‘Cluetrain’ Turns 10: “Markets are Conversations”

cluetrain-cover-origWhen the National Geographic Society redesigned its intranet some years ago, I served on a staff committee which made recommendations about how to upgrade the system’s features and functions.

Around the same time I stumbled upon The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. The book argued (in 1999) that since the internet gave everyone a microphone, employees and customers had new power, thereby changing the way managers needed to talk, listen, and lead.  Organized around its 95 Theses, Cluetrain said: “Markets are conversations. Talk is cheap. Silence is fatal.”

The book was a revelation to me, but not because I believed the internet was the beginning of a new Reformation (though maybe it is). I enjoyed the book because the authors were saying out loud what many of my colleagues at National Geographic had sensed was true, but hadn’t yet been able to put into words. Theses such as:

#40: Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.

#44: Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.

#45: Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation.

And this:

#52: Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.

Long story short: National Geographic’s intranet—Inside NGS—was redesigned and looked very different from the earlier version, but it remained a top-down channel  to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers were doing their best to ignore. Without any web tools or platforms for employees to engage in a networked conversation, Inside NGS remained a corporate bulletin board. It also became a showcase for features like Question of the Day, where hand-picked employee queries were posted—and answered. Here’s a typical one: “Is it possible to get a frozen yogurt machine in the Geoasis store?” (Answer: No, due to insufficient demand. But Geoasis does have a smoothie machine.)

If National Geographic has aspirations to become a real community on the web and in the world (and I’m told on good authority that it does), it might be wise to begin rethinking its own intranet. Conway’s Law states: “Organizations which design systems… are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

Which is just a fancy way of saying: nationalgeographic.com will forever mirror the Society’s intranet.

And that means our Society has two basic choices: Spend a few more years facilitating staff conversations about smoothie machines.

Or catch the Cluetrain.

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cluetrain-posterTonight, to mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of Cluetrain, Harvard University’s Berkman Center on Internet & Society will host “Cluetrain at 10: So How’s Utopia Working Out for Ya?”

The featured speakers:

• Doc Searls is one of four co-authors of Cluetrain. He’s also the Senior Editor of Linux Journal, a Berkman Fellow, and a well-known blogger.

• David Weinberger is a co-author of Cluetrain, and the author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002) and Everything is Miscellaneous (2008). He’s also a fellow at the Berkman Center, a frequent contributor to NPR, and has been an adviser to two presidential campaigns. (David is also an adviser to Society Matters.)

• Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the co-founder of the Berkman Center. He’s the author of The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It.

Tonight’s discussion at the Berkman Center will be webcast live at 6pm. You can see it here.

Cluetrain (the book) is available to read on the web for free.

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