One of my favourite texts at A level was Howards End. A key theme of the book is the pastoral versus the mechanistic. In E.M Forster’s Britain, 100 years ago, the industrial age was at its peak.
By the end of the nineteeth century, an extensive rail network had been built across Britain (interestingly, the expansion of the network caused popular protest not dissimilar to that provoked by the expansion of the UK’s airport terminals today). The first flight in an aeroplane by the Wright Brothers had taken place in 1903. And the large scale manufacturing of motor cars had begun with the introduction of production lines for the Oldsmobile in 1902.
But the ability to travel at high speed was still an anathema to many. People needed to be taught how to look out of the carriages of trains. And, right up until the end of the century, cars were not even permitted on the roads in the UK unless someone walked a few feet ahead of them, waving a red flag.
The sense of unease is reflected in the feelings of Forster’s Howards End’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel, who sees cars and motoring as symbolic of all that is brash and insensitive in a new, more prosaic world. Forster uses typical irony to show Margaret’s distaste as she’s forced to travel in a car:
“She looked at the scenery. It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.” (p.199)
Fast forward 100 years and the theme of nature versus machine is increasingly pertinent – but in ways that Forster and his fellow Edwardians could hardly have imagined.
Three of the world’s biggest car companies, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, face potential bankruptcy. Market capitalisations and profits have collapsed in the last few months as sales have hit a dramatic low.
The high price of oil, coupled with environmental concerns, has caused a sudden slump in demand for the large, ‘gas guzzling’ cars which the American ‘Big 3’ have excelled in producing. The banking crisis means credit – for companies as well as consumers – is increasingly hard to come by.
It’s 13 November 2008, and I’m reading through recent headlines; the outlook is bleak:
100 days to save the American car industry (Guardian)
Ford and Chrysler resort to new model price cuts (Financial Times)
The end of Detroit: Shape up or ship out (Economist)
US motor industry: the great breakdown (Independent)
Detroit’s big three near the brink (Time)
At Ford, Scott Monty may not be able to save the US car industry single-handedly by using social media, but he’s sure as hell trying.
A few months ago Scott was one of four at Crayon, a tiny (but reputable) digital marketing agency. Now he’s filing a newly-created role at Ford where he’s essentially responsible for the communications behaviour of over 4,000 people.
When Scott speaks to me on the phone from Detroit, he’s typically upbeat:
“The Ford way of doing things is putting our heads down and moving forward with our plans. Alan Mulally [Ford’s new CEO] spent a great deal of time pulling together a team and we’ll put together our plan with or without financial help from government. At the same time we’re also having to support existing projects, it’s like changing tyres on a car going at 60 miles an hour!”
Scott is tasked with creating a social media strategy which will then be a roadmap to help Ford become “a leader in digital communications four or five years from now”. In the meantime, he’s continuing to launch digital marketing campaigns/tools such as Mustang Stories and Ford’s new media relations site.
So, times are hard and cutbacks are inevitable, wasn’t there the slightest bit of resentment when you walked in the door?
“I was completely thrilled at how receptive people were to social media. It was like, wow, you’re finally here!”
In an email follow-up (there’s room for improvement in SkypeOut’s transatlantic connectivity), Scott agrees the current climate isn’t ideal:
“We’re fortunate that social media is not as heavy in production costs, but we’re also aware that we’re constrained by human capital. We’ll do our best to continue the efforts.”
And he suggests the sort of tools that Ford might be using:
“With the advent of many of these social sharing tools through mainstream technology such as Google Docs and wikis, I think there’s natural interest internally. And when you look at enterprise solutions like Microsoft’s Sharepoint, there are ways that more cohesive teamwork is being fostered right now.”
Back on the phone from Detroit, Scott clearly feels he has genuine support from the top of the organisation down:
“From everything I’ve witnessed Alan [Mulally] has social media in his DNA – even though he might not know what a blog is. The day he arrived at Ford, they said, ‘you’re going to need someone to deal with your email’ and he said, ‘yeah, me!’. That’s the sort of guy he is – incredibly hands on.
“There’s another example recently when Alan was sitting in a television studio with a reporter from Bloomberg who told him his mother in law was crazy about the Ford Focus. Alan was really insistent on getting the guy’s mother in law’s postal address so he could send her a handwritten note to say thank you.”
How about the rest of the board?
“[Chairman] Bill Ford’s major passion point is sustainability. He’s always enjoyed the wilderness, the outdoors, and has brought that in as a priority for Ford. You know, Henry Ford was using soya beans as part of the manufacturing process and recycling wooden crates. Our increasing environmental awareness is a return to those roots.”
Bill Ford seems a good figurehead then, at a time when Ford’s environmental responsiveness is being questioned. Such issues are tough to keep on top of in a digital world, but Scott echoes Clay ‘all businesses are media businesses’ Shirky in his approach:
“In corporate communications things move extremely fast. We think in terms of hours and minutes. We’re a news organisation, essentially.”
“In web 2.0, control is gone. Your message is no longer what you say it is. There are risks and opportunities in this. With social media, the message has to be given repeatedly, and in many places. We need an army of ambassadors. But there’s a pervasive attitude of fear – [Ford] employees can’t say what they like on blogs. But would you stay quiet at a dinner party if someone was disparaging your company and you knew them to be wrong?”
Scott is determined to help Ford turn the conversation outwards and not make the same mistakes as, for example, GM – with its essentially corporate, ‘on message’ blog.
It’s early days, but Scott already has strong ideas about the direction in which Ford needs to move. In his follow up email he speaks highly of a more collaborative approach:
“There’s been an amazing openness that’s been demonstrated in social media – the sharing of links, information and knowledge. And collectively, the social media industry is maturing because of it. In a traditional siloed business, knowledge is power; if we can demonstrate the rapid advance of the industry via these sharing platforms – not to mention the concept of Open Source – we can show how quickly such an entity can grow, adapt, and attract a strong fan base.
“It’s still early on in the evolution of the industry, but I think businesses are sincere in their desire to understand it and to communicate with customers in the way the customers want to be spoken to. Ultimately, I see social media being a more integrated part of the way a company communicates, much like email is today. It’s about more than just the tools – it’s a cultural shift in the way companies think.
“Ultimately, it’s the companies that make the leap who will succeed, for in this day and age of more products choice and a flattening of supply chains, customer service will be the differentiating factor. And social media espouses a number of customer service principles.”
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Ford and the other companies that dominate the US motor industry are particularly fascinating as, 100 years ago, they provided the cradle for the command-and-control type processes that wrought such change back then – but seem so outmoded today.
It’ll be what Ford does with the voices coming into its organisation that’ll be the most interesting. And from what Scott says, there is some evidence that the company is prepared to listen. Whether or not this may be too late, is another question.