Scaling the ivory towers

In 2001, Adriana Lukas was working for a large financial firm in the City of London when she started blogging with Samizdata, a quasi-political blog “for people with a critically rational individualist perspective”.

Back then, there were dozens of bloggers rather than millions, and the term social media wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.

Adriana liked blogging so much, she left her finance job and started up an agency, the Big Blog Company, telling businesses how to use blogs.

With a degree from Oxford University and an earlier stint spent at ‘Big 5’ consultancy, KPMG, she could have been your archetypal management consultant.

“No, no, I hate that term,” says Adriana. “A friend of mine says I’m an ‘insultant’ – I much prefer that.”

Companies be warned, it’s not the blogs we’re really talking about here. The blogs are simply an entrée, a conversation starter, or, potentially, a metaphor. Adriana’s big blog crusade is all about business change.

We’re chatting over chilled water (it’s hot, it’s August) at Adriana’s town-house in Chelsea. And Adriana’s feeling frustrated and maybe a little bit fed up.

Adriana at home in Chelsea

“I’m amazed when I go into businesses how little they know about the outside world. Managers are so bogged down in the day to day minutiae of running the organisation they don’t have a chance to be aware of what’s really going on.

“Businesses are SO behind. If you think about a typical business organisation, certain words come to mind – control, autocracy, systems, closed – whereas if you look at the web, the networked world, it’s completely the opposite. The networked world is completely heterarchical.

“We’re talking about two totally contradictory environments – offline versus networked. It’s a war!”

As Adriana sees it, the business structures we see today are the result of many different layers, wrought first by industrialisation, then by the impact of mass media and, finally, by complex legal regulations.

This tangled mesh of restrictions is virtually impossible to un-pick. As a result, any positive steps towards change are difficult.

“Take pharmaceutical companies, for example, they’re not allowed to talk about their products [drugs] unless it’s in a certain way – and that makes whatever’s written, unreadable. They’re totally straight-jacketed. ”

The established systems within businesses are equally restrictive:

“You are more important than your job description but, in business, it’s the job description that matters.”

Traditional business behaviours throw up “limiting mental models” which people need to change if they are to evolve. The first step is becoming aware of these models.

“For example, when people talk about networks, we still tend to think of a bicycle wheel, with ourselves at the centre, rather than a loosely connected pattern of nodes.”

“We need to start looking at the ‘because’ business model – ie, I don’t make money with this product, I make money because of this product. Because people are using that, they can be persuaded to pay for this.

“That’s what businesses have to understand – the money’s there. But until you change the mental models, you’ll never be able to benefit.”

It’s still early days, and Adriana admits it’s often hard to see exactly what we’re meant to be working towards: “It’s as if the amoeba are just beginning to separate [over here] and we’re looking at fashion design [over here].”

Is that the stage we’re at, then – amoeba separating?

“Yes – exactly! It’s like the five blind men trying to describe an elephant. One says ‘it’s tusks’, one says, ‘it’s a tail’, the other says ‘it’s a trunk’…but none of them can feel the whole elephant. That’s where we are.”

Adriana is furious that certain companies – like Noka chocolate, which “practices a very 1.0 ways of doing things” – can be denounced on the internet and still carry on as before.

“A food blogger in Dallas did an expose of Noka and revealed that there was a 150 per cent mark up on their products. Noka were completely exposed, completely humiliated, but they’re still going strong. I’d really like to know – how much difference do these things [blogs, wikis etc] make? How much damage do they really cause?”

Indeed. How long does Adriana think it’s going to take before the ‘2.0’ message gets through?

“Maybe there’s going to be a dark age. The movement for net neutrality is getting quite big in the States – and it will do here. It’s possible the telcos could decide to restrict access to the pipes. But you could kill the web but you can’t kill the net. The geeks will find a way.”

And for now?

“I’m focusing on building up pressure on the side. I’m focusing on people rather than companies. I think the individual is far more dynamic, advanced and creative [than the business organisation].”