Thanksgiving, Social Business, Community

This week is the time of the year when we in the US take a break from our busy lives to express Gratitude.

Gratitude is a positive emotion we feel in acknowledgment of a benefit we have received. Saying “Thank You” is the way to express that emotion which, I believe, is the basis of life in community. It recognizes that we depend on one another to live, to be ourselves.

We get used to say “Thank You” as a matter of social protocol. This is the time to bring its meaning back to consciousness.

I grew up in Brazil and my native language is Portuguese. We say “Obrigado“, which is not my favorite expression because it equals gratitude with indebtedness. Literally, it says “I owe you something”.

In my travels around the world I have always taken interest not only on the local word to express gratitude, but also on its literal meaning and the social attitude behind it.

My favorite form of “Thank You” is the one used in Malaysia. “Terima Kasih” sounds very friendly and it literally translates to “Receive Love”.

I am no historian or linguist, but I theorize that words equating gratitude and indebtedness have roots in a period in history where gratitude was used as social currency between levels of hierarchy, where favors were exchanged for political loyalty. Words that equals gratitude with love reflect a more equal exchange between peers.

Just to tie it back to Social Business, my main writing topic, I think we are shifting from a business environment where stronger relationships are more people-to-people and less customer-to-company or people-to-expert. In Social Business, gratitude has to be more like love and less like indebtedness.

Here is a list to say Thank You in other languages.

Namastê (from Sanskrit), used in Nepal and India, is a salutation that roughly translates to “I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me” (“Thank You” is “Dhan-ya-vaad”). It feels to me like how the ideal Thank You should be like.

With that in mind, I would like to say Thank You for reading, agreeing or disagreeing, providing feedback and teaching me through interaction in 2011.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Crowdsourcing: Knowledge Has a Long Tail

Why the Crowds will beat the Experts 

The history of human civilization is tightly connected with our ability to use language to organize groups of people to tackle complex problems and projects that are beyond the abilities of a single person.

Today, most organizations in our society (governments, armies, companies) structure themselves in a Hierarchical Pyramid, with knowledge and power concentrated at the top and segmented visibility of smaller decomposed tasks distributed along its base.

In this post, we argue this will change, that we will start effectively using less structured and specialized organizations (let’s call it Unstructured Crowd) to solve complex knowledge problems through Crowdsourcing Technology.

Crowdsourcing is not a cheap way to outsource work to volunteers. When done right, it is an entire new form of knowledge production with the potential to revolutionize our approach to solving simple and complex problems.

The Long Tail of Knowledge

The anonymous Open Source Software Community (producing the software that runs the Internet) and the volunteers of Wikipedia (have you consulted the Encyclopedia Britannica lately?) show that in at least some knowledge domains, Unstructured Crowds of regular people can effectively compete with Hierarchical Pyramids of professional experts.

How does that happen?

To understand, let’s look at how knowledge distributes among a population. The picture above shows a Long Tail distribution. “Long Tail” refers to a statistical property of a distribution where its “tail” is larger than in its “head”. This concept was made popular by Chris Anderson in a Wired Magazine article that applied it to the retail business.

If we agree that knowledge exits in a long tail distribution, the group at the head of the curve (“experts”) accumulates personal knowledge that is individually higher than the average person. But the total knowledge held by the experts is still relatively small compared to the knowledge held by the broader population.

The Medium is the Message

Differently from rich face-to-face interaction, the printed word imposes an uni-directional form of communication, where someone who knows something communicates information to someone who knows less, with little opportunity for real-time interaction.

Because we have used primarily books, documents, e-mail messages to accumulate and transfer knowledge, the voice of the expert became the voice of knowledge. We have built a segmented-knowledge society where each of us is specialized on a narrow domain (be it tightening a bolt, writing software, doing tax returns, or defining strategy). In this environment, collective intelligence does not have channels of expression.

But if there were technologies that lower the friction and cost of collaboration and co-creation, there is a point where the long tail of knowledge is tapped to produce concrete results. Digital technologies, the Internet and Social Media are starting to do just that.

The emerging Internet-based social medium emulates some of the characteristics of rich direct interaction. It is real-time (not linear), it links peer-t0-peer (not hierarchically), and it is interactive. It is creating the low-friction conditions for true co-creation to emerge.

So, if that is true, why don’t we see the effects of co-creation emerge in the most popular social (Twitter, Facebook, Google+) and Q&A websites (like Quora)? It is a new medium, but it takes some time for people to fully utilize it and the old model based on individual ego and segmented knowledge to fade.

Also, we are already using medium interactivity, but not yet created the mechanisms behind the interaction to allow for true co-creation and collective intelligence to emerge and be expressed. That back-end infrastructure is still emerging in the form of new Crowdsourcing Technology.


In domains being affected earlier by he digital medium, (e.g. software development and publishing), the long tail of knowledge held by the Unstructured Crowd is now able to express itself in ways that are competitive with Hierarchical Pyramids.

As Crowdsourcing technologies evolves and the adoption and application of those technologies spread over other domains, more and more complex problems can be tackled using a new form of human organization.

We will be able to solve problems not by analytically decomposing big problems into smaller ones, but by presenting complex problem to the collective intelligence and let it holistically express the solution.

Marcio Saito’s (@Marcio_Saito) interest in Collaboration and Co-Creation originates in his early involvement with the Open Source Software community in the early 90’s. He writes about Social Media and Collective Intelligence and is a co-founder and advisor to Ledface, a startup using Crowdsourcing to create a new kind of Intelligence.

My Private Parts

Parallels between Individual Privacy and Company Transparency

Until a few years ago I kept my life relatively private. Not only in the sense of keeping personal information from the public, but also by segmenting my social circles. I had multiple personas, with clear boundaries between information I would share among “family”, “friends”,  “co-workers”, or “acquaintances.”

When I started using social networking sites a couple of years ago, I initially transposed my segmentation to the virtual life (I communicated with family by phone and e-mail, Facebook is for friends, LinkedIn is for professional connections, etc). But it became increasingly difficult to manage all those groups and the leaking of context between them (despite the efforts of social network websites to help you manage “circles” or “groups”).

There was a point where I gave up maintaining those personal circles. It is just too difficult to keep track of who is in which group and what are the overlaps. I still try to route content that is relevant to each group, but I assume that what I say online can and will be seen by everyone. To a large degree, I gave up my privacy as most people understand it.

While it was initially difficult to make that leap, I eventually found the experience to be liberating. Once I internalized my newly found transparency, I did not need to think twice about who was the audience before writing or saying something. I can say what I think, as long as that was something I am willing to share with the world.

Of course, I do not advocate the end of the rights to segmentation, privacy or secrecy. On the contrary, I think those rights become even more important to freedom in a more social world. What I am saying is that, from a personal perspective, refraining from exercising those rights in excess for the illusion of privacy can be a very liberating experience.

I think the same applies to companies and social organizations. Advocating organizational transparency might trigger skepticism among people used to functional segmentation, but we are going from communicating only in a “need to know basis”, to the “public by default” era. With more organizational transparency, perhaps we sacrifice some focus and accountability, but if vision and strategy is shared effectively, we gain in execution and don’t need to spend as much time in management and alignment.

If companies are to engage with customers using social media, they must be more transparent and less controlling in that interaction. They also need to transform themselves from the inside-out. Employees must be trusted and empowered to help the organization engage satisfactorily with customers.

When companies go through that transformation, I suspect their experience will be similar to my personal evolution from a “private” to a “social” person and they will find that it is easier, not harder, to conduct business that way.

And you, what is your secret?


Solo Traveling in Canada – Hosteling, Technology and Photography

I took 10 days of vacation in October 2011 and visited Western Canada. My itinerary went like this: Vancouver (1 night), Squilax (1 night), Banff (2 nights), Jasper (2 nights), Lake Louise (1 night), Squilax (1 night), Vancouver (1 night).

Here is the slide show with the travel highlights. Scroll down for my thoughts on how the experience of travelling alone is changing because of technology.

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Hosteling – not only for poor students anymore

Yes, I agree I am bit too old to stay in hostels, but I still find this is the best when solo (which is how I have done most of my travel).  You meet interesting people, have the opportunity to share experiences, offer and get help, make new friends.

Hosteling International (HI) is clearly changing their target audience. They no longer call themselves “Youth Hostels” and most facilities have been upgraded to combine the advantages of a hostel (common areas, communal fully-equipped kitchens, Internet connectivity, etc) with the comforts of hotels (towels and linen, decent hot showers, 24-hour reception desks, etc).

Think about it, if you charge $30 per person and put 6 people in a dorm bedroom, that is equal to running a $180/room hotel. So there is nothing surprising about finding hostels that are better than the average tourist hotel (Banff and Lake Louise easily pass that criteria).

Some hostels are still basic like in old times, but those tend also to be interesting in some other way (e.g. the hostel in Squilax is a set of old train cars, still on the rail tracks by a beautiful lake, that have been converted into dorms).

If you have not been in a hostel in the past 25 years, I recommend you try it again, just for fun (even if you are paired with someone).

Photography and Social Media

This was the first time I did “backpack” traveling carrying an iPhone (and an iPad) with its two cameras. That was in addition to the pocketable point-and-shoot (Canon Power Shot) I carry for convenience and agility and a SLR (Canon Rebel) for telephoto or a special scene.

Rather than replace one of the other cameras, the iPhone broadened the subjects I would photograph. I was sharing what I was experiencing (rain, interesting food I was eating, a special view of the mountains,  etc) in real-time instead of seeing through an analytical eye of a photographer thinking what is the most “representative” image to share later.

So I was using the compact camera to document the trip, the SLR for creative photography, and the smart phone to socialize in real-time. It deeply changed the experience of travelling alone (several of my friends at home were there with me through the comments and responses to my posts).

Internet, Social Media and Travel Planning

On my last night in Vancouver, I went to the Gastown district for some end-of-trip bar hopping. Instead of looking up my travel books, I posted “Going bar hopping in #Vancouver – any suggestions?”

My friend @krcraft (who is in Toronto) responded and immediately connected me with a Vancouver local I did not know. I got a short list of “must see” bars in Gastown,  in real-time, literally as I walked along Water Street and stopped in front of a Starbucks WiFi hot spot.

As I enjoyed my Elk tenderloin, paired with a great local IPA at “Alibi Room”, I twitted again about and how much I was enjoying Vancouver. Another local Twitter friend picked up that and helped me to select the next place in the short list (another hit, “Chambar”, specialized on Belgian Ales).

Social Media was giving me real-time, authoritative advice on every step along the way.

Earlier, I had met Liz in front of the fireplace of the hostel in Banff. We both had iPads and both had identical red covers. So I did not have to think too hard about a good pick-up line :).

As we talked, we used the tablets to look up maps (she is from Jersey, a small island off Normandy, but part of the UK), continue to socialize our conversation with others, change future reservations and travel plans based on input from the other, share photos from family and from the trip.

Rather than negatively interfere with the conversation, I found the iPads to enrich the interaction between two travelers meeting along the way (maps, photos, plans, Wikipedia). We learned more about each other than if we were just talking.

Then she opens her backpack, gets a bottle out and asks. “Would you want to share this BC Cabernet with me?”

Symbols, Storytelling and Corporate Culture

Caesar’s wife must not only be honest, she must look honest.

I was participating in the last #custserv Twitter Chat (Tuesdays, 9PM ET) and @richardnatoli posed the question (paraphrased):

How to manage the culture of the organization as new employees join and mesh with existing employees? We are trying to cultivate a culture that embraces the value of being proactive.

The group offered several answers, ranging from managing culture during the hiring process, to establishing best practices and policies, mentorship and training programs, etc.

I offered that is also important to use unstructured approaches to cultivate and manage company culture, mentioned Storytelling and Symbols as tools, and promised to post this article.

Wikipedia can tell what Storytelling is and a quick search will find many books on how it can be applied in business. But I wanted to share an experience as an example.

The Frugal Company

A few years ago, I was working for a small company. We had started it from scratch and bootstrapped it without any external capital. Because of that, frugality was embedded in our organizational DNA, it was an important company value. There were no written rules, but we booked the cheapest coach tickets available, our expense reports did not include expensive bottles of wine, we had spartan furniture in the office.

As we became successful, for the first time around 2002, we started hiring several outside directors and VPs, many coming from larger tech companies in Silicon Valley.

It did not take long for the problem to emerge. New people were used to nice hotels and business class flights, and that created management problems and conflict with old employees as you can imagine.

The corporate reaction was to set new “travel and expense policies” to standardize the behavior of older and new employees. The hotel rate limit was $100/night, which allowed for a reasonable business hotel in most cities, but was certainly not enough for the Marriott or the Embassy Suites.

Of course, that generated a lot of talk and rebellion. Old employees were bothered by the attitude of newcomers when it came to using company money. New employees thought the company was unreasonably stingy.

What happened over the next couple of months was truly enlightening to me.

Telling Stories

I had a collection of frugality stories from the very early startup times that I used to tell and retell at corporate functions.

There was  the time when we attended Comdex in Las Vegas and had to share rooms at the Motel 6 on Tropicana Blvd. Or when I had to carry and smuggle an IBM 3270 terminal from the parking lot three blocks from the Moscone Center in San Francisco to our trade show booth so we avoided paying absurd trade show equipment fees. I was almost run over by a bus on Mission St.

During those times of growth turbulence, we had a happy hour and I told those stories over the bar table to a group of the newcomers. This was not new to me, but it was new to them. The stories spread like wildfire. Next day, there were people around the water coolers retelling Marcio’s stories.

Motel with Rodents

At about the same time the CEO and I (CTO at the time) were planning our annual media tour, going to New York City and Boston for briefings with media and market analysts. If you have been to those cities, you know you cannot stay anywhere for $100/night, even in 2003. It just made business sense to make an exception to the rule and pay more to stay closer to where our meetings were going to be.

When the person making the reservations for us came to ask, we decided to stick to the policy. We stayed in Queens for our meetings in NYC and at a really bad motel outside Boston.

When we came back, our PR person told a couple of the sales people what we went through. I observed the same story spreading phenomena: next day everyone was asking me about the rodent encounter at the motel in Boston.

Organizational Mythology

We never had any other problem or complaints with travel expenses. Everyone, old and new, had internalized careful use of company money as a cultural value. If we removed the policies restricting expenses, nothing would change.

In retrospect, this is what had happened:

  • The old stories, which all old employees had either lived or heard many times before formed the “company mythology” that works through people’s right-side of the brain to support the company culture.
  • The decision to go against common sense served as a symbol and validation of that culture. If the CEO would spend the night in Queens to attend meetings in NYC, why should a sales person complain about not been able to stay at the Marriott in every city?

So, answering to Richard’s question, I would say that to manage company culture, to keep it from diluting as you bring new people, or developing new desirable values, you need to do all things you know you need to do: hire with the culture in mind, implementing training and mentoring programs, explicitly articulate your values and implementing policies and practices aligned with them.

But as or perhaps more important, you need to collect stories every organization has (embellish them to make them interesting and memorable if you have too) and cultivate a mythology by repeated storytelling. That process has to be authentic, but sometimes can benefit from a bit of deliberation.

Richard, in your case, think of the real stories that highlight pro-activeness and make it a habit to tell that story at every opportunity.

Apple and Steve Jobs do it too

As it is the case with Caesar’s wife, being true to your values is not enough. The leadership must provide the symbols, the validation points for that culture. Occasionally, the leaders need to go against common sense (those are the stronger memorable symbols) to make a point that lets people know how important that is.

Every strong culture does that. Even if you never worked at Apple, you heard the stories about Steve Jobs firing people on the spot if he did not like a design. People at Apple must pay attention to detail. They know the user experience is important. And they understand that if you don’t internalize those values, you will be fired by Jobs himself.

Do you think Jobs walked around firing people? No, he probably did it once or twice (and probably did it against business common sense). But those stories and symbols are memorable and get passed from employee to employee (in the case of Apple, even outside the company).

That is Apple’s culture. Those are the stories that support that culture.

The summary firings by Jobs or my stay at the Boston motel with rodents are strong symbols that validate to people how important those values are.

Hope this is useful.

8 Checkpoints for Customer Engagement

Social Media is fundamentally different from traditional media in the fact that it is open and allows for bi-directional and peer-to-peer communication outside the control of the marketer. The shift to new media requires us to review some of the processes we use in marketing.

Customer Service is the new Marketing

We have segmented companies in departments dedicated to “influence” customers before the sale and others to listen to or “handle” customer problems after the sale. That segmentation optimizes organizations for efficiency, but offers an often inconsistent experience for customer as they evolve through the life-cycle from prospect to buyer to satisfied and loyal customer to brand advocate.

In the Social Business era,  customers demand a better experience. The person representing the company in any customer interaction must be empowered to answer a question, solve a problem, collect feedback and satisfy a need on the spot.

Being able to communicate across multiple channels is no longer enough, you must be capable to switch between channels without losing context or dropping the ball.

This change will stress current business models and requires changes in how we engage with prospects and customers.

8 Checkpoints for customer engagement

Only you know what applies to and works for your business, but here are a few points to consider when re-evaluating the way your company engage with customers.

  • Speak like a Person! Customers can see through the marketing messages and detect the intentions behind them.  Communicate as transparently as possible and use direct language. Avoid marketing-speak.
  • Recognize the value of relationships. It is not only the sum of the transactions. We need to add to that the co-creation value (product and marketing insights) and all the other transaction influenced by the person over the life of the relationship. Don’t think about the size of the deal, but how much value the customer brings to the company over time.
  • Go where customers are. It can be online forums or social media sites. Employ social tools embedded in your Sales/Marketing systems to scale human interactions. Automation is good for back-end processes, not for customer relationship.
  • Own customer engagements. You might be outsourcing Customer Service or sell through indirect channels. Having other entities engage with customers on your behalf is fine, but you need to own the relationship with end users, or your competitor will.
  • Open your Knowledge Base. Your KB must be open to external contributions and accessible so that customers can self- and peer-help, saving your resources to deal with the instances where specific action is required. The social customer often knows more about the product than the vendor itself.
  • Open your product design process to include customers. I don’t mean just having a product manager collecting use cases from anecdotal customer interactions. I mean truly open the process using social computing technology if necessary so that customer can help to co-create the solution, offer suggestions, prioritize features in a continuous and iterative engagement.
  • Operate in Real-time. If a customer is unhappy, you want to know immediately, before she influences 10 other prospects. A happy customer becomes a brand advocate.
  • Turn Marketing into a Resonance Chamber. We already know that the best way to convince a prospect is to have the endorsement of existing reference customers. Connect your happy customers with your prospects, be in the conversation and resonate/amplify it. That is the new role of marketing.

Business Decisions, Analysis and Social Media

Is Social Media making us less objective?

When we collect data for analysis, we use methods that are not completely open; our questions in surveys and interviews assume a certain business model behind them. We can attempt to collect data that is representative, balanced and complete.

When we switch from asking to listening (in Social Media channels), we lose some of control over the data gathering process and the risk is that the data we collect is less objective.

Are business decisions made on anecdotal evidence or objective analysis?

Most people in business were trained as analysts and strive to make decisions based on objective information. We understand the limitations of business modeling, but diligently attempt to apply it to every aspect of what we do.

But most people don’t make strategic decisions every day and the truth is that the leaders doing it work mostly off anecdotal information. The CEO visits two customers (out of thousands) and they both say the same thing, creating an insight. The VP meets someone at a party, just a day before that important meeting. Executives don’t get all data and receive influence from internal and external analysts.

Serendipity, coincidence, social factors are really what trigger the insight behind new ideas and decisions in business.

Analysis is the filter, not the source of business decisions

That doesn’t mean analysis is less important. Once an idea emerges from insight, analysis must be used to validate or to kill them. This is what happens in most companies, even when we play the theater where ideas are presented as if it came from an analytical process.

It should not be surprising. The scientific method is also about using insight to propose a theory and then use analytical experiments to collect supporting data to validate or invalidate it.

What is the role of Social Media in data gathering?

So, our ideation and decision-making process has those two sides (synthesis/insights, analysis/validation).

If we understand the nature of Social Media, we don’t need to be afraid that the shift towards it as a communication channel will make our analysis less objective.

Social Media, besides being the main channel for customer engagement in the future, like meeting face-to-face, is naturally a good place to collect anecdotal evidence, customer stories, outside perspective.

Can it also be source of objective data? Not today. Population coverage (Social Media is still fully adopted by a small portion of the customer base in most businesses), data structure are open issues that need to be addressed in the future.

Customer Service: Not Saving Transaction, but Keeping Company Promise

During the #custserv chat (every Tuesday, 9PM ET), we started this discussion:

@MarshaCollier: Should customer service should become a caste system, segmented by $$ spent? #custserv

@berkson0: caste system] it isn’t already? #custserv

@catykobe: Nope. Every customer is equally important regardless of how much they spend. #CustServ

The discussion then moved to Google+ to answer this paraphrased question:

Should Customer Service spend the same energy with every customer, or should it spend more time with customers who made larger purchases?

I adapted my answer to that question into this post.

As with any good question, the answer is “it depends”. There are at least two different angles to the answer.

Rationale 1: Spend as much time as necessary to solve the problem

The mission of Customer Service is to complete/ensure the delivery of value to customers. It can only be successful if it is fully committed to that goal.

If solving post-transaction problems is routinely taking time that makes the business non-viable, the root of the problem is elsewhere (badly designed product/service, unrealistic expectations).

Of course, everything has a limit. There are situations where Customer Service better “fire the customer” (as discussed in a recent #custserv chat).

Rationale 2: Optimize resources to maximize returns

Generally, businesses try to allocate resources so that it maximizes return. So it is natural that a company will spend more resources to address issues affecting a large portion of the business.

Spend more resources on bigger deals.

A new variable is that it is becoming difficult to measure the “lifetime value” of a customer relationship. As Social Media enables more peer-influence,  that “small” customer might be the person who brings you or kill the deal of your life in the future.

My Point-of-View

In the most common scenario where Customer Service interventions are exceptions and not the rule (i.e. post-sale issues are relatively rare), I would advocate rationale 1: Focus on making the customer happy without looking at the meter.

Looking at customer service time based on size of the deal makes more sense in cases where post-transaction interventions are common, part of the usual transaction workflow in the business model.

Customer Service: You are not trying to save a transaction, you are keeping the company promise to its customers.

Sales Presentations: Are You Hot or What?

You are presenting to the most important customer. You have rehearsed it, and the slide deck uses large font and less than 7 words per bullet.  They love it. You rock. You are Hot!

Being able to deliver a good presentation is an important skill for a Salesperson. Sure. Now, have you thought about how engaging you presentations are? Beyond the basics, considering media and style based on your goals is what make sales presentations effective.

Sometimes Cool is better

In Understanding Media, Marshal McLuhan explains that media can demand different degrees of participation from the audience. He defines as “cool” medium the type that is open to participation and “hot” medium the type that is not.

For example, one can admire a realistic painting for its beauty or photographic-qualities, but the viewer does not need to make much effort filling in the details. The painting is complete; it calls for passive absorption. It is “Hot”.

Impressionist painters, on the other hand, attempt to capture the transient effects of sunlight (which cannot be done literally on canvas). Perceiving the mood of the scene requires interpretation of broken brushstrokes. Compared to Realists, Impressionists are more open-ended, they need active participation from the viewer, they are “Cool”.

Want it Hot? Use PowerPoint. Want it Cool? Leave the projector behind.

McLuhan also said “The Medium is the Message”.  Content is important, but the medium defines the character of engagement. In order to change the communication dynamics, one must consider changing the medium itself.

For example, motion pictures or PowerPoint slides are Hot Media and lead to more closed communication. Twitter, on the other hand, is Cool Media, good for interaction, but not the right medium to convey structured and well-formed ideas.

Why is it important for people in business to think about Hot and Cool Media?

  1. Consider your Goals – If you are at the first stages of a sales engagement with a prospect and want to qualify the opportunity and discover requirements, you want the customer to talk. You want to use Cool Media (e.g. set a roundtable, be conversational, use blank sheets of paper). If you are closing the deal and consciously want to control the agenda and conduct the audience to the close, be Hot (use a rich slide presentation, provide data, saturate their senses).
  2. Consider your Audience – There is a new generation ascending to business and, for the next couple of decades, there will be a trend towards Cool, participative communication. Social media will gain priority over print and newspaper ads. Presentations will be less effective than interactive conversations. A seminar or round table is preferred over a lecture. Facebook and Twitter become marketer’s media.

So are you Cool or what?