand synthesis? Brad Horowitz asks Boyd to hang on and wait and see. What is the role of Yahoo and the larger companies in driving this integration?

Blinksale.com

The case of the missing market. Another try at the federated work environment: you put invoices in and send them via email: the recipient can log in and see a list of invoices. Very good for tracking, good for small businesses and freelancers.
But where is the market? You can see the “me” and the “mine.” The owners of the site had day jobs running a design agency, so they couldn’t help the site evolve and enrich – they didn’t have time to listen to the community’s feedback.
Why not charge a small percentage in exchange for acting as an online bank for the online payment of these invoices? That’s the linkage between “mine” and “market.”
Now a new site: lessaccounting.com has recently emerged, and its functionality eclipses blinksale’s. But still missing the underlying market. (Maybe it is all just ad revenue…?)

(book: Everything Bad is Good for You – Who is Steven Johnson?)

Stray Notes:

Place is an on/off affiliation marker.
Examples: Smalltalk (closed community) Message: Tech Writing, Slash ambivalence.
Dopplar (what is?) application: limited alpha, is a simple, does one little thing, whips passing in the night

Emergence and maturity of Tags as an indicator in a 3D taxonomy –aka Ontology: Who is David Weinberger? Community of tags idea.

Who is Andrew Keene? Book reference: “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenbury. Who is J.D. Lassika?
Who is Z. Frank? Who is Mike Arronton? TechCrunch

“Community” is a concept that refers to groups? Not groupings?
What’s the relationship here?


Building Social Applications
Stowe Boyd, the /Messenger of /Message, /Message
Conference description of session: Despite the widespread adoption of social applications –- social networking, file sharing, instant messaging, and blogs, to name only the most well-known—creating applications that foster social interaction is hard. It is altogether too easy to approach application development from an information management mindset and miss the greater social context: people interacting to accomplish personal aims, exploring their identity through social groups, and working in online marketplaces.
It is these three contexts—personal, group, and market – that form three complementary and distinct tiers of social applications. Users may opt to use an application for very personal reasons – signing up for a web filing sharing service to transfer a file to a colleague – but they become consistent users, and invite others to use the application, because of the social dimension: how well does the application support the users’ needs for social integration?
Effective social applications bring people into the foreground by making the social dimension intuitive and natural, and integrating information flow into the social. Information architecture must take a back seat to social architecture.
The workshop explores the principles of successful social applications, and presents a Social Architecture approach to model new—or remodel existing—applications. Examples of well-designed and successful social applications—including Flickr, Last.fm, Facebook, and Upcoming.org – are explored in the search for general characteristics and recurring design motifs. A number of badly designed sites are contrasted with “well-socialized” alternatives.
The workshop includes two group activities to explore the application of the approach in small team settings.
Creating social applications is hard. It's easy to miss social interplay and build information-centered applications instead. This workshop explores the key factors of successful social applications, and presents an approach to building them: Social Architecture. The workshop also includes group activities to explore Social Architecture in a team setting.
Conference description of presenter: Stowe Boyd: I am fascinated with social tools, and their impact on business, media, and society. I coined the term "social tools" in 1999, only a few months before I started blogging, and I have never looked back. Since that time we have witnessed the rise of social media, social networks, and all things tagged "social."
I spend most of my work life with companies that are building social applications, with specific focus on design, marketing, and strategic planning. I have a particular affection for start-ups, but I share my love with larger, more well-established companies, as well. The rest of my time is split between writing at /Message and speaking at various events, such as Reboot, Lift, Shift, Mesh, Enterprise 2.0, Office 2.0, Under The Radar, and Web 2.0 Expo, to name just a few from 2006 and 2007.

7.06.2007

Wearing Cranky Pants

February 20 was National Mean Mommy Day -- I heard it on the radio. Pro or Con? I wondered. Well, Pro, obviously -- aren't we all better people because our mommies were a little bit mean now and then? Actually, it's when my kid mutters about how mean I am that I am most confident that I am dispensing "deluxe" parenting. I was all for Mean Mommy Day because we don't seem to understand the benefits of crankiness.

Isn't crankiness the inevitable by-product of high standards? When your high standards aren't met, what are you supposed to do? Be sympathetic? Offer chocolate? Cry? Certainly not -- any response other than crankiness would be a betrayal of those high standards.

There's a real up-tick in the crankiness factor at our company lately. When you communicate with your team and colleagues, keep this in mind. I think we're all anxious to display our high standards. And this is a good thing, but it certainly changes the atmosphere of communication. More of us are wearing cranky pants and we expect our standards to be taken seriously.

There is a track to success in some large companies that consists of floating along, staying invisible, putting the time in. When I first came here, I seemed to stumble over these floaters on a regular basis. I came from a career track that required a need for speed, a built-in urgency, as do so many of our new hires. I still remember my reaction to finding that the proper response to the smallest barrier to meeting a deadline was a rueful shrug, a bland acceptance of delay, and a uninterruptable flow towards the car, the freeway, and home.

Well, I remember thinking, as I sank cozily into this comfy view of things, this is something beyond family friendly -- this is downright leisurely, and I tried on a new, slow pace gratefully. Everyone seemed so nice. If someone on a team didn't deliver, we didn't confront, but we carefully, sensitively, found a way around this person's limitations. How very nice.

But after a few weeks of relaxation, I began to chafe at this slo-mo mode. My work is me, not some chore to be evaded, but part of my life-affirming journey. I really did expect other people on my team to do their work -- I was getting fed up with being sensitive instead of successful.

I was in yet another meeting when I heard an employee whose work I admired mutter "GPS" with a disappointed shake of her head. GPS turns out to mean "Glacial Pace Syndrome," and I learned that others among us are cranky about our more leisurely colleagues' casual view of their work.

It was then that I realized that there is a cranky movement afoot. There are people who really want to do something meaningful with that enormous chunk of time we have sold to our employer. So here's my idea: If you are uncomfortable with GPS, identify yourself to the people you work with so we'll know who we are.

Let's all get cranky about the barriers we encounter. Let's wince in meetings when something stupid and obstructionist comes up. An then let's speak with one voice and vote the stupidity down.

It's honest. And it's irritability that produces the oyster's pearl, after all.

Think Again

Enough already! I am flooded with requests to write about irritations, rudeness, ridiculous timewasters. Everyone has his or her own rules about proper communications and is busy getting huffy about violators. As you know if you've ever been in marriage counseling, the prime cause of sour relationships is thoughtlessness, and the same is true here. The real problem is the absence of Clear Thinking, guys.

Tangled Strings

The highest volume sinner against clear thinking is e-mail. As we plow through our red inboxes we are vulnerable to the sort of thoughtlessness that is caused by a fear of becoming a bottleneck. Rush, rush with the response -- move it along. But really, if you look over your own e-mail inbox, you'll see that what is needed here is often not more hustle, but more deliberation.
I enjoy a good, juicy e-mail string the way other people like a soap opera. Here is drama, power, suspense! I've started collecting them.

I was privileged recently to review a lovely e-mail string that perfectly illustrates this problem. It started as a simple request by an employee for permission to revise an obsolete brochure posted on our intranet. The employee sent her request by e-mail to the person she was told to. The request was denied, the reason having to do with a "new policy." The employee wondered if there's a new policy to support the posting of obsolete information. So she wrote back, very politely, clarifying her request. She got the same answer back, but now the recipient's fairly rude response was copied to others, above and sideways.

Well, from then on, the whole thing ballooned. By the time the dust settled, two months later, the message passed through 18 mailboxes, scaled five organization levels, confused a vice president and two directors, and crossed and re-crossed into five different units.

Standing outside the issue, you can see where the simple attempt to communicate broke down: worries about "policy" expanded the distribution list beyond what was necessary because the recipient read the e-mail too fast and responded thoughtlessly. There are rules that help avoid time-wasters like this one:

  • Don't extend an e-mail string beyond three responses
  • Summarize the issue
  • Seek to resolve the issue, not just pass it along
  • Consider the distribution list carefully
  • Pick up the phone when you don't understand someone's e-mail

None of these rules of thumb, however, will protect our company against your failure to think clearly about what is going on right in front of you. Read and respond to e-mail with clear thinking firmly engaged.

The "Because" Factor

Maybe it's a sign of our times -- the victim mentality and all. What's wrong with communications at our company (I hear) isn't our ability to talk -- it's everyone else's ability to listen! Hmmm. Does it seem like you are writing memos to the void? Are your requests for support and assistance falling on deaf ears? Are your most heartfelt comments routinely ignored? Well, certainly, we are not as good at listening as we might be. In the press of business, we forget, lose sight of, and sometimes ignore what we've been told.

But the answer is not to complain about the quality of the listening around here; it's to learn how to communicate so that your words are heeded. People listen differently to different kinds of messages. So if you're being ignored, it says something about the way that you are communicating, and it's not good.

Here's an easy and effective tip: when you ask a person to do something, include the word "because" somewhere in your request. Stanford University invested a lot of time and money in an experiment that proved that people are far more likely to do what they are asked when they are told why. Even if the reason given is silly, circular or meaningless, it makes a big difference.

Stanford tested the response rates of people paying their bills when the bill had "Please pay your bill promptly" printed at the bottom. Then it compared this to response rates for bills that had "Please pay your bill promptly because it is due" printed at the bottom. People paid their bills promptly seven times more often when the word "because" was added to the statement. Seven times! Now that's an effective communications strategy!

And here's some extra logic: if you're asking for help, explaining why you need the help ("because") will engage your listener's intelligence and participation. Our last Pulse survey told us that our employees value collaboration, and want us all to do a better job of it. Well, that begins with the simple act of adding "because" to your requests for assistance.

The Honor of your Presence is Requested...

So your e-mail dings at you and you go look at what your net has caught, and there you see it: an invitation. It's nice to be invited: It means someone is thinking about you, doesn't it? But do you want to go to yet another meeting? Who is it this time, you wonder, and open it up. And there's nothing there, no purpose, no agenda, only a time and place and a list of your fellow sufferers: the hapless invitees. Or else there's only a trace of a comment, a scrap of justification for this person's casually ripping an hour out of your life.

Here's my pay-back fantasy: first, reserve a large conference room. Then write an invitation to a large group of random people -- just an invitation with a time and a location, nothing else. Then send it.

The day of the meeting arrives. You stand at the door and watch everyone file in. When everyone is settled, announce that this is a training class on "How to Attend Meetings." It a very short training: don't go to meetings unless you know why you're there.

Yes, I know, the fault is with the meeting inviters, not the meeting attendees. Yes, I know that the person who calls the meeting should set an agenda make it clear to you how you will be contributing, maybe even describe the goal of the meeting. All these things are true. However, one way to improve our meeting culture from the ground up is for you, the meeting attendees, to insist on these marks of courtesy. And to vote with your feet (or the "decline" button) if you don't get them.

And this is what you are responsible for: your use of your limited time. Professionally minded people keep an eye on the value that they are producing for the Company. Whenever you attend a meeting without first thinking about why you should be going, you are risking the Company's money.

And how much money is at stake here? Say you're at a one-hour meeting. Take an hour of salary for each attendee, then double that to account for benefits, desks, light and heat. That's a lot already, but there's an even more important cost: The lost opportunity to be working on other tasks that contribute to the company's goals. You can't do other work when you are sitting in a meeting. It's this lost productivity that is the highest cost of casually accepting meeting invitations. And you know how frustrating that is for you personally, as well.

Part of our ongoing commitment to employees is to encourage them to take responsibility for identifying and removing barriers to their most important work. Too many meetings form a very common barrier, so stand firm! Protect your precious time!

SPL PDQ or Else!

Excuse the twirling eyeballs -- I've just come from a small windowless room where twelve earnest people were all discussing our EVA under GAAP as a function of our NPW in AY vs. CY with a side dish of PEs for ECs, UW discipline, and the CID/PID SSCs' SP framework. Then we talked about ETS, LBMS, and the new IT SAS. "No wait, isn't SAS a kind of software?" one person asked, "Yes, so they changed the name to IT SA to avoid confusion," another person replied.

To avoid confusion. What a lovely goal. As I was leaving the meeting, one person noticed that I was looking disoriented and suggested that I call HR's EAP. ("EEP!" I thought.) But before I called for a therapist, I decided to sit down in a nearby cube for a moment. I saw a small plaque on the wall: "ACRONYM-FREE ZONE" -- and I relaxed.

We do it without thinking. We fall into the habit of this alphabet shorthand for common things. The problem is, when we do it without thinking, these mysterious codes can doom our attempt to communicate efficiently -- our listeners haven't a clue what we're talking about. And when we fail to think clearly in this way, we force our long-suffering listeners to ask, "What does SSEB (or PIR, or BRM, or EE, or ASA) mean?" And that may require more courage or energy (or interest) than they have.

Acronyms are okay if you think before you use them: graceless, ugly, hard to remember, but okay. If you aren't thinking about your audience when you use them, they drive a stake through the heart of communication. And they can intimidate, create resentment, make you look pompous and condescending, and cause tooth decay. Well, they won't really cause tooth decay. But the arrogant disregard for your listener's ability to understand what you are saying is a kind of relationship rot that you should keep an eye on.

And besides, what are you doing with all this efficiency? It's the time you take to speak your words that gives your listener the time to think about what you are saying. What are you aiming at here: less thought?

Oh, and acronyms on the page! Is there anything less inviting than a paragraph chock-a-block with sterile symbols rather than actual language? An invitation to turn the page!

So, here's a call to clear thinking! Eschew obscure codes! Walk in the sunlight!

QED*

*QED stands for "Quod erat demonstrandum." These three letters (meaning "so it is proven") appear at the end of Euclid's mathematical proofs. This has to be one of the oldest acronyms still in use.

Lead with Your Chin

I have a very earnest friend who has advised me to avoid a certain brand of pet food because she's heard "they're doing animal testing." Hmmm. But that may be a good thing, I think, looking at my stubborn cats. I wouldn't mention it to her, though, because she's full of passion about it -- I just hide the cans when she visits.

Here's the thing: My friend may be a crackpot, but she's doing her best to lead the charge.

This got me thinking -- how do we lead at our company? How do we draw other people into our visions?It is an article of faith that anyone can lead. In my early days here, I expressed frustration to a manager. I was told that I should "lead from below." (Pause for interesting mental picture...) Well, okay.

I've overheard a seminar leader, discussing this "anyone-can-lead" concept: "Yes, she said, "anyone can lead, but will they? Do they know how?"

That's the question, of course. Leadership, especially when it's outside the org. chart's line of sight, requires heaping portions of courage. Yes, you're pretty exposed when you decide to lead the charge. Naked, it feels, if you're not an org. chart-approved "leader."

Someone might think you're an animal-testing fanatic, after all.

But add some clear thinking, action, teamwork and another heaping serving of courage, and you too could find yourself in front of a parade of committed people, marching towards a common goal! Of course, you've got to have a vision to lead. But even that isn't enough.

People who have visions in isolation are not leaders. Even saints (not noticeably practical people) only achieve results when they start to talk about their solitary visions. Leadership is, to paraphrase Edison, "One percent vision, 99 percent evangelism."Here's one common path people take to avoid asking for help: I'll do it myself! See me lift this big rock all by myself.

Good job! But it's not leadership. You can lift a rock, but we can build an empire -- by collaborating.

Collaboration is a big topic right now, but it's getting confused with "consensus." Everyone in the room thinks they get to make the decision (that's our consensus bias), but actually, they don't. It's the leader who makes the decision, communicates it, smoothes over the ruffled feathers, and then has the gall to ask the dissenters for help in executing it! And that's where collaboration comes in. It takes courage to make the unpopular decision and to ask for collaboration to support it -- but without this little step, we are all paralyzed in our consensus stew.

So to lead you need help from others to achieve your vision. Better take a deep breath and get ready to immerse yourself in other people. You'll need to talk to them, write to them, present to them, beg for help, nag for budget, jump through hoops, unblushingly show your passion to impassive strangers, beat the stragglers with a stick, shrug over the lost lambs. Just do whatever it takes to get this ragtag-and-bobtail group to head in the same direction.

It's all about communicating your excitement. Create a contagion of passion, and stop worrying about getting your hair mussed.

Or, if you are lucky enough to work in the orbit of someone with the vision and energy and courage to lead, then grab the brass ring and enjoy the ride. Just be glad it's not about pet food.

Courage & Conflict

It is eighteen months down the turnaround road and we are hitting some walls. A recent employee poll pointed to 'inefficient processes' as the primary barrier to employees' success. But few have the courage to step forward and say out loud, "This is an inefficient process!" We're really worried about what would happen if we did.

Let's talk about how we talk about conflict, which is the dark side of collaboration, of course. Sometimes we get to agree to disagree - but that's really a luxury, isn't it? Most of the time, when two people disagree about something important, guess what? Someone's gonna get their way, and the other one isn't. Employee, sibling, parent, manager, friend -- Everyone has experienced the pain of I'm right and you're wrong and someone pays and someone gets paid. Someone walks away feeling burned, but everyone lives on.

It's the great wheel of life: sometimes you're up and sometimes you're down, but it always moves forward.

Why then is it so hard for us to find useful ways to disagree with each other? In his first big corporate meeting, our CEO directed us to "Consult with all the qualified smart people, get their opinions, make the decision, and then move on." Oh, what a lovely vision! Let's talk about the habits we need to break to get to that point.

Saints on the Payroll

First, no one is getting paid to be perfect and universally loved. We get paid to solve problems. Sometimes we have a good day and the problem gets solved in a tidy way. Sometimes, it gets messy. Now, 'messy' is a subjective quality. For many of our employees, the mere possibility of conflict or controversy is enough for them to break a sweat. No actual communication needs to take place to create the intolerable worry. They analyze their audience: "They'll hate this. They'll disagree. They'll create barriers. Those unreasonable villains, they will sabotage all our good work."

Hmm. I haven't met anyone whose job it is to prevent me from being successful. Perhaps it's time to worry about this a little less. Hey, instead of worrying about out positioning, I say: Let's get back to work.

Any psychologist can tell you that the best way to get used to the discomfort of conflict is to expose yourself to more of it. Don't fear it, go to it - talk about it. If you can, make a joke about it. Think of it as useful tension, a signpost that something needs to be resolved. We need to get less tender about conflict in order to get the "qualified smart people" into the room.

Finding the Smart People

And here we are, back at collaboration. Schedule a meeting as soon as you know it's inevitable, and make sure you invite all the people who have a qualified opinion, or whose work you will be depending on to sew up the solution, so they understand the whole context of the decision. Make the meeting work for all involved - even if you disagree with their point of view. Prepare an agenda and send out any pertinent background material.

Go ahead and embarrass any participants who haven't read the background material. They won't neglect to read it next time.

You see, all that pre-made communications advice about "always have an agenda," is just so much blah, blah, blah, unless you want the meeting to get to a real destination. If you do, the agenda, the pre-work, all these tricks and devices, will help keep your meeting participants on track. But the key ingredient is your personal commitment to run the meeting so you really do get all the smart points of view on your problem.

If you do, you'll start the meeting on time, you'll interrupt the boring anecdote, you'll quash the nay-sayer, you'll do what it takes to get to the decision you need.

Find the smart people, get them to talk, make sure they all agree that you get to make this decision, and then thank them for their input.

I've participated in many meetings where all my smart participants agreed absolutely on the right thing to do and then asserted that such a result would never come about.

Agreement from all qualified stakeholders is critical to produce needed change. We need to take more confidence from these agreements - include the stakeholders in next-stage communications so they can add their endorsements - in public. It's time we all had as much courage in public as we do among ourselves in the wind-down of our meetings with other smart people.

The Killing Fields

With agreement all that is left to do is to make the decision. Well, it's yours to make, isn't it? The word "decide" comes from a Latin root that means, "to kill the alternatives." I see many decisions made here that are rendered null and void by a small slip: the communicator forgets to be clear about the doors that this decision closes. A decision is something that happens when you are presented with alternatives: in choosing one, you are eliminating the others.

The actual point of any communication is the slaying of the alternatives. If, on the company's behalf, you've decided on a vendor for McGuffins, it's important to be clear that no other vendor may be used. Any variance to this undermines your decision. I think we suffered through two years of this nonsense around cell phone contracts, for instance. But you could pick ten examples of the same from your own experience.

Chosen Battles

A job that puts the hard issues into cold storage gets dull pretty fast. It's frustrating, because the hard issues, the ones that generate conflict, also point the direction for the future. We're just marking time if we can't find ways to raise the questions that generate discussion, disagreement, and yes, conflict. I look at the charge before us in the next eighteen months, and I see so many tough issues that need to be resolved right away.

Here's my suggestion: don't worry about the conflict generated in the discussion. That's just noise. Dive in. Make a difference. Manage change. We will all be better for it.

Clobber-ate or How I Learned to Share

Okay, okay, we've all heard there's a new way of life out there: one that involves crossing lines, building bridges across silos, sharing knowledge and information with those outside our fragment of the org. chart. But so what? Do we have time for this nonsense?

I remember when a collaborator was a bad guy: one who had dropped the struggle for freedom and sold his soul to the enemy. Now he's the good guy and rewarded for crossing boundaries. Now it's the American way.

A Cynical View

Collaboration as a concept seems very touchy-feely, very time consuming and hard to find the immediate reward -- it just seems above and beyond the commitments we make to get our own jobs done. Do we get a raise for helping "that other division" meet its targets? Well, that's management's' challenge, but I think we're reasonable in expecting that we'll be recognized and rewarded for doing this collaboration stuff.

In the meantime, I suppose there is a sort of visceral reward that we can give ourselves: collaborating across silos is more interesting and gives our work a wider impact -- I feel bigger and more powerful when my work is bigger and more powerful. I get a real charge out of it. When I've sniffed out a solution in use by that nameless group in St. Louis, I get a charge out of using it.

Perhaps efficiency is its own reward.

Or how about the pain of having your suggestion dropped like a used sweatsock because you didn't take the time to gather support beforehand -- there's a humiliation that collaboration can prevent. Suggestions from a unified group of twelve are just more likely to fly than your own precious and private visions. As painful as it may be to compromise your vision, it's a lot more rewarding to get the job done with the help of others than to be rejected all by yourself. (That's why I collaborate, by the way -- it's the cynic's justification, but it works for me.)

And then there's the candy of getting to know as many interesting and effective people around the Company as you can -- seeking opportunities for collaboration is a lovely excuse for mingling with the best people. These are the folks who give the best parties, tell the best jokes, and have the prettiest children, aren't they? Why work for a big company if you don't get to mix it up with the whole village now and then?

Sickeningly virtuous as it sounds, the real reason to collaborate is found in the person of our customer -- you know, the one who pays the bills. We offer a confusing array of products: we can save the poor guy some steps if we can help him buy it easily and all from us. Cross-sell, up-sell, fight, fight, fight!

Or, if your view of the Company is out the window of the back office, you can participate in this push by looking outside your own silo now and then: What are you doing that our brothers and sisters in other divisions can borrow from you to save a few bucks? Pride takes many forms. Be proud of sharing, rather than standing alone. (I think this is the evolution that takes place between nursery school and kindergarten, but never mind.)

Do we have time for this nonsense? What do you think?

Biting the Bullet

Did you know that, according to Newsweek, the Pentagon is urging its staffers to knock it off on the PowerPoint? Hmmm. PowerPoint as a threat to our military posture? No, I wouldn't go that far. But PowerPoint has certainly changed the face of presentations at our company. I've enjoyed hearing people tell me that they're going to "send me a presentation." No, you're not -- you're going to send me a file. You make a presentation, you send a file.

Here's the essence of what makes everyone tired of PowerPoint: a graphics file is not the same as a presentation. Full communication is not achieved by sending me a collection of bullets. So, stop it. Stop it right now. It's just upsetting everyone.

A presentation is a public speaking event, not the visual aids that accompany it. It's the speaker and his smiling face in from of you. It's an event dreaded by most people more than spiders or an IRS audit. It takes courage. It's the hammy joke on the wry observation. It's you with your ideas in front of me with my brain. It's my chance to ask the public question and your chance to answer me -- or not. Here's an identification tip: people generally stand up when they give a presentation. Sitting down, crawling through PowerPoint pages as we listen to you read the bullets to us doesn't really compare to the raw exposure of a presentation.

Hey, here's a sensitivity tip: I can read, buddy.

You know, you probably don't really need a hand-out. You can just say things. I will hear you and I will remember. If I don't remember, then you probably didn't make me care enough about it to remember. Maybe you should spend your time figuring out how to make me care about your ideas, rather than grooming your speaking outline for show-and tell. I don't think animation brings anything extra to the moment, aside from the fleeting thought, "Doesn't this guy have anything else to do with his time?"

It's the bullet points that have a kind of weird immortality. What is it with these PowerPoint files? It's like some electronic form of gum on your shoe.

Don't they teach verbs at school anymore? I don't know what you mean by "project schedule and business objectives" -- I need a verb! Develop? Align? Test? Discontinue? Object to? Execute? Laugh about maniacally? Get out the last PowerPoint someone sent you and open it up. Do you see any verbs? Wouldn't verbs help a lot?

Okay, okay, enough ranting. Here's a suggestion. After you make your presentation and listen to the feedback, make time to go back to your desk and create a new document. You can even use PowerPoint. Create a new document that would make sense to a reader who wasn't at the presentation. Add the verbs in, add some explanations in smaller type, or use the speaker notes (find them and use them) to flesh out your ideas, remove the animations that look horrible when printed.

Then you can send me the file and I won't complain.

Battle-Hardened Veterans

I was browsing in the CareerCenter on my company's intranet the other day (never mind why) and I ran across a job listing that gave me pause. It was my own job. The one I have right now, I mean. Well, not exactly the same. I quickly looked at the "hiring manager" and exhaled in relief.

Not my manager, so I stopped worrying about that, but started wondering about something else. Why is the Company hiring someone to do what I already do? This is not good. Am I not doing it well enough? No one had talked to me about this. I get good reviews, but still...I printed out the listing and took it to my manager, and she was as puzzled as I was. She made a few calls that reassured me, "It was just a mix-up." A week later, the posting remained.

I thought about applying for it, offering to do my job and this one at a discounted rate: I'd take a pay cut on the second job (maybe 20% less). I also wondered why there had evidently been no takers -- is my job so awful? Am I the only one dumb enough to do this for a living? Mostly, I just stewed on it. It seemed so clueless, to have two jobs that did the same thing.

I got cranky.

"More politics!" I groused. "If they really wanted to cut costs...," I harrumphed.Then out of the blue, I was asked to help interview the candidates for this other, duplicate job -- "my evil twin." I said yes, of course.I imagined asking the hiring manager why we would employ my evil twin.

In my fantasy, he says, "Our people need to be tough. Our employees are battle-hardened veterans of bruising internal battles. We don't let anyone have access to the customer unless they've successfully run the gauntlet of internal politics. Only the toughest survive to make it to you, the customer."

He'd pause to wipe the blood out of his eyes.

"Yes, this development model does cause a lot of attrition, but it's worth it. Our customers tell us that they like best to work with the bitter and cynical products of mindless turf wars." I had a hard time seeing this as a deliberate policy.

I decided that most likely the whole thing was an oversight. I went to a few interviews. I still wasn't sure why I was helping interview for my own job, so I didn't have much to say. They seemed like nice people (and you all know how I feel about "nice").

In the middle of all this, our CEO gave a speech that struck a chord with me: "Let's not waste our resources, fighting among ourselves," he said. "We have no enemies here: the competition is outside. Focus your attention on the competition, not on the other employees here." This focused my thoughts remarkably.

We're like kids fighting in the backseat of the car while nuclear war rages outside. I decided to stop sulking. I was able to see that including me in the interviewing process was a wise and generous act. My evil twin was hired recently -- and at the same time our functions are being pulled together into the same unit: like a lot of people, I'm having to learn to collaborate whether I want to or not. I guess we're hard-wired for competitive behavior: the trick is to point all that energy at our competitors, not the guy in the next cubicle.

3.21.2007

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Pigeon Point Lighthouse, originally uploaded by abigaildshaw.

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Friends on Saturday, originally uploaded by abigaildshaw.

B to B Participation