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95 Theses .. and social networking July 28, 2006

Posted by newyorkscot in Agile, Management, Marketing.
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I was reading ConfusedOfCulcutta the other day who had blogged about Cluetrain and this geek version of the 95 Theses. The Cluetrain Manifesto has some interesting ideas, witty observations and a very healthy amount of rant against the establishment (one of the authors created RageBoy). But it is not for everyone, example here.

Whatever your take, there were some interesting anecdotes and points in Cluetrain that have some relevance from a social networking and collaboration perspective in financial services, and specifically technology in FS. The truth is that our industry is really not that big in terms of the network of people within it, and therefore the relationships we have and cultivate are critical to building a successful business. Close relationships are built on trust and a record of delivery. Once you have them, you have to protect and nurture them. If you lose them, game over. 

One of the main themes in Cluetrain is that of the markets being conversations. I do agree with this, however I think that conversations and the human/social aspects are the fuel that drives the markets and instills a sense of belonging and community — but from a business perspective you also need to have a product or service that has value, is differentiated and can be delivered well.

Another thing they talk about is the use of the human voice over mass-marketing and corporate messaging. This, I totally agree with. None of the people we work for, nor those we would like to work for, want to hear the sales-pitch and marketing fluff. They want to hear what you do, how you do it, as well as your view and opinion. They want to understand and relate to you as a person, and as a proxy for the other people in your organization. They are humans too and will make judgements, have emotions, opinions and sensitivities. Ramming some corporate marketing-speak down their throats is not what they are looking for –  especially when the conversation is technical. A more honest, open and candid approach has always worked better for me when talking to clients, partners, journalists, analysts and other market players. Respect and trust are earned, not bought. In the (partial) defense of marketing though (which gets a good old kicking by Cluetrain), I do believe that it can add value in places such as helping to formulate valuable strategic partnerships (yes, via conversations!) across the market to create interesting service oferings, or providing a support function to both the sales and engineering organizations. Marketing can also help to foster internal communications as well as exposing the company’s real people to the outside world (via blogs, for example).

There is a lot of discussion about an employee-led organization versus the command and control modus operandi. This is where I think some balance is needed. First and foremost, I believe that maximizing transparency to everyone in the organization is important to fostering an open and respectful environment in the workplace. This has to be opened up across all functions (engineering, projects, marketing, sales, recruiting, etc) so people can really get to see what everyone is doing, how they are doing it, and question why they are doing it at all!  Today’s social software is a key aspect that extends much of what is said in Cluetrain (specific elements of which, such as wikis and blogs etc, were missed in Cluetrain as it was written in the late ’90s). This social networking will help to foster open communication, feedback and innovation within the company and even (but not always!) with clients. It is nice to see some companies such as Dresdner adopting social networking as a corporate policy (they use Socialtext for their wiki).

[Sidenote: Open source communities are a great example of where borderless collaboration rely on natural human dynamics to innovate and develop technologies that we can all benefit from. It is nice to see (finally) that some financial services institutions are relatively wholesale in acknlowledging that these tools & frameworks (Spring and Hibernate being obvious examples) can and should be leveraged, but maybe that is because a) the maturity of the technology has progressed and its adoption has “crossed the chasm”  and/or b) the cost-structure outweighs their natural risk adversity !!!]

Getting back to employee-driven organizations, where people want to get involved in many aspects of the company they should be encouraged (within reason). Where people do not want to broaden their role or responsibilities, that’s cool with me as well. That said, I think there are some things that do require a certain amount of “control” albeit with the appropriate amount of feedback and insight from the ranks. Things like finance, legal, HR and certain aspects of sales do require a certain amount of sensitivity and confidentiality. For me, the most important thing is to leverage people for what they are good at and to support what they would like to do. Imposing articifial barriers, filters and restraints is counterproductive to both innovation, as well as delivery of the company’s services. We want leadership over management !!

From a project delivery perspective, I have always subscribed to some of the same human/social aspects of agile development. Self-organizing teams that have been given the reigns to get the delivery done, but supported by a “facilitaor / impediment remover”, aka the Scrum Master in Scrum, demonstrate how well the theory can play out in practice — when executed properly. Over several iterations, the language the team speaks, the dynamics, the comradery and their productivity simply improve in orders of magnitude. Some of this is due to improving their understanding of the business or technical domain and the use of certain solid engineering practices (continuous build & integration, refactoring, code reviews, etc). But I think most of it is down to the social and interpersonal dynamics that come from the close collaboration with end-users, regular feedback, daily stand-ups, and team retrospectives. As I also previously mentioned, wikis are brilliant in supporting iterative development.

At the end of the day, if you provide a collaborative, challenging and fun workplace for your people, they will help you communicate with and deliver for your clients and their people. I am not suggesting that it easily results in the ultimate, most heavenly blissful corporate paradise that some would have us subscribe to, but it would certainly make our life (at work) that much more rewarding and certainly a lot more fun….

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