Evangelist: beware

Evangelists. Plenty of them hang out in the sustainability and collaboration fields where I work. Some irritate while others are acceptable. And this isn't because they necessarily reflect my views. (In case you were wondering.) The trick is to spot, early on, which variety you're faced with and make your excuses and leave if they're the 'wrong' kind.

Last week, the Free Software Foundation, wrote to the Fortune 500 companies (well, it didn't bother with Microsoft) essentially telling them they'd be mad to upgrade to Windows 7. The story was widely covered but few publications would have ended up with such a rich discussion as the Register. This is a hugely popular online IT publication which takes no prisoners. It has attitude and a healthy disregard for some of the tripe that emanates from the industry it serves. Readers are encouraged to comment on items and, this particular article quickly attracted 145 comments.

The interesting thing is that the article was about an evangelical organisation and it attracted evangelistic commentators, both pro- and anti-, as well as your everyday commenters. The end result is that anyone with the willingness to work through the comments, evangelistic or otherwise, would end up with an independent point of view, providing they read through with an open mind. If they didn't, they'd end up just strengthening their own prejudices.

The sustainability and collaboration folk are no different. The evangelists are noisy, in your face, on conference platforms, lobbying whoever and wherever possible, frequently on the web with their blogs, Tweets and comments. They exist everywhere, and always have. The big difference today is that they can be more readily heard.

You can get positive evangelists who show how life could be better. I have a lot of time for them, even if they turn out to be wrong. At least they're trying to help. Then you have the negative ones who are more intent on tearing down than building up. "This is wrong" or "you shouldn't do that" rather than "try this alternative" or "why not do this?". In pop psychology, the former are the I'm OK, you're not OK brigade – the same mentality, incidentally, as criminals.

A lot of evangelists are so immersed in their blinkered view of the world, that they forget (or ignore) the fact that, if adopted, their wheezes might cause more problems than they solve. We're shutting down coal and nuclear power stations to cheers from the acid rain and nuclear waste storage evangelists. But how deeply have they considered where the energy is going to come from? Or, alternatively, what impact on our lives a profound cut in consumption will cause? I venture to suggest, 'not a lot'. Out here in the real world, we have to find solutions, not just state problems.

In a way, the easiest ones to deal with are those that have 'Evangelist' printed on their business cards. They're being paid by someone to persuade others of the folly of their ways. You'll find these folk in many major IT companies. Others are not so obvious. Perhaps a company has plied them with gifts or other, more subtle, bribes. Recently I was talking with a Toyota (non-employee) iQ evangelist. Turns out she'd 'won' the car for a six month trial, in exchange for blogs and other social media outreach. Others are just total believers in 'the cause' simply because it makes sense to them within their own frame of reference.

The answer has to be to filter them as quickly as possible. Find out who pays for their evangelism in money or in other ways. Ask them what alternatives they know about in detail. And get them to tell you what the long term implications of their advocacy are likely to be. Some will slink away from the interrogation. Some will bluster, so you can take your leave of them. Those that will remain probably have a good and well thought out story to tell.

Salesforce/Twitter: genuine help or fake sincerity?

Interesting that Marc Benioff (boss of Salesforce.com) should choose to announce the addition of Twitter to its Service Cloud on Monday. Why? Because it won't be available until the summer. Part of me suspects that the reason was simply because Twitter is a very hot topic today and it might be tepid by June. The official reason, I think, is that the deal with Twitter had just been inked.

The news might have passed me by had we (Freeform Dynamics) not received an official announcement from the company. The covering letter said, "…enabling companies to search, monitor and join conversations taking place on Twitter…" Without being a Salesforce.com expert, I was worried that a whole bunch of sales types or, worse, machines would start trying to insert themselves into Twitter conversations.

In fact, the pitch is somewhat more genuine than that. It suggests that organisations can monitor Twitter (a free addition to the $995/month 'Service Cloud' which already provides access to a number of online services such as Google Search and FaceBook) for mentions and, when they relate to problems, do something about them. That something will end up as either a comment to the Tweeter with a link to a solution to their problem or, if lots of people have the same problem, a general announcement-type Tweet. (Or maybe a bunch of direct messages – I don't know if the Service Cloud can do that. Nothing, apart from the tedium, to stop the help desk people doing it though.)

All sounds pretty reasonable, right? Back there in Salesforce.com land, the client organisation will have a whacking great database of customers, prospects, queries and answers. Each can be clothed instantly with relevant Tweet threads. I quite often appeal for help online. If someone were to help me, and I said "hooray, it worked!" or similar, then this thread would be collected for future reference by support staff. A bit cheeky perhaps, but quite understandable. It expands the company's own knowledge base at little extra cost.

Getting a bit more sinister, it would be possible for a sales person with access to the Service Cloud to hoover up personal information about a prospect before making a call. ("Sorry to hear about your recent illness. How are you feeling now?") These things aren't impossible today, but because it's built right into the Salesforce system, it is actually quite powerful. A tremendous aid to fake sincerity.

And this is the point, isn't it? If the service is used for the genuine benefit of the customer, then people will welcome it. If, however, it's used to exploit the Tweeting public, then the backlash will be swift and unstoppable.

But who will the backlash be aimed at? Twitter for allowing access? The Salesforce customer for abusing the system? Or Salesforce itself for providing the Service Cloud?"

Any thoughts on that, Twitter?

Sidestep formal structures for effective change

Many companies like to think they understand all about business processes and change management. They spend fortunes on consultancy, design, structures, processes, training, roll out and management, then wonder why they don't get the results they expected. So they have another go…

Well, maybe things aren't quite that bad, but I bet you can think of plenty of examples of 'change initiatives' that just don't get the buy-in of the grass-roots people who are supposed to implement them. Part of the problem is that they quite often try to appeal to reason. They use PowerPoints with lots of bullet points to try to hook the intellect and forget the emotional dimension. Maybe they think there's no room for emotion in their business.

But why do people go to work generally? Especially so-called 'white collar' workers. It's for the satisfaction of doing a job well and for recognition and this doesn't just mean in the pay packet. Not a good motivator at the best of times.

Part of the problem is that we've become accustomed to treating business as a mechanistic process. And a predictable one at that. Do this, force it through these process pipes, and consistent results will pop out the other end. In truth, many of the most important business processes are chaotic. Think of sales and marketing, for example. Untidy real life gets in the way. Reality has little to do with the org chart and formal processes and much more to do with endless workarounds and informal communications.

Yes, of course some processes or workflows do what they're supposed to. Regulations have to be followed and suchlike. But these are a bit like the unconscious processes of the human body. We can walk down the street while we pump blood, breathe and digest our food. But our attention is on the interesting conversation with the person walking with us.

So it is in business, the interesting stuff and the stuff that is likely to do the business most good in the future is probably the stuff that lies outside the fundamental formal systems of the organisation.

Leandro Herrero has written a most interesting book on how organisations can bring about change by acknowledging that all is not what it seems in the body corporate. He alights on the fact that, alongside the 'organigramme', lives a communication network in which all employees and business partners participate to a greater or lesser degree. Some people are highly connected, others only slightly. These are the strong ties and weak ties beloved of social network analysts. His book is called Viral Change.

It investigates how these social networks can be put to work to bring about transformational change in double quick time – months rather than years – and without any of the complexity of traditional change programmes. Apart from the acknowledgement and exploitation of social networks, the book is heavy on behavioural psychology. In fact, for anyone interested, it contains a 16-page PhD psychology course, which is then summarised in a couple of pages at the end of the chapter.

As someone who's spent several years deep in the social network world and a further thirty plus years as a behavioural psychology advocate, the book resonated rather well with me. But the point that Herrero makes is that behaviour can be observed. It is unequivocal. Bring about behavioural change and the culture will change as a consequence. And you don't need more than five defined behaviour changes to bring about massive transformation. The trick is, of course, in finding and defining those which are most appropriate.

Diving off slightly to one side for a second, why did the iPod catch on the way it did? Apart from it being a neat piece of kit, don't you think the white headphones and leads had something to do with it? People were curious, they enquired, they copied, it became a fashion. But Steve Jobs didn't directed this take up to the nth degree. Apple seeded opinion formers and influencers and let the network do the rest. So why should influence spread any differently in organisations?

Why not seed the movers and shakers – the people who are well connected and, therefore almost certainly respected too – with what needs to be achieved and let them start infecting their closest connections. Then as they and their behaviour change, others will notice and, if they respect or admire the folks who are adopting new ways, they will copy too. Especially if adoption is periodically recognised or reinforced, to use the vernacular. Before you know it, you have an epidemic on your hands and change has permeated. It becomes the norm.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a 400-page book. But the book does strip away a lot of nonsense associated with traditional expensive and long-winded change management programmes. And, yes, the author is undoubtedly pushing the services of his company, The Chalfont Project. You won't agree with many of the things he suggests, but then you're probably not expected to. If he infects you with the fundamental principles, it's up to you to figure out how to make it work in your world.

The book is a useful catalyst to exploiting the power of social networking and behavioural psychology to accelerate needed change in organisations.

If you're happy to provide your details you can download a free eight page overview of the approach from Herrero's website.

Even if this piece has irritated you, I think it's worth a look. You never know what you might be missing.

The Last One, Personal Computer world and me

Still clearing out the office, ready for the move. Still chucking out my life by the recycling-bin load.

But, today, lurking in a corner, I found this 26-year old issue of Personal Computer World:

Boy, did I get it in the neck for this one.  Not from my publisher or my colleagues, but from other journalists and editors. They thought it was a huge joke and that I (at the time, both the writer of the piece and the editor of the magazine) had made a monumental mistake.

It’s only now, looking back, that I realise that they probably didn’t even read the article. Or, in fact, read the coverline which ends with a question mark. Truth is, they were probably jealous at the attention we were drawing away from their titles.

The program in question was called "The Last One" and it not only worked (eventually) but, for donkey’s years, its publisher made money out of a consulting business wrapped around the software.

Marck Pearlstone was the programmer who was called in to rescue the project in the early days, when it was very buggy. He’s been my partner (and the programmer) in Brainstorm Software for the past ten or eleven years.

If you’re interested, The Last One generated application code for commercial applications.

Antony Brewerton: On branding the library

Found myself speaking at Re-imagining the Library the other day, sponsored by CILIP and Talis. The audience was a mix of public, corporate and academic librarians and the speakers were charged with sparking off some fresh thinking. None did this better than Antony Brewerton, head of academic support at the University of Warwick. Previously, he was at Oxford Brookes University and before that at the University of Reading.

Anyway, his presentation was excellent. The others I saw (I had to nip out, unexpectedly, for a couple of hours to take a briefing for some urgent writing work) were very good but if there was a prize for best presentation he’d have won it. He was intelligent, articulate and amusing on the tough subject, for librarians, of branding.

To give a flavour of the man, he decided to take the theme of ‘inspiration’. He looked at pennies dropping, Rodin’s Thinker, a light bulb (incandescent, naughty boy), but while good, he felt there was something better. Then he thought of Newton and the famous apple.

Well, and this shows the calibre of the man, Antony couldn’t have any old apple, it had to be special.

He spent hours in greengrocery shops studying the goods. Eventually, he found the perfect apple. Then he needed the right light for the photography. He found it outside on a bright day. But then the pesky apple, while it had all the right colours, didn’t reflect the light properly. So he took it indoors and gave it the Johnson’s Wax treatment. Back outside, he placed it on a large sheet of white card and finally got his shot.

Sadly, I can only find a monochrome picture but, as soon as I find a colour one, I’ll put it here.


You can already see what a fine apple it is and how magnificently it’s been polished.

And the caption was:


Brilliant. So simple. Addresses the undergraduates’ second most important issue (after beer). Or do I mean third?

He cited Theodore Levitt who said, "Purchasing agents don’t buy 1/4 inch drills; they buy 1/4 inch holes."

So true. And so easy to forget.

Thanks Antony.

Traditional media vs social media – Shel Holz ‘gets it’

A man called Stowe Boyd has been attracting a lot of attention to himself by lashing out at people who "don’t get it" when it comes to social media, new media or whatever you want to call it. Most people I know in the social media world hold Boyd in high regard. I have yet to reach that particular Nirvana.

Ever since I first entered the blogosphere (as a latecomer in 2004 with a mainstream media background) I’ve noticed that, when cornered, fanatical insiders like to hurl the "you don’t get it" accusation, without clarifying quite what it is that needs to be got. At least Boyd tries to help in this regard, but with mind-numbingly long posts.

A couple of days ago Boyd took Shel Holtz to task in a post headlined "Shel Holtz Is The Perfect Example Of PR People Not Getting It". I guess he knew he’d provoke discussion with that one and crank up the links to his blog (which carries ads, of course). Just like he did when he chastised the organisers of the Office 2.0 conference last year, making liberal use of the attention-grabbing word f**k.(My asterisks.)

Perhaps what he didn’t expect is that Holtz would reply with a long, reasoned and definitely not mind-numbing, response.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the media space – traditional as well as new – Holtz’s post is a fine place to start. (It’s ostensibly about digital press releases but it’s way more valuable than that.)