Innovation: It’s not about the toilet paper

iStock_000008662367SmallWe’ve lost our way. There’s really no other way to say it. Over the past few months, I’ve seen some disturbing trends in discussion groups, magazine articles, conferences and even in the day-to-day execution of Innovation programs that makes me seriously wonder if there’s some industry-wide April Fools joke going on that I wasn’t a part of.

This suspicion was driven home when I came across an innovation program whose big “success story” was that they managed to get the toilet paper dispensers loosened in all of the bathroom stalls across the building. Apparently, the prior building owners/occupants had tightened the rolls to make it harder to pull off long strips and thus saved the company a dollar or two over the fiscal year.

Don’t get me wrong. This was obviously an inconvenience to people and something that should have been fixed. But when an Innovation program becomes nothing more than a suggestion box, I contend that it’s not about Innovation anymore.

In 2010, I shared an “off the cuff” comment in my presentation at E2.0 that Innovation isn’t always about the big, disruptive changes. It can be little things that subtly change behaviour and drive big changes. An example that I provided was placing garbage receptacles directly outside of the bathroom doors. What we found was that people were more likely to use a paper towel when opening the door from the inside when they knew that they’d have somewhere to toss it out. This, combined with some simple awareness emails, encouraged people to wash their hands, unconsciously use their wet paper towel to wipe the door handles as they left the bathrooms and reduce that particular vector for disease.

So, why would I consider paper towels to be innovative, but not loosening toilet paper dispensers?

To answer that question, let’s go back to what an “innovation” is. I’ve written and spoken on this topic before, so I won’t rehash the whole discussion. If you’re interested, check out my 2010 article “Innovation: I know it when I see it” 

At the heart of the issue is whether or not an idea/suggestion/”good thing” is adopted by the masses and if it changes behaviour. In a business context, there is an additional requirement and that is “does it add value?”.

On the surface, our “paper towel” example isn’t particularly exciting or innovative. However, as we were directly responding to the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic and had a business objective to mitigate the spread of infection in our offices, this was an easy-to-implement and inexpensive change that had a significant impact on behaviour. It wasn’t about the paper towels, it was about shaping behaviour to address a business need. It just so happened that we were able to do that with a relatively minor change. The unfortunate side effect is that sometimes people only see the surface impact and miss that there’s a business objective being addressed.

When the innovation program fails to “connect the dots” between initiatives and business value (or behavioural changes that lead to business value), they become little more than custodians, patching cracks and never actually “innovating” anything.

Have you lost your way? Check to see how your current list of initiatives and “successes” stack up:

  • Does/did the idea support (even if indirectly) one or more of our strategic objectives?
  • Would/Did the implementation change behaviours? How?
  • Does the idea translate into business value?

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help siIf the answer to any of these questions is “no”, it’s probably not Innovation. Installing a ping-pong table in the break room, arranging for on-site car washes or putting BBQ Corn Chips in the vending machine aren’t generally going to qualify as innovation. The exceptions might be if your marketing strategy involves employees forming an Olympic Table Tennis team, you’re selling cars or you’re test marketing the products that you produce in your own break rooms.

Unfortunately, many Innovation teams have become so focused on Ideation that they’ve forgotten that the purpose of collecting and developing ideas is to generate business value. As a result, they’ve become dumping grounds for every idea, suggestion, complaint or “brain fart” that any associate ever has. It’s fine if you want to share the pipeline between Innovation and your suggestion box. Just make sure that you channel the suggestions and complaints to where they belong. Don’t burn the reputation of your Innovation program dealing with things that have nothing to do with Innovating.

Unless you’re Kimberley-Clark or you’re installing ultrasonic bidets to reduce your carbon footprint, it’s not about the toilet paper.

Developing a Social Media Policy

So you’ve decided to embrace social media. Life is good and the world is a happy place full of brightly blooming flowers, cuddly Disney-esque rodents and a calming musical soundtrack.

Not so fast.

There are a few reality checks that you need before you assume that your old-school rules apply in the fast-paced, “take-no-prisoners” world of Enterprise x.0 (x being the integer of the moment)

First, the good news is that Social media isn’t anything new. We’ve been using “Social Media” since the first hunter dragged a stick through the dirt to tell his buddies where the deer were. Collaboration came shortly after when ‘Gronk’ stepped in the drawing. “Social Media” is nothing more than using the tools at hand to communicate with others. What’s changed is the nature of the tools. Instead of the message being limited to the group around the fire or the participants in a conference room or the listeners of your community radio station, technology now allows literally anyone with a network connection to reach the entire world. Not only that, but the tools also allow the world to respond back. As a tool, it’s incredibly powerful. To quote Stan Lee/Spiderman; “With great power comes great responsibility”

With this in mind, the first thing that you need to accept is that you can’t stop people from talking about you, your company or your products. Where those conversations used to be limited geographically or by the size of an individual’s social network, today’s conversations now have the potential to be global in nature. Where a message could take weeks or months to spread (or more likely fade away before it could take hold), today’s communications are near instantaneous and can spread faster than a herd of cats in a dog show. Even if you put policies in place to prevent your associates from talking, you can’t gag your clients, former associates or even the more motivated associates operating under your radar.

The second scary fact to accept is “Privacy is dead“. I don’t mean personal privacy. But, if you’ve got more than one employee, your secrets aren’t secret anymore. I freak out a lot of recruiters by being able to identify their “confidential” client in the first 15-20 seconds of information that they provide about a potential job. When I’m too busy to return phone calls, I pop off an email to people that have only ever left a name and phone number.   When I interview people, they’re shocked that I know more about their former company and organizational structure than they do. With a simple search through old job postings, I can even figure out if that last salary that they quoted is in the ballpark. None of this is high-tech hacking. It’s Google, some social networking and a little bit of common sense. My point is that it doesn’t take a major security breach for people to collect the little innocuous pieces of data that are out there and assemble the big picture.  So, you need to figure out what data needs to stay private and let the rest of it be free. If you try to lock down everything, your associates won’t be able to tell the difference and can’t take responsibility for protecting what needs to be safe.

So, to summarize
-This isn’t new.
-People talk and share information. You can’t stop it. There’s just the potential for it to be faster and wider in  scope.
-If you try to lock down everything, you’ll succeed in locking down nothing. Focus on what’s critical.

On to the scary policy and guidelines suggestions….

1. Figure out why you’re doing this.

Are you trying to use social media as a marketing channel? Are you simply trying to identify people to sue if they dare to mention your company in the wrong font size and typeface? Are you trying to save money by spamming people instead of mailing out advertising? If the answer is anything other than “to engage my customers” or “improve communications and collaboration”, give up now. People can smell a corporate agenda a mile away and they’ll avoid you like a dead skunk. People don’t develop relationships with companies. They develop relationships with the representatives of the company. They may get service or information from an IVR system or a nameless generic customer service agent. But loyalty comes from human-to-human experiences and a feeling of connectedness and respect. If you turn your interactions into nothing more than online billboards, self-serving corporate propaganda or robotic pre-scripted responses, you’re just destined for the equivalent of the spam filter in whatever medium you touch.

2. Provide value to the customer

Setting up a presence with nothing but a “Click here to become our fan” button is not providing value. Yet, it’s one of the most common use of social media and is arguably the most egotistical and useless approach possible. Imagine walking up to people in a party and saying “Hi, my name is Bob. Tell your friends that you like me” and then walking away. No sane person would ever do this, but hundreds of companies do the online equivalent every day. Provide information, services, resources, advice or even just a human being to respond to the users. Think about what’s in it for the customer instead of what’s in it for you. It’s ok to ask for customers to provide you with something of value in return, but make sure that you remember that this is about building relationships and not exploiting your customer base.

3. Watch out for your users/customers

Even worse than nor providing value is putting your customers at risk. Having a presence that’s nothing more that an ego board is one thing. Worse is the approach of asking users to sign up for a service for the sole benefit of telling others that they like you. An online promotions company recently sent out an email to a client’s customers asking them to become a fan on Facebook in order to enter a contest. They provided links for signing up for a Facebook account and asked users to provide all of their contact information “You ….are providing information to xxxx and not to Facebook. The information you provide will only be used for selecting winners of the Grand Prize”. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell any of the users that their profiles would be public by default and that they’d need to adjust security settings to keep them private. Whoops. Even when confronted with the oversight, they simply didn’t see it as an issue. A similar offense is publishing information about who’s online, reading your forums, who recently said they liked you, etc. Sure it’s a great ego boost to you and makes your site/feed/blog look active. But it provides no value to your users, probably wasn’t an “opt-in” feature and potentially exposes information that your users would prefer to keep private. At a minimum, set a clear expectation with your users before exposing ANY user specific information.

4. Be transparent.

Assume that everything online is public and that you’re going to lose control of the data once it’s out on the internet. Too many people have been bitten by “private conversations” and “members-only content”. The recent issues with Facebook privacy defaults and with Google Buzz should make anyone think twice before participating in online communities and tools.  The point I’m trying to make isn’t to steer you away from these tools. It’s to get you to think about what the real risks are. So what if your product offerings are public. So what if you have a disgruntled employee bitching about how they hate coming to work. So what if people find out that you use BubbaTech Accounting software. If the information doesn’t create a real risk for the company and doesn’t provide a competitive advantage for someone else, let it be free. Focus on the information that *needs* to be protected and make sure that people understand why. If they know “why”, they can make informed decisions. Ironically, you’ll find that loosening up your policies can actually improve your ability to protect the important stuff. “Be Transparent” applies only to you and not your customers. Assume that customers want total privacy by default and ask for permission rather than begging for forgiveness when something goes wrong.

5. Set policies for existing and new online “personas”

Many companies completely ignore the fact that online personas, accounts, postings, etc. are an extension of an individual. They’re personal brands that individuals have invested time and effort into. It’s becoming increasingly common for associates to join a company and bring with them an existing social network, group of followers or even a complete online presence complete with blogs, vlogs, twitter followers, personal podcasts, etc.The lines between work and personal life are continuing to blur and many don’t *want* to have a separate work and personal presence. It may be beneficial to encourage and support these existing online personas (eg: if they’re professional, business oriented and don’t contain links to “naked photos from the dorm kegger”). It may make sense to create a completely independent “company persona” for CSRs, PR staff or other individuals whose primary job it is to interact with the public. However,  for most others, you may be better off publishing an online “dress code” or basic “appropriateness” guidelines  and letting them decide whether their existing persona can meet the criteria. No matter which approach you take, you also need to determine what happens to any social network or persona when an individual leaves the company.

6. Set guidelines for representing the company

If representing the company, do so very publicly and openly. Don’t obscure that fact that you work for the company when providing opinions or comments that may influence others’ opinions of the company. But don’t get caught up in legal-ese. Formal disclaimers and multi-paragraph signatures are like kryptonite to an open conversation. If you’re representing your own views and opinions, it’s easy enough to make that clear by context or by the use of terms like “I believe” or “in my opinion”. In the internet age, only the most pedantic will assume that an individual posting something online is making an official statement on behalf of the company. (notable exceptions being if your ID is something like “XYZCorpPR” or if you’re already considered to be a “face of the company”. Whether they like it or not, Steve Jobs *is* Apple., Steve Balmer *is* Microsoft and Larry Ellison *is* Oracle. Their views and opinions simply can’t be separate from the company). As an individual, you should also be very careful about using obviously crafted “corporate speak”. Most online communications should be conversational and not thinly-veiled marketing copy. If you want to define a particular style or voice for the company, that’s fine. But allow people to be individuals as well. Remember that relationships are built between individuals and individuals aren’t scripted cookie-cutter commodities.

7. Make sure that the external world doesn’t become your release valve

If you have problems internally and there’s no outlet or mechanism for dealing with them, they’re going to bleed into the outside channels. You need a healthy, open internal environment for people to communicate, vent and get action before you let everyone out into the wild. Your internal environment needs to be mature and supportive or the external forums will become your corporate release valve.

8. Recognize that social media is real-time

Social media provides a faster, more efficient and lower cost channel for communicating with your customers. It can dramatically improve your corporate agility, reduce your time to respond and it can help to avoid the problem of customer issues festering or spreading to others. If you can detect and respond to problems quickly or in real time, Social Media can actually help to reduce risk. Is your latest marketing campaign offensive to the community? Did you get some bad press? Did a customer just get abused by a CSR? Did something that your CEO just said on CNN get misinterpreted? Social media can provide that feedback instantly and provide an opportunity to respond and correct the situation. Even though the initial complaint will reach a large audience, your response can reach the same audience and net you some very valuable reputation building as a responsive and supportive company. The complaints are going to go out whether you’re there to see them or not. It’s in your best interests to be out there and address them, even if it’s with a simple “We’re sorry to hear that you had an issue, we’ll send you a phone number in a private message and we’ll try to help”

9. Create the simplest policies possible and provide continual ongoing education

I’ve grouped these together because so many organizations fail to realize how intertwined they are. Most of your communications issues are likely to be addressed in your employee code-of-conduct or employment agreements. What needs to be defined are the basic social media ground rules and how your existing policies apply specifically to Social Media. Your policies need to be simple and consistent in order to avoid confusion, setting the wrong expectations or changing “voice” mid-stream. Once the ground rules are defined, then address the nuances and implementation through education, not through a 40-page policy statement.

You wouldn’t send your staff on a sales call or to speak at a conference without making sure that they have the basic skills and that they know what’s expected of them. You wouldn’t impart that knowledge by just dumping a document or memo on their desk. So, why would you encourage them to engage on your corporate Facebook page, blog or Twitter feed without the same sort of basic training and handholding?

10. Develop and embrace social media mentors

Clearly scope which parts of the company are accessible through what mechanisms and for what purposes. Select individuals in those areas of the company to be empowered to train, support, develop and encourage the use of social media in those areas. Then you can focus on training those individuals and making sure that they understand the nuance and can help make some of the real-time decisions that will need to be made on a daily basis. This requires that you relinquish some control, but if you select the right people and provide the right guidance and context, they can deal with the operational and tactical issues and allow you to maintain control of the strategic direction.

This is a huge area and one that warrants a lot more coverage than I can provide in a single blog posting. Over the coming months, I’ll cover more on the topic and hopefully provide you with some additional food for thought. Just keep in mind that Social Media needs to be “Social” more than simply “Media”. You’ll need to find your own voice, purpose and the value that you’ll bring to the table. There’s no one single strategy that will work for every company and there’s certainly no cookie-cutter policy that will work for every organization. If you want to get it right, you need to talk to your customers, associates and partners. Maybe “Social Media” tools  might be a good way to facilitate those conversations.

My blast from the past….Guidelines for Community Moderators

I have to apologize for slacking off on the blog recently. I’ve been heads-down in a project that’s chewing through my time and not leaving much bandwidth for writing. I did, however, start reminiscing with an old colleague at the E2.0 conference in Boston and it got me thinking about how we keep revisiting the same basic ideas in the context of new technologies.

This got me thinking of  BBS that I ran back in the early to mid-90s and how many of the guidelines for community are just as valid now as they were then.

I left in some of the technical information for context and omitted the inventory of feeds (it was tedious then and even more so now). For those of you that can’t find anything better to do with your time, in the spirit of laziness, I present…

The OnRamp Community Moderators Guide (circa 1993)

Thanks for volunteering (or being recruited) to become a community moderator for the OnRamp BBS. The term “Moderator” is a bit misleading, since your role is actually one of mentor, advocate and facilitator. However, “moderator” is the common term used in the BBS community, so we’ve stuck with it.

To get your started, this document will provide you with some background information on the system, our various content channels as well as some guidelines for becoming a successful community builder and advocate for your users. We ask that you take the time to review this document thoroughly both to make sure that this is a role that you’d like to take on, as well as to provide you with some guidance to help you get started.

The technical mumbo-jumbo

As a current member of the board, you’re probably aware of at least some of the features. However, the OnRamp is one of a new generation of bulletin board systems that’s paving the way for a new interconnected worldwide community of users. (and no, that’s not just marketing rhetoric). It’s important to understand that unlike most BBS systems, we’re connected with a number of national and international networks and many of our communities are essentially “syndicated” to the world. So, your role as a community manager is not just a local responsibility. It’s also a commitment to ensure that we respect, collaborate and cooperate with the communities that we interact with. We’re also one of the few public BBSs with Internet connectivity. The Internet is a series of high-speed data connections based on leased telephone, data or satellite links. Unlike dial-up connections, our data circuits are always on and have real-time access to tens of thousands of computer systems around the world. This allows our users to send email (via UUMAIL), transfer files (via HoloUUCP), collaborate in real time (using Searchlight chat and Tribal Voice) and reference a huge library of files and document repositories via ARCHIE, GOPHER or WAIS (for more details, please refer to the Internet FAQs in the system Help conference). We have also recently implemented NCSA Mosaic support for our PPP users (Precompiled Win3.0 and WFW binaries as well as Unix SysV sources available in the main Tools File library). Mosaic provides a freindly graphical interface to standard standard Internet tools as well as support for hypertext and hyperlinked graphics similar to Apple’s Hypercard stack, but in a networked context. The topic is a bit broad to cover here. but we’ve already embraced the technology and adopted many of our site features to work through a Mosaic front-end.

<available feeds and interconnects omitted…>

SearchLight: In addition to standard BBS functionality, we also provide online questionnaire and survey tools, a full graphical interface based on TeleGrafix RIPdraw, real-time chat via Unix TALK protocols, Searchlight Chat and an experimental HyperText system based on NCSA Mosaic. You can also offer guided tutorials or tours of the system (or any connected systems) using Tribal Voice.  These tools are all available to our community moderators to help you personalize and tailor the community to your users. Even if you’re part of a larger community feed, feel free to customize the experience for your users. We also encourage you to share your developments with the world. Community is about sharing information, not hoarding it….which brings us to the most important part of this document…

Guidelines for Community Moderators

1. Make sure that you want to do this.

Being a community moderator is not a way to attain personal power or recognition. It’s not about you, it’s about the users. They own the community. They’re the ones that will shape it, guide it and develop it. It’s the role of the moderator to understand the will of the community and to act as an advocate and a tool of the community. You will have tremendous power and visibility. But if you attempt to make it about you, the community will take your power away in a heartbeat. Either they’ll find a way to make your life miserable, they’ll push you out or they’ll simply abandon the community for greener pastures. Functional communities are the embodiment of democracy and dictators (even benevolent ones) are not tolerated.

2. Remember that the community exists for it’s own sake, not for yours.

Communities are not about supporting The OnRamp, supporting the sysops, corporate sponsors, product groups, you, me or any specific individual.They exist because of group of people decide that they want it to exist. No company, organization or individual can mandate a community. It’s also not a case of “If you build it they will come”. You can build an infrastructure and you can plant the seeds of a community by providing interesting, relevant content and conversation. But ultimately, it comes down to the collective will of the users whether the community will live or die. As a moderator, you’re the caretaker of the community, not the “owner”. You need to encourage the contributors and discourage the disruptive influences. You need to seed content when things are going slowly. You need to diagnose problems, lack of interest or frustration and encourage discussion to resolve the issues. A gardener can’t make a garden grow. They can simply plant seeds, water it when there’s no rain, fertilize the soil, trim away the dead plants and weeds and occasionally rotate the crops to keep the soil productive.

3. Engage, recruit and empower those that are willing to help from the ranks of the community

You are a tool of the community. But you can’t build anything with just one tool. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses and engage other members of the community to work with you. Many well-intentioned moderators have burnt out by trying to do everything by themselves. In most well-developed communities, the members will end up taking control whether you like it or not. Encourage those that are supporting the will of the people and try to refocus those that are working against the greater whole. Publicly acknowledge, reward and empower those that are helping to build the community

4. Keep the conversations relevant, interesting and exciting

Don’t censor content, but if the noise starts to surpass that actual useful signal, you need to step in and try to get things back on track. Many communities will go through phases of “irrelevant chatter”, so don’t be too quick to shut things down. Occassionally people need to blow off steam and these flights of fancy are one way that they do it. But when people start to get annoyed or your core community members are getting lost in the noise, it’s time to step in. A community has to provide some sort of value or it will die. That value can be unique information, social interaction, entertainment or something totally unexpected. If your community is happy with the direction, support it. If they aren’t, intervene. But don’t assume that you, personally, are the measure of that value.  Watch the feedback and conversation and if in doubt, ask your community.

5. Allow the community to change them even if you disagree with the direction

It’s not about you. If you get to the point where the direction of the community has become something that you can’t support, then get out. I know that it’s harsh, but it’s very difficult to be an effective advocate for something that you personally disagree with. Talk with your users. Express your concerns and figure out the best way to help them reach their goals. If the best way is to replace you, then work to transition out gracefully, professionally and without being a jerk about it. If the community begins to fragment and there are clear factions forming, consider splitting the community into different groups. People evolve and so do communities, so don’t stand in the way of that evolution. When it makes sense to do so, support and encourage changes, splits, mergers or even entirely new directions without alienating the people themselves.

6. Take risks/Don’t be afraid of failure/Admit mistakes

You’re human and so are the members of your community. They’re going to want to try new things, push boundaries and experiment. As Moderator, you need to facilitate these activities, find ways to limit the risk and then either adopt the changes or discard them without blame, bad feelings or any implied loss of respect for the people that suggested them. If you aren’t taking risks, you’re stagnating. So work with your community to encourage new thinking and new ideas and don’t be afraid to admit when something goes wrong. Even if it’s not your fault, you can earn a lot of good will by accepting responsibility instead of allowing blame to fall on community members (even if they were clearly responsible). Allowing the lynching party to go after a community member will just create dissent and make others think twice before suggesting a new idea. By focusing the attention away from specific individuals, you can help to develop a team mentality without really creating any risk for yourself personally.

7. Facilitate, don’t direct

Occasionally, you’ll have a strong opinions or ideas on a subject. As a moderator, you should try to take a back seat and encourage discussion and debate before throwing your own opinion out there. Ask questions. Call out the experts and active members of the community to comment. Encourage debate. It’s easy for a conference to become a soapbox for the moderator. But it’s not about you. If you guide discussions into a narrowly defined “back alley”,  you kill the dialog and the community becomes nothing more that your personal journal. You need to encourage and inspire your community to communicate. It may take some practice, but pay attention to how people respond to your postings and watch for the “dead end”. Diffuse threats to the community politely, publicly and with respect, but avoid dictatorial threats or using your authority/power to shut someone down as a “first response”. Engage other members of the community in determining more decisive responses if discussion, facilitation or gentle suggestions don’t do the trick.

8. Don’t be a corporate mouthpeice

Some of you or your community members may feel the need to represent employers, services, products, etc. That’s fine. But don’t try to use the community as a marketing tool or a corporate soapbox. If the community smells a “corporate agenda”, members will treat it like a dead skunk. I can’t say it enough; The community is about it’s members, not you. Not your company. Not your product. Even if the conference is “GumbyTech, Inc.”, it’s not about GumbyTech. It’s about the people interested in GumbyTech and what the company offers them. If you turn it into a sales and marketing tool, you’ll have sold out the community and basically told them that you care more about your sales than interacting with your customers. Communities have to consist of dialogs and not “targeted communications”. If you aren’t prepared to have honest, genuine dialog then you don’t belong in a community. Keep this in mind as moderator. Throw the press releases, product announcements and other one-way communications into the Files sections and don’t interrupt the conversation with it. Think about how you’d feel if someone sat down next to you on a bus, delivered a sales pitch and then walked away without even waiting for a response. That’s what these unilateral postings are in the Community space. They can sometimes be disguised as dialog, but you’ll recognize them almost immediately as propaganda.

9. Be genuine

You can be professional and still be genuine. Be a human being. Share personal insight and feelings on subjects. Share personal stories if they’re relevant. Be honest and be approachable. A community is an ongoing social event and it’s about people, not jobs, titles, roles or any sort of posturing. As a moderator, this is especially important. People need to feel that you’re approachable and working on their behalf. They also want to make sure that you’re supporting them and not your own agenda. The best way to help them understand that is to talk with them. Engage in the dialogs and encourage your members to participate. Also, try to be as transparent as possible. Don’t expose people that have contacted you in confidence. But explain decisions that you may have to make and talk about difficult or controversial issues that may arise (like banning disruptive members, removing postings, etc.)

10. Provide a release valve

Make sure that you clearly and repeatedly let people know how to get in touch with you and how to submit complaint or issues. It may be obvious to you and long time members of your community, but if you don’t make sure that everyone knows that there’s a release valve somewhere, issues and frustrations will leak back into the community by default. Some of the issues should be discussed out in the open, but there are also situations where members will want to be more discrete. Make sure that they know how to get a message to you privately.

11. Promote and publicize your community leaders and contributors

Reposting or highlighting content as “Editors Picks”, “Community Highlights” or some other form of award or recognition can encourage a much deeper level of participation. If a thread is particularly active or a discussion is highly rated or relevant, call it to the attention of others. If there’s a related community that might have a particular interest in the discussion, send a note to their moderator (visible in the Conference information pages). You may draw in new members into your community or provide some visibility for your own community members.

12. Engage the grey matter

Use your brain. Don’t get caught up in rules, politics or the letter of the terms of service. Use common sense and respect for your community members as your guiding principles and you’re unlikely to go wrong.

Welcome to The OnRamp


John P. Benfield – jpbenfield

President – The OnRamp, LLC

April 17, 1993

Making the Case for Social Media

Imagine that you’re driving down the road and you see a billboard

“Town Meeting. Why <your company name> sucks and why you shouldn’t do business with them.”

Would you go? Would you ignore it? Would you tell other people in your company?

What if you saw a magazine article titled “10 ways that <your company name> could get me to buy more of their products”? Would that get your attention?

If you were at a party and heard a stranger talking about your company, would you wander over and listen? Would you try to engage in the conversation?

Social Media isn’t New

Social media isn’t anything new. The term has come to be associated with online tools. But the concepts have existed since the first forager came in from the woods and grunted about where to find berries or the smears of paint on a cave wall showing hunters taking down a deer. The only thing that’s evolved are the tools and communications channels. Now, instead of the message reaching a handful of people around the fire and persisting for a few hours or days, an individual’s message can reach millions of people and it can live on for years.

Unfortunately, many companies aren’t using these new tools and channels, so they’re completely oblivious to the conversations. The examples that I opened with aren’t far-fetched. They’re happening in online spaces and your company is just driving down the wrong roads, reading other magazines and attending different parties.

But this online thing is “new”, right? Wrong! These conversations have been occurring online  since the early online Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). They’ve been worldwide in scope since networks like FIDO and USENET started sharing content between systems. We’ve had 30+ years of this alternate communications landscape. The Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc. just stepped it up a notch and started engaging more people. What’s “new” is that there are far more online conversations going on then there are in “the real world”. All of a sudden, companies are starting to realize that their customers have moved into cyberspace to talk and the silence in the real world has become deafening.

The Tipping Point

So, this has been going on for 30+ years and it hasn’t hurt you so far. Why should you care now?

We’ve passed the tipping point. An entire generation has been brought up in the online age and they’re using these new tools as their primary means of communications. Even the older generations have made the shift. In many developed countries, more than 74% of the overall population use the internet, most have cell phones and about half (~40%) of the cell phone users use their phones to text, email or surf the web. If you ignore the trend, you’ll lose contact with your customers. It’s that simple.

The Risk of Social Media

But what about the risk? This is a public relations nightmare waiting to happen?

If you believe this, then you’re stuck in the old model.

If you put out one press release and it’s perceived negatively, that’s a 100% failure rate. Your “reputation score” is now 100% negative. If your associates are out there generating 1000 messages and posts and 100 of them are perceived negatively, you still have an overall 90% positive rating. With some exceptions (eg: “official” corporate press releases or postings from your CEO), I’ve found that positive interactions with associates end up attributed to the company and negative interactions are attributed to the individual.

Similarly, if your customers are out there complaining and there’s no response, that negative message spreads. For every hour that negative message is out there with no response, people will be reading it, absorbing it and it will become part of their perception of your company. Just a simple response of “Hi, I’m with XYZ corp and I’d like to talk with you about your complaint” can stop that viral spread. In addition, you might learn something about your own company, the needs of your customer and ways to improve yourself in the process.

Immunizing Customers

British Scientist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a way of explaining the spread of ideas in terms of genetics and natural selection. An idea or “meme” reproduces based on the behavior that it generates in the host. Ideas that are new, exciting, interesting, etc.  create a desire to propagate them. A propagated idea will “infect” the next person and spread or will encounter a form of immunity and proceed no further. For example, if someone told you that the earth was flat, your prior education and beliefs would stop the idea from spreading any further. Similarly, if your customers are exposed to your associates responding to complaints and issues and showing a genuine concern for their welfare, then they become somewhat immunized against bad press, misunderstandings and irrate customers. Even your own mistakes will be treated with more leniency as you develop a more positive personal reputation with your customers.

Social Media as Risk Mitigation

Social Media is actually a powerful tool for Risk Detection and Mitigation. If your associates are engaged, they can spot problems and issues through the online chatter that may take days, weeks or even months to translate into impacts on your call center trends, market share, stock price, etc. It’s like having a 7/24 focus group continually reviewing your performance, products and services. Additionally, when a message gets put out there, if there’s a negative response, your associates can see it in near realtime, respond and prevent it from getting out of control. With traditional media, the first sign of a problem can be when the headlines hit the Wall Street Journal or when you show up on the ticker of CNN.

Getting Started

So what now? Should you fire up a web browser and create a Facebook account?

Well…yes and no.

Yes, you should secure your brands and trademarks as quickly as possible. There are services and organizations that can help you to create accounts and secure your brands on literally hundreds of social media sites and services. Try or to see where you stand and then decide what networks you need to focus on. It’s not a bad idea to secure your brands wherever possible to prevent unauthorized use. Just don’t create an actual page or presence unless you intend to monitor it. Secure the name, but don’t set an expectation by publicizing it until you’re ready to do something with it.

No, you shouldn’t just dive right in without doing your homework. You need to understand the legal ramifications of information that you post (especially if you’re subject to specific regulatory concerns). You need to determine what value you’re going to bring to your customers by being online and you need to determine how you’re going to deal with associates that want to communicate with your customers through Social Media. If you’re a global organization, you need to understand how each of these services, tools and channels could expose you in other countries and what your legal, regulatory and statutory responsibilities may be. In many cases, you may just need to clearly identify the scope somewhere. In others, you may end up violating cross-border data rules and personal privacy laws. Don’t just assume that since others are doing it, it must be OK.

Start by polling your associates to find out who is already active in Social Media and what they’re doing. They may have experience and insight that they’d be happy to share. They might also welcome the opportunity to strengthen their personal brand while leveraging their followers to build your own.  Partnerships and sharing are a big part of building a following and you shouldn’t ignore the potential that may be right under your nose. These people will also be invaluable in developing and reviewing your future social media policies.

Learn to use the tools and services. You can’t develop policy or even recognize the potential without practical experience. Watch what your competition is doing. Pay attention to the companies and individuals that generate the most buzz and traffic. Make note of what works, what doesn’t and what your customers might find valuable to appropriate when dealing with your company. If you can manage it, conducting focus groups are a wonderful way to understand your audience.

Just remember that social media is more about the “social” and less about the “media”. It’s not about creating a new sales channel, electronic billboards or squeezing value out of your client base. It’s about engagement, dialog and providing value to your customers. Don’t try to develop your strategy without their input.

The Death of the IT PMO?

Earlier this month, I attended a session hosted by our PPPM Community of Practice. During the session, I was surprised to see the old gem: “The Standish Group Report” on the state of IT Project Management. (More commonly referred to as “The Chaos Report”). This report has been published since the mid 90’s and is routinely [ab]used to support every premise from “Fire all of your PMs” to “Turn over the reigns of the company to your PMO”.

Admittedly, the Chaos report is a very interesting piece of research and the details are extremely useful for identifying areas of concern. But the summary statistics that are generally quoted have a bad habit of leading people to make some seriously flawed assumptions about IT project management
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Intangible Innovation

The “obvious” value of innovation is easy to see and communicate. The unique products, business models, customer services and other “tangible” innovations are usually enough to justify the existance of an Innovation program. But what about justifying an Innovation program when you don’t have an existing track record? When times are hard, budgets tight and groups are fighting for survival, fledgling Innovation teams and programs may be an easy target for “right sizing”.

So if your Innovation team isn’t delivering the next iPod, “name your own price auto insurance” or Nintendo Wii, what value are you providing? To answer this question, we need to take a step back and  look at a typical corporate culture. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting rid of those Pesky Innovators

Our special guest columnist today is C. Mudgeon III, CEO of Dumbleton & Dorfly. C. Mudgeon is an Alumnus of the Machiavelli School of Business at Screw U.

I think that we can all agree that Innovation is a tremendous waste of time. The money that we all waste on these initiatives could be much better spent on cappuccino service for the executive boardroom or cashmere toilet paper for the restrooms on the top floor. These upstart “Innovators” challenge our assumptions, threaten the status quo and upset the delicate political stagnation that we’ve worked so hard to cultivate over the decades.

So how do we shut these programs down without being tagged as an “Enemy of Innovation” (like that’s a bad thing?)

It’s actually not that difficult. I have a few sure-fire suggestions for undermining your innovation programs, destroying that pesky enthusiasm and still making it look like you’re supporting the program. Read the rest of this entry »

The Innovative iPad?

I’m in a bit of a moral dilemma. I’m not an Apple fanboi. I’ve outgrown my habit of buying tech for the sake of tech and I’ve been studiously staying just short of the bleeding edge for the past few years. The problem is that I’m really excited about the iPad and I desperately want one.

Let me back up a little bit before getting too deeply into this.

Last year, I finally succumbed to the iPhone. When it was released, I hated it. It was typical Apple. Slick, shiny, sexy and hideously proprietary. As much as I hated the cumbersome half-assed attempt at a mobile OS from Microsoft, I had gone down that path 10 years ago and I was riding it into the abyss. I had finally arrived at a decent compromise with a wonderful HTC device. It actually made Windows Mobile usable and allowed me to write code, customize interfaces, tweak the registry, poke around in memory, etc.

Then my world changed when my wife killed her phone. Read the rest of this entry »

Innovation: I know it when I see it…

It’s a sad indicator of the level of excitement in my life, but I have at least half a dozen conversations every month rehashing and debating the definition and nature of “innovation”. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who will say that they don’t know what innovation is, yet there’s an incredible amount of fuzziness and outright disagreement over the practical definition.  Whether it’s sustaining, disruptive, continuous, product, process, or paradigm, what really qualifies a change as an “Innovation” Read the rest of this entry »

Institutionalized Insanity

Consider the following scenarios:

1. A teenager comes to parents and asks for a new car. The justification is that the current car is old, doesn’t go fast enough and costs too much in maintenance. The proposed solution is to buy a brand new Ferrari. It’s expensive, but will go more than fast enough for any foreseeable situation and the dealer will include the first 3 years of maintenance with the purchase.

2. A woman goes to her pharmacist to pick up a prescription. The pharmacist provides the medication and informs her that the drug company skipped most of the testing in order to meet their market release date. However, if she encounters any severe side effects, the drug company will make sure that she’s first in line for any corrective medications or required surgeries. He also provides her with a 1 month supply of disposable undergarments as a “workaround” for the known gastrointestinal issues.

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