Knowledge Listening

Setting Redcats among the chickens

We’re sitting in the foyer of the ICA, the UK’s home of avant garde culture, but somehow Benjamin Ellis and I are talking about chickens.

Benjamin has six bantams and they don’t want to go outside now that the first frosts of winter have arrived. Also, they’ve stopped laying eggs. Of course, the bottom line solution would be to gently put the bantams out of their misery, and have a nice chicken curry for dinner. But would this be ethical? Probably not.

The chickens are providing more than just eggs, they are providing company (of sorts) and entertainment for Benjamin’s children. They represent six little lives. The fact that they’re no longer laying doesn’t directly mean that Benjamin’s children are going hungry. In fact, I imagine there more than enough slack in the Ellis family budget to provide for the six bantams under their new ‘pet’ status.

I’m interested in chickens because my country-dwelling sister keeps them, and it’s great for Lila (my two year old) to get an actual demonstration of where eggs come from.

The only reason I know Benjamin keeps chickens is because he’s been Twittering about them. I swear I wouldn’t have brought chickens up, otherwise.

Social media tools are great in delivering exactly that sort of arbitrary information that you wouldn’t necessarily ask for – but once you know the information is there, you can exploit it.

As Benjamin says (once we get our mutual interest in chickens out of the way):

“A lot of creativity comes from randomness but it’s hard to construct randomness in an effective way. That’s what social media does. It puts the answer in the cloud.”

And how does this work in business?

“Most of the information assets of an enterprise are placed carefully out of reach. If you’re really progressive you use an intranet or Sharepoint. But in many cases information has simply gone from an information pocket to an information enclave.

“The reality is that there’s no meta-data – information about information… bookmarking, tagging and wikis make up a kind of semantic wrapper around information that can really help identify stuff – if these are used properly they can make the biggest fundamental difference to business.”

A former marketing executive at Cisco, Juniper and other leading IT companies, Benjamin now uses his expertise to focus on the communication problems within organisations. Last September he set up Redcatco “to ensure better information flows inside companies”.

“The biggest challenge in any organisation is the asymmetrical nature of information,” says Benjamin. “You have information, I need that information – but the actual problem is knowing who has what, and how to find it when you need it.”

One of the stumbling blocks Benjamin has come across is the natural tendency to hoard information by the people who work within companies:

“Where there’s an information vacuum people exercise their power – so there’s cultural interest in developing that vacuum.”

If getting people to share is hard, getting people to tag and bookmark is even more difficult, but when this is done properly, the rewards are many:

“The critical information is always on the margins. The information that propagates is always the mean. For example, look at the long tail of the exiting customers. Find out their reasons for leaving and you’ll find the interesting, unexpected stuff.

“There’s a risk management analyst in the States [Nassim Nicholas Taleb] who talks about ‘Black Swans’: he asked, what’s the point of building risk analysis on previous problems, when all those problems were unforeseen? It’s the small probability events, the little voices, the unusual conversations that are important. If you wait until something’s become ‘late majority’, you’ll be too late.”

(This argument resonates strongly with Stowe Boyd’s focus on ‘edglings’. And there’s Hugh McCleod on the same subject here.)

“It’s all about resource discovery – discovering the people who are valuable to you, knowing where your experts are…those random things. You may find you suddenly need a snowboarder who can use a camcorder – social profiles can help you find this person. It’s all possible technically…but culturally? We’ve still a way to go.

“A lot of these collaboration tools are cat-herding tools. The traditional business environment tries to herd and ends up with only the sheep. Red cats are the really distinguished ones (which is why we chose that name for our company). You want to create and nurture outstanding individuals. If you’re using social media in a really inductive way, you’ll attract those red cats.”

When Quentin Tarantino got John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson to talk about hamburgers on the way to commit another violent crime in Pulp Fiction, he was heralded as a master of unconventional story-telling. But that non-linear, broken narrative is probably the best representation of how we all experience life.

If social media at work can capture conversations, linear and non-linear, and enable us to later make connections where we wouldn’t have otherwise, then that has to be enriching at least – and, overall, value-adding.


The new digital world order

Tariq Krim is interesting not just because he’s the guy who set up Netvibes, the fully-customisable content aggregator respected by geeks and loved by users, he’s also passionate about politics, which, as we’re frequently being told, isn’t that common with the under 35s.

Okay, so Tariq was 36 last weekend, but let’s not split hairs.

Earlier this year, Tariq was nominated a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and invited to Davos to join discussions around the ‘2030 Initiative’ – the creation of an action plan for how to reach the vision of what the world could be like in 2030.

When we meet up at the Web 2.0 Expo Europe, Tariq tells me it was the discussion on hypercommunication at Davos that he found most fascinating. Sadly we didn’t have much time and I didn’t have a chance to press him on the exact meaning of this (but I’ll get back to you).

Strangely enough for a futurist, Tariq says he often finds himself looking to the US elections for inspiration.

“When I want to see the next shift in marketing I always look at the US election. Politics is always ten years in advance of everything else. Because, simply, you have to beat your opponent.”

So, what’s he been seeing in the current presidential election campaign?

“Barack Obama has built this social network and I’m interested in how he’ll use that after the election. If he gets in it’ll mark a major change in politics. Obama’s money comes from millions of small donations – he will have shown that these people can just as powerful as big corporations.”

For Tariq, the rise to power of Barack Obama, bourne in on the back of three million internet donations, couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.

“The world is going to go digital and all those who don’t play by the new rules are going to get destroyed. There’s going to be an adjustment and it’ll be painful. In 2000 people said this [the internet] is a joke – now it’s a reality check.”


David Weinberger on Obama

It’s early October and I’m speaking to David Weinberger over Skype between London and Boston. With just a month to go between one of the more exciting US presidential elections in living memory, I’m interested to know what David thinks of Barack Obama’s leadership style and, in particular, Obama’s use of the web.

“If Obama wins, we’ll be looking back on this as the ‘Internet election’,” says David. “There’s a very good chance he will win because of the new voter registration and the ground organisation that he’s done to get people out to vote…if he does win, this will be the election that the Internet won.

“Obama is a really interesting case study…it’s this mix of top down and rigorous control of the message. On one hand, very traditional. The same press secretaries, the same small set of people who are allowed to speak on behalf of the candidate. Still driven from the top.

“And you still have a leader who speaks in elevated rhetoric. In my view, he speaks magnificently and not in the folksy, common way of the Internet. In that respect, Sarah Palin speaks much more like a regular human being…but many people are happily deferring to Obama’s rhetoric.

“At the same time you have a campaign that is setting up social networks for its users and engaging in the existing social networks.”

Yes, the online network is interesting. I remember reading an article in Time a few months ago which mentioned Obama’s fund-raising. It seems he’s essentially used long-tail economics to raise funds. A sidebar to the Time article noted that Obama raised over 1m in small (eg $10) donations, matching and eventually over-taking the amount raised by Clinton from her much smalller pool of wealthy funders. This, according to the article, was why he won the democratic nomination.

I mention this to David and he points out an additional strategy developed by the Obama campaign – involving the setting up of matching funds:

“The Obama campaign lets anyone set up a matching fund, so you can offer 100 dollars and the campaign will find two or more people to match it. So these people get to feel that they’re doubling their money.

“This is unique in itself, but the neater thing about it is that you can choose to publish an email address and a message to the people who are matching your money, and then you end up in conversation with other supporters – you’re donating, they’re donating – you thank each other . It’s a very direct connection. It’s very Cluetrain-like and I think it’s actually sort of thrilling.”

The Internet Election, eh? We’ll keep our fingers crossed!


It’s all about we not me

A few years ago Barry Libert co-authored a book, We Are Smarter Than Me, which he now uses as a base for his seminars.

Barry is Chairman of Mzinga, a corporate software company. We Are Smarter Than Me is about ‘old style’ versus ‘new style’ management. The central tenet is that traditional CEOs only think of themselves, whereas modern (post-modern?) mangers include the whole team in decision-making and other processes.

I meet Barry at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York where he’s giving his talk. Barry gives many anecdotes but the one I like best is his reasoning as to why Hilary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination: did you notice that Hillary ‘follows’ 0 people on Twitter while Barack ‘follows’ more than are following him?

Of course, we all know Barack doesn’t spend his entire day tracking the minutiae of 95,323 people online. Clearly he has better things to do. But it’s the principle of the thing, and what a simple ‘one click’ way to reinforce your support base (I was dead excited when a message entitled “Barack Obama is now following you on Twitter” dropped into my inbox – my loyalty upped on the spot).

This is just one great example of ‘we’ not ‘me’ thinking.

But, chatting to Barry a few days later on Skype, I find he’s not sure that businesses are ready for a new type of leadership – or certainly that’s not what they think they’re looking for: “If you want to be like Salesforce or SAP you fundamentally have to change the way the world works…but it’s bite-sized steps.”

Mzinga’s VP Social Media, Aaron Strout, who’s also in on the chat, agrees:

“We have to take that [leadership] concept and boil it down…managers tend to love the speech Barry does, but they want the practical crowd-sourcing stuff.”

Barry sees Mzinga’s approach as more “tactical” than revolutionary. For a start, he says, this management approach that us social media types may be evangelistic about (networked leadership, distributed leadership etc), doesn’t even have a proper name:

“I’m worried about all these words because they all come with prior definitions, prior explanations. You might argue that for example America is a democracy but it’s a whole other version of command and control…if it isn’t command and control to call our president the commander in chief then I don’t know what is…I think that these old words, distributed and democratic mean other things to most people.

“What you’re meaning is that leadership really does get distributed to the crowd, that people really do participate…I think ‘democratic’ or ‘distributed’ are dangerous words. With distributed and democratic, people think, ‘oh well, I’ve already got one of those companies, I’ve already got one of those leaders.”

So what term would Barry and Aaron like to use?

“The closest we’ve come to is ‘facilitated’ leadership,” says Aaron.

“I quite like ‘followership’,” says Barry. “As in how do you ‘follow’ other people to make them feel good…but no, I don’t think we’ve really come up with an answer to that one yet.”

But Barry himself come up with a nice description a couple of minutes later. It seems Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might be as good a place as any to grab an apt adjective:

“I’m sort of a Maslovian…when you become self-actualised, you spend all your time giving back. You help people become self-actualised by supporting them.”


Local Hero

It’s a bright, crisp September morning and I’m walking up and down Cole Street, on the Western edge of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, looking in shop windows, taking photos and generally killing time before my next appointment.

On the opposite side of the street, a short, slightly portly man in a grey jacket and beret is offering treats to a short, slightly portly dachshund. The dachshund jumps up politely as each new treat is offered, tail wagging.

“There you go, Coco,” says the man.

I step over to say hello, because I recognise the man as Craig Newmark. A discussion has ensued between Craig and Coco’s owner as to whether or not the dog is overweight.

Coco looks healthy – glossy, even – and I’m sure Craig’s treats are harmless. After all, this is a man who has built his reputation (and, no doubt, some fortune) on customer-satisfaction.

An hour later, when I meet Craig Newmark again (this time for our scheduled chat at his local, The Reverie Café), he’s still worried about the neighbourhood dogs.

“I’ve run out of treats,” he laments and pats his pockets, fruitlessly.

Conversation with Craig is peppered with asides like this. His attention is easily diverted, sometimes by a real-time interruption, sometimes when a pressing thought appears to cross his mind.

You get the impression that his charming unpredictability was just one of the factors that made Craig decide early on that maybe he wasn’t right to run a global business. Conversely, Craig’s interest in others is what made Craigslist the enormous success it is today.

Craig started craigslist back in 1995 as an online listings service for the San Francisco area. By the end of 1997 the site was getting 1m page views per month. By 1999, the service was doing so well, Craig incorporated it as a business.

“I did a mediocre job [as CEO] for about a year. Then I realised Jim [Buckmaster] was much better at it than me. It was a major act of ego releasing – and a little bit scary. But we’ve figured out how to work together – it keeps changing. I’ve learnt a lot of tough lessons along the way.”

Like Ross Mayfield at Socialtext, Craig realised that for his company to reach its full potential, he needed to step aside. He retains the title of Founder, but now works solely in the area that interests him most – customer services.

Craig’s corporate philosophy is very much centred around listening to what others are saying, and keeping channels of communication open, both inside and outside the company:

“Consumers and line workers are the people who know how the business should run. The people who are good at climbing up the ladder, that’s their key skill – this is why hierarchies are dysfunctional. It’s very important to try to stay flat.”

Craigslist is unusual for a global company in that much of the work is done by volunteers (the pro-active members of the online user community): “The user community runs the site. That way it’s connected more to the people it’s serving.” In fact, the original craigslist office in San Francisco still only employs 25 people.

Craig believes that good customer service – and employee relationships – is what keeps his employees, volunteers and customers coming back:

“My advice is to do something that people can honestly believe in. That’s how it works. We realised early on that the term ‘culture of trust’ embodied what we do.”

One of the things Craig did early on was ban banner ads from the Craigslist site; he sees no need to kowtow to commercial pressures if they don’t chime with the underlying nature of the business.

“A company can be very successful by doing the right thing.”

As for Craig himself, he fact he has stepped aside as CEO now means he has more time to focus on the things that really matter to him. The success of craigslist means he’s in demand for media interviews, and regularly invited to speak at conferences worldwide.

Craig acknowledges that he has a public role to play:

“I feel like I’m having an extended 15 minutes of fame. For some reason, people listen to me, so I might as well have something useful to say. There are causes that need people to stand up for them.”

So, Craig speaks on behalf of the Iraq and Vietnam war veterans, supports Barack Obama and advocates Spinewatch, a campaign set up by journalist Jay Rosen to encourage the US media to be more critical (where necessary) of the US Government.

Despite all this, Craig remains typically self-depreciating:

“If you think I’m a celebrity, you need to get out more!”


The wrong sort of feedback

There’s a clutch of jokes that comes around perennially in the UK when our National Rail service starts to blame any type of delay or cancellation on the weather. One year, a platform announcer accused the “wrong sort of snow” of causing trains to run late.

As the UK’s rail network fears the “wrong sort” of weather, so companies are terrified of the “wrong sort” of feedback. Praise and benign comments are all very well, but things can go haywire if a customer suggests a solution that doesn’t chime with the corporate master-plan. has built a reputation on managing customer relationships efficiently. It offers more than 800 applications – the flagship product is a web-based “sales force automation” service which provides “streamlined” CRM. It’s difficult to make automated services sound exciting, but the simple interface Salesforce offers has caused quite a stir.

The company’s headquarters are in San Francisco’s Financial District, alongside the banking and corporate offices, and just off the Embarcadero (waterfront), handy for the trendy market stalls and shops in the city’s renovated ferry terminal.

Lorna Li has a pretty cool job at She’s Web Marketing Manager (social media and social networking) – which I guess means she gets to spend most of her day surfing around on social networks, upping the profile of and generally chit-chatting with as many people as possible. is a ‘Web 2.0’ company, so interesting conversations must be permitted.

Lorna arranges to meet me in the wine bar in the old ferry terminal. She’s running a few minutes late but luckily the bar staff have spotted my London accent and are doing their best to make me feel at home.

When Lorna arrives, we settle down to talk social media over a couple of glasses of local Napa Valley wine and some Cowgirl Creamery cheese.

Lorna tells me abut MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s IdeaStorm, both built on’s Ideas platform.

Apparently, some users of IdeaStorm started asking for Linux on their PCs. Dell, convinced that this was only a minority concern, introduced a “vote down” button in order that other users might demote the issue; this backfired when users voted down, instead, a whole raft of other topics.

As one tech blogger commented, “what’s the point of seeking ideas and feedback if you’re going to delete ”merge” the ones you don’t like?”


Reaching out to the Long Tail

There’s nothing like the web for mass participation. The web delivers numbers that long-suffering TV executives can only dream of.

As Mint Digital’s Andy Bell says, “that long tail curve keeps recurring. But it’s not a cookie cutter – it’s a tool in your armory. You can’t expect things to work to the same formula every time. You have to keep re-working it.”

Andy gives the following examples:

  • Islandoo [Mint’s first commission – a casting site for RDF/C4 show, Shipwrecked]: 40-50,000 people joined and socialised via this network because they were interested in being on the island. Two years on, Islandoo has still been Mint’s biggest project in terms of pages views (35m in its first six months).
  • Buried Alive [project developed for the BBC which won a 360o prize at MipTV 2007]: looked at ways of re-using data that had been buried in the BBC archives.
  • Joseph Choir Search [BBC]: at its peak, 2m page hits a day, and 1,000 choirs taking part. That idea couldn’t work on linear TV because you simply wouldn’t have the space to showcase 1,000 choirs.
  • Unsigned Act [competition sponsored by Orange to find the UK’s best unsigned rock groups]: Mint is creating a platform for 3,000 bands.

For Andy, these projects are just the tip of the iceberg: “the web is uncrowded territory. There are so many new ideas to be uncovered.”

The challenge is reaching out along that long tail of users to create something that is meaningful to each of them:

“With Islandoo, we created a unique social micro-climate with thousands of users. But the downside to that model was that it only made 12 people (the ones who got selected to be on C4’s Shipwrecked) really happy. I’m more interested in replicating the feel of Innocent’s Village Fete or Nike’s Run London – in those situations, everyone’s a winner.”

You and read more about Andy’s thoughts on How to be Generous here. And see a video of his recent presentation at 2gether08.


The Barnet Crusader

One day, back in 2005, council worker Dominic Campbell found an unsolicited email in his inbox. The email was inviting him to a business breakfast on ‘customer insight’. The breakfast was at Mosimann’s and it was free, so Dominic thought ‘why not?’

At the time, Dominic was working in a back office for the IT department of the local council in Barnet, one of London’s leafier outer boroughs. He had been there for five years (since graduating in Geography from Manchester University), and was relatively happy with his lot.

Then, at the breakfast, he met James Governor from the UK consultancy, Redmonk.

“He was just completely bananas and brilliant. He said there was this thing called and this thing called salesforce. And we were just nowhere [in terms of using these new tools].

“I tried to get James in to the council to open them up and get them to understand this stuff. I completely failed…but James did enough to inspire me to leave and set up on my own.”

Dominic is sitting with me (ironically enough), in the walled garden of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington. He’s clearly relieved that he took the chance to set up Futuregov because, three years on, things have come full circle.

Dominic is now back at Barnet Council, but working as a consultant, and implementing the kind of IT solutions he only dreamt of as an employee.

A bit of background: Barnet Council is led by Councillor Mike Freer, who blogs at Outside Barnet, not many people in the UK have heard of Mike, but he may be about to become a bit more of a household name. He’s due to stand in Margaret Thatcher’s old constituency, East Finchley, in the next election and is tipped for the Cabinet if David Cameron wins.

Ever since Webcameron, the Tories have been upping the ante to Labour over which party does new media best. So it’s in Freer’s interests to look web 2.0 savvy. In fact, he’s done such a good job, that even Labour are keen to get involved in his work (the DCCG recently invested a significant amount in ‘social marketing’ for Barnet council).

All in all, a good time for Dominic to be around, then?

“Barnet is at the vanguard of redefining what a council is. They’re trying to work out how they can become an enabler [for the people] in their area. They’re trying to do something better than sending out Surveymonkey surveys. They’re trying to open up the policy-making process.”

I tried to get James in to the council to open them up and get them to understand this stuff. I completely failed…but James did enough to inspire me to leave and set up on my own.”

Barnet runs a project called ‘The Future Shape of Barnet’ in which it attempts to redefine the role of the local authority, and how it should work.

As part of this project, the council is engaging with residents and crowdsourcing ideas from staff and residents alike using web 2.0 technologies (with the help of Futuregov). Barnet now uses wikis on its intranet, and has got a page on Facebook.

“OK, so there’s only 25 fans at the moment, and they’re all council employees, but the very fact Barnet is on Facebook moves it to a different place.”

All well and good, but the fact that Barnet is so unusual says a lot about the state of play in the IT systems of local government.

“Anything freewear or open source is seen as flakey or dangerous. There’s a saying that you won’t get fired for buying Microsoft. All these people are Microsoft certified and Microsoft is flooding local government. Almost every time I go into a council I walk past a SharePoint salesman.”

Isolation is another problem:

“For people working in councils, the only contact they get with the outside world is when someone visits from SAP, Logica or Microsoft. This person tells them that whatever they’re selling is cutting edge, and they’ll hand over £1 million.”

So what are the chances of all this changing?

“Putting organisations like that into a network instead of running them as walled hierarchies is a massive step. At the moment it’s only beginning to happen, and that’s just in marketing.

“It’s gotta be another twenty years [until things really start to change]. The people in their twenties now who’ve grown up with computers, they’re the ones who are going to do all this [web 2.0] stuff naturally.”

But for Dominic, the future for genuine social change should really be outside the hands of local government altogether:

“To be honest, I’d rather government step back and let the social innovators [private entrepreneurs] do stuff. Local government should actually worry about little else than being a series of listening posts, keeping an ear to the ground on what people really need and want.”


Your friendly social reporter

David Wilcox is a ‘social reporter’. He’s always been a journalist, started out at the Evening Standard in the early seventies, when pay was okay and liquid lunches de rigour: “But then, the price of oil quadrupled – and everything changed.”

He’s now interested in ‘how you can do good stuff with new stuff’.

“People are more confused than usual…I’m helping people find meaning in messy situations.

“People [in large organisations] don’t get out – they aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world. They’ll come out one day for a conference, and that’s that.

“The ‘we can’t’ bubble is very common. Why should people change? It can be very lonely. They’ll have to learn new skills. They’ll probably be unpopular. It’s easier to keep ploughing the same old track.

“Im interested in, if you are determined to pursue change in your organisation, where do you find the network and support to keep at it?

“Web 2.0 stuff is bringing a lot of issues to the surface. Leadership issues, collaboration issues. You can see them popping up all over the place.

“In the social reporter role, I’m asking, well, what are the stories here?”

And while David might appreciate recognition for his work, he certainly doesn’t want praise – at least, not of the simpering (old-fashioned) type:

“The term leadership is okay but ‘leaders’? I balk at ‘leaders’. There’s an organisation called Common Purpose and they send me emails beginning ‘as one of the leaders of the future…’ What does that mean exactly? They’ve got it completely wrong!”


Bad habits die hard

Clay Shirky makes a nice observation about the origins of knowledge mis-management, which he traces back to the US railway industry c.1855.

In order to oversee the challenges of a rapidly expanding railway system, a superintendent for one railroad firm drew what was possibly the world’s first organisational chart. The chart had a pyramid structure and proposed a clear demarcation of responsibility for each segment of track.

As one of his principles for running a hierarchical organisation, the superintendent, David McCallum, wrote that it was important to that any information passed upwards would not embarrass principal officers.

“The idea of limiting communications, so that they only flow from one layer of the hierarchy to the next,” writes Shirky, “was part of the very design of the system at the dawn of managerial culture.” (Here Comes Everybody, p.42).

Concern of embarrassing superiors might be a bit of a PR take on traditional organisational culture. A far more common reason for not telling your boss the truth is the fear-factor.

Witness the salutary tale of pilot, Malburn McBroom. The DC-8 he was flying crashed near Portland Airport, Oregon, in 1978, killing ten people. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that McBroom had such fearsome temper, not one of his crew could bring themselves to tell him that the plane was low on fuel.

These may be two extreme examples, but the unhealthy habit of restricting information flow – for whatever reason – is one that future-focused organisations need to address.