Archive for July, 2009

Here Come the Social Machines

July 30th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | Comments off | trackback

In their 2000 book “The Social Life of Information,” John Seely Brown (former chief scientist at Xerox PARC) and Paul Duguid wrote at length about how folks in the information sciences tend to lose their periphery vision as a result of the extreme focus required to do their jobs. This was well before the Web 2.0/DIY age, and today I’d argue that you can make the same observation of people who spend most of their days on the Web. I believe that the Web 2.0 world has extended the malady to the masses, myself included. One trend that has been cut off from our vision — as we while away the hours searching, consuming, and contributing to all the information exchanged in the virtual world — is the accelerating advance of the devices that make all of this possible in the physical world. I am talking about the advance of ever more intelligent devices — computers, phones, other Web-enabled technology — and the increasingly important role they play in helping to manage our lives. This is a big area of focus for my blog, and now that I am coming to the end of my first week, I’m beginning asking people I know in the information sciences to help sort through what I believe are the three principle casualties to our collective — though not complete — inability to see what has been coming:

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in a wider technology context. We have a narrow definition that both (a) enables us to qualify — with extreme focus — what is Web 2.0 and what is not, and (b) discourages us from looking at the advances in the supporting, enabling technology. That limits our ability as professionals not only to describe what is happening today, but to predict what’s next. Recent though modest advances in AI — from voice recognition to pattern recognition — are powering all sorts of interesting applications, pointing to a future that is as much about machine power as people power.

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in a wider social context.
In two very good articles in The New York Times, Matt Richtel recently made the case that distracted driving — resulting from our dependence on mobile handsets — may be as serious as drunk driving. The coverage perhaps marked the first time that a mainstream publication made a well-heard (emphasis on well-heard) public safety alarm on a Web 2.0 issue. But this is just one of many public policy issues that get scant attention in the “attention economy.”

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in closer personal context. In another book from the pre Web 2.0 era, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves argued that the relationships we form with devices are strikingly and disturbingly similar to the relationships we have with human beings. Nass, an HCI expert based at Stanford, is perhaps sitting in a place — between man and machine — where extreme focus might pay off big. For as much as we have become aware that the machine is becoming more like man, we are blissfully unaware of how much man is becoming more like machine. We’re seeing more and more research – not much, however, surfacing to mainstream consciousness — that our device addictions are taxing our neural anatomy, limiting our ability to perform, limiting our ability to relate to others. So, in the end, what has been cut off from our vision is not only the coming of smarter, more useful social machines (the title of a 2005 MIT Technology Review cover story about smart devices), but the extent to which we have become social machines as well.

I’ll be looking into each of these areas. Would love to hear from anyone with supporting or contradictory insight and research.

Is there a big idea for the auto-industry?

July 27th, 2009, by Haydn Shaughnessy | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

The Financial Times took a swipe at the auto industry last week. At least twice. When the business paper is so challenging of an industry with such a dominant role in the industrial economy, it’s a sign that in the post industrial economy, autos will not continue to dominate.

Is there a big idea that might save the auto-industry or is there a big idea that might change it?

Clearly the most significant feature of the auto-industry in the past decade is the inability of people there to make a big idea stick. Our experience of most companies we talk to is that people with big ideas generally cannot get champions. It is symptomatic of corporate life that we accept that champions are necessary – an alternative is to redesign the idea application environment so that good ideas stick more often. Companies with good open management policies indeed are doing that.

So meantime Tesla all electric supercar was built elsewhere, in fact backed by people from the IT industry who are familiar with disruptive thinking. And the TATA Nano is not a GM, Ford or Chrysler product and it costs not a lot more than a high end gaming computer does.

Even without a new big idea the auto industry will have to change, so much we know. But hasn’t this all been known for a long time? Yes, but people with big ideas have not been able to find champions….

What will replace the auto industry as an expression of consumer aspirations and identify? It may bs something like the personal energy identity that UK company AMEE is pursuing. Where does that leave autos?

Here is one view:

  • Seek ways to make cars longer-life and up-datable in hardware and software
  • Integrate more of the values that also attach to the home
  • Adopt open source design
  • Adopt open management techniques to co-define the future role of the auto
  • Rescaling design and production around local fabrication, making it my car, made in my backyard

and here is the open source car:

The Evolution of an “Agent”

July 25th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | Comments off | trackback

How Open Communications is Changing the Role of PR Agents, and the Businesses That Hire Them

For several years now, the PR industry – one of the richest and most-established disciplines in the general marketing arena – has had to respond that what is perhaps the most serious challenge in its history. The advent of social media, with its practical and philosophical bent on DIY (“do it yourself”) has forced leaders in the profession to examine not only what it does in this world (the services provided by practitioners), but also who in fact should do the work. Perhaps the simplest way to frame the question is, what is the role of the agent – a professional who performs a task on behalf of the client – in a world where the client is supposedly empowered to perform the task him or herself. For PR leaders who are struggling to answer this question, this is not merely about the viability of one’s business. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s about one’s identity.

I’ll say more about identity in a bit. It’s perhaps the most serious challenge facing the PR industry today, and as the former partner of a Silicon Valley PR agency, I’ve had time and opportunity to reflect on what it means for my own personal and professional future. In fact, I’ve been part of the large mix of professionals who have persistently engaged in shaping the new communications profession, a market whose leaders and critics have responded in one of three ways over the past six years:

Ignoring the market (2003 – 2005):
Quite naturally, when social media first began to gain currency in the PR market – when a handful of bloggers at companies and agencies began talking, arguing and collaborating with one another in an open forum – the industry as a whole took notice, but the overwhelming response from senior folks in the profession was tepid. It might help to remember that many of these early bloggers, with a few big exceptions, were not senior managers at their companies or agencies. Many of the first bloggers – and yes, social media at that time was almost all about blogging – were on the younger, less institutional, more rebellious side. For many senior managers, social media was seen as a fad, though an interesting one. The business case simply wasn’t there. And in the absence of a compelling, threatening business case, there’s very little reason to change.

Adapting to the market (2006-2008): After a few years of this, things began to change quite quickly. Soon the business case for social media – nicely captured in hardbound business books with mainstream followings – became clear: social media was not just a fad, but a way for businesses to more efficiently and effectively engage the market through the power of peer-production. By the time that Wikinonomics and Groundswell hit the shelves, executives all over the world were looking up, and of course PR execs were among them. Practically every PR pro — in-house and agency-side — began to experiment with a new communications mix. The first new service was blogger relations, which many PR pros mistakenly identified as an easy extension of media relations. And there were bolder, smarter experiments at companies and agencies that began to see social media through a broader lens, looking past the world of blogging and embracing the larger phenomenon of DIY technologies. But for most PR professionals, and the businesses that hired them, this was a period of adaptation, not leadership. Meanwhile, a chorus of critics began asking – sometimes in the open forums created by social media – whether it was time to rethink the whole profession, and get rid of the PR agent, and the PR agency, outright. Not everyone got the message – as was typical in this world, the most strident voices were from early-adopter tech world – but more and more people in the PR profession began to notice. DIY and agency were two concepts that were more than just theoretically in conflict. Either the PR industry would need to reconcile the two ideas, or someone else – perhaps the market – would serve as the arbiter.

Leading the market (2009-).
The great reconciliation thus began, but it was not before the market began serving as the arbiter. Starting in 2007, when we first launched The Conversation Group, we began to notice what appeared to be an interesting and perhaps irreversible trend: more and more businesses began hiring and training people to do the things that agencies were offering to do as part of their social-media service. For some agencies and consultants, the trend was alarming. For others, it was actually good news, because now there was a market for a new set of services – leadership, strategy, education directed at helping organizations change to meet new opportunities made possible by social media. So while the trend suggests in an overall reduction in the market for communication agents for social media, it also suggests an increase in the market for change agents. It’s interesting how only a few years ago blogger relations was on the minds of every PR agency manager. For a growing number of communication professionals today the focus now is change management, a fuzzy discipline that only recently was the exclusive domain of management consultants and organizational psychologists.

But for most communication professionals, and the agencies that hire them, the evolution will not come easy. After all, the name of the game is change, and there are five broad areas that will require change:

SERVICE DEFINITION – the first thing the agent must need to rethink is the mix of services that now make sense for clients in the DIY world. Now more than ever, the skills that businesses needed to hire for and cultivate in small group of people – e.g., the marketing department – are now core, critical skills throughout the enterprise. But as we noted earlier, the opportunity for agencies is not to add more communication agents to the mix – extending the virtual team of people who can speak and act on behalf of the company – but to serve as change agents throughout the organization, providing more people inside the enterprise with the education, insight and tools to engage with their constituents.

RECONCILIATION OF SERVICES – for many communication agencies, the work of relating to the media will not go away. What will go away is the standard definition of public relations, which since the advent of broadcast has come to mean media relations. For a long time, that narrow definition helped to define and grow the PR profession; with the simple business proposition that “one can reach the many by engaging a few influentials,” the PR industry grew on the strength of one service (though not at the total exclusion of other services). Now, communication professionals are embracing a complementary business proposition – that the long tail of communicators inside the enterprise can directly relate to the public via their own networks, online and offline. For agencies, they will need to think about executing on both business propositions – continuing to serve as agents in the old sense (as PR agents) and agents in the new sense (change agents, educators for the openly communicating enterprise).

INTEGRATION OF SERVICES – A natural outcome of the dual-role some agencies are beginning to play is that some are earning the role of integrator on communication campaigns. But the opportunity here goes well beyond even the new, expanded definition of public relations. More and more, we are seeing instances where leaders on communication teams are integrating and directing the planning and execution of work traditionally managed in siloes by other groups – for example, creative (formerly the exclusive domain of advertising), interactive design, SEO, etc. This is not to say that communication agencies should have the skill set to execute in all these areas. But some are beginning to see that the opportunity is for leadership because in the world of DIY, communication has emerged as the critical, core competency.

BUSINESS MODEL – As agencies begin to grasp the new service mix and their role in integration, naturally they will be forced to rethink the business models that have long supported their viability and growth. Perhaps the most dominant model is the monthly retainer, which many agencies need to gain visibility and predictability for their businesses. The problem is that most retainers are weighted heavily on work executed by the firm’s communication agents – using younger talent as leverage for the agency’s overall billings. As noted, we do not expect the media relations business to go away, but the new opportunities for communication professionals, which place a premium on senior talent, will compel agencies to look at other approaches to leverage. This might require a reevaluation of the firm’s approach to growth – do you hire for more senior talent versus junior talent? If one chooses the former, existing models from consulting businesses in other markets (e.g., business consulting) could become interesting.

– Ultimately, it depends on what business the agency wants to be in. As we’ve outlined in broad strokes, the communications industry has been evolving over the past five years to meet the opportunity in a world where suddenly communication is a core, critical competence in the enterprise. When it was seen as a competence required only for marketing and spokespeople for the organization, communications had a value and a business model that rationalized the purchase and delivery of services. Now that it is core competence, it has another value – far higher, we would argue – and a different model. Both the old and the new are good businesses (reports on the death of the PR industry, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated). But the question for agencies – “what business are you in?” – is aspirational. The downside of the old agent/agency model was that agents literally stood between the newsmaker and the news reporter. Agents worked in the shadows – in many cases, secretly, behind the scenes of the true action in the marketplace. As change agents, they can enter the light, and engage in that action. And while reports of the death of the secret agent too may be exaggerated, we expect that many professionals and the agencies that hire them – the “change agencies” of the future – will welcome the change.

Five Ideas That Matter

July 20th, 2009, by Ted Shelton | located in Conversations, News | Comments off | trackback
While TCG partner Haydn Shaughnessy has kindly attributed co-author status to me, I can hardly say that I did more than a few edits and act as a sounding board for this terrific essay – “Five Ideas That Matter” (link opens the document on Scribd) in which he introduces the idea of metatrends. Here I have reproduced the introduction in the hopes that this may intrigue you and you’ll follow the link to read the whole paper:

“As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close it’s clear that there are profound changes underway in the systems that govern and condition our lives.

The World Wide Web offers an opportunity to uncover where people’s ideas and sentiments are headed and what they think about those changes. Never before have we had instant access to 8 billion pages worth of thoughts, ideas, or belief. The trouble is, as designer Matt Webb recently remarked, we have already passed the point where our attention can keep track of what is knowable and memorable. We need more shorthand.

This document is a deliberately brief guide to ideas on the web. In it we put forward a new research methodology and conceptual framework for dealing with the web’s data stream – the METATREND. Metatrends are, we hope, a shorthand for understanding change – as perceived by many millions of people.

A Metatrend is a trend that is parsed through the prism of web opinion and attitude. In place of a guru’s vision of we propose subjecting expert analysis and trend watching to social dialogue.

What we present is a first approach to seeing trends through the eyes of people who routinely blog, comment, tweet and search the web.

Why bother? Apart from the desirability of understanding large-scale opinion, in a parallel project The Conversation Group is witnessing increased interest in ideas such as creative destruction and system renewal, indications that people are seeking a new description for their experience and aspirations.

That search should be central to the business planning of any company or Government because it represents a changing mindset, and a new approach to production and marketing, of products, services and ideas.

Here we’ve had our first go at defining one element of that change. It’s an ongoing project. Eventually we hope the project will help leaders, corporate and political, to create the messages, product and policies that respond to what people are seeking.”

Continue reading “Five Ideas That Matter

Comcast and Me: a Twitter tale, in seven (little) acts

July 8th, 2009, by Peter Hirshberg | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

      Comcast has achieved renown for how they respond to customer service problems on Twitter.  An interesting social media case study, until it happened to me. 

    9:45 AM. Internet and phone crash, just before a big client call. I’m a Comcast triple play customer. I got no data, only TV. Fortunately a colleague has a draft of the prezo so I’m able to call in changes from my iPhone and she sends it off before the meeting.

    10:00 AM. Service is back. We start the call.  

    Over-the-next-hour AM Comcast service craps out twice more. Good thing for cell phones. They make everyone (including ISPs) think "land lines, who cares?"

    11:00 AM I call Comcast to complain, asking elegantly "WTF?" Comcast informs me, "We can get to it in 48 hours. If you were a business customer, we could do it sooner. But you’re not."  Worse, until they send the repair guy out to investigate, they can’t have their network people look into whether there is a problem in my neighborhood. 

    My response? "NOOOOOOOO." (Cue SFX: guy throwing a fit)  "That’s a terrible way to run a carrier. Even the phone company of yore was more on the ball." The customer service rep assures me TINMWCD (There Is Nothing More We Can Do. Why does Jarvis get all the nice acronyms?)

    And then it dawns on me:  I am An Empowered Consumer. In the Post Mass Media World. In the wake of the Jarvis Playbook I don’t need to threaten to throw a stink, I already stink! I’ve got 1,132 Twitter followers . So I wonder, if I Tweet, will anything come of it?

    What follows is tweets,  with commentary in red. 

    1. Peter Hirshberg
      hirshbergComcastFAIL: "Since ur a ‘residential’ subscriber, Comcast can’t fix your internet/phone service for 48 hours." I feel so 2nd class!

      1. ComcastBonnie@hirshberg we fix folks based upon the available quota alloted to the techs in your area. not based on type of customer
      2. Yikes That was fast! Less than a minute. And it wasn’t automated, Bonnie was talking to me! But what she said didn’t square at all with what Comcast told me on the phone.

      1. Peter Hirshberg
        hirshberg@ComcastBonnieThanks,but the comcast rep specifically told me, "if you were a business customer, we could get to you faster. But ur not."

  1. Peter Hirshberg
    hirshberg@ComcastBonnie As distressing as the service problem is, i appreciate your rapid attention to my tweet!
  2. I’m torn between their virtual attentiveness and their inattentiveness. I’m just delighted. And unhappy. 
    1. ComcastBonnie@hirshberg most areas have SLA’s in contracts with business accounts, that’s why.
      1. Holy contradiction, phone man! How can you "not distinguish based on type of customer" and simultaneously serve "business accounts" better because they contract for good service? That’s what I’m talking about. I’m feeling distinctly steerage about being a residential customer. Even AT&T didn’t say this to me before I threw them out last year!

      2. Peter Hirshberg
        hirshberg@ComcastBonnie So u do base service on customer type. Residential = no SLA = much slower repair time than AT&T or other LECs
          1. ComcastBonnie@hirshberg o_O my parent’s had verizon, who took three weeks to fix a no dialtone issue on their phone. it happens everywhere. manpower etc.
        1. So in the space of a few tweets we’ve gone from the lofty possibility of customer service in the era of transparency to "Dude, don’t you know, phone service can suck. Just call my mom. Help in today’s world…."

    3. My takeaways: 
    5. 1. Its just amazing you can complain and they are on it so fast! 
    7. 2. Comcast is in a world of hurt about what kind of service they guarantee mere residential customers. Beyond the "we can fix it in 48 hours," silliness there is the fact that residential customers can use only so much high speed data, or else. Or that if you actually transfer data for more than 15 minutes continuously at the maximum speed you signed up for, they’ll put you in the slow lane  
    9. 3. I heart transparency.  Tell me what service level I do or don’t get as a residential customer. When you tell me that triple play is such a deal, let me know that you are the cheap carrier with less service unless I’m a business customer. Tell me what I gotta pay for you not to cap my speed or throughput. 
    11. 4. Of course we do have more transparency than before. When i was a kid in New York in the ’70s both phone lines went out one day and mom had a fit! She looked at me, then outside (at manhattan, mind you)  and yelled, "We’ve lost communication with the outside world!" Back then she had no one to complain to but me and the wall. I was sent down the street to call New York Telephone from a pay phone and then hope they’d show up.  Which may explain why mom, in addition to using the phone more than anyone I know, is so damn curious about twitter.