Why bankers don’t do casual

Someone has left a lollipop in Gemma Price’s Canary Wharf office.

“I don’t want it – you have it,” urges Gemma.

The lollipop is one of the few bright things in the otherwise very sedate office, full of grey, black and muted tones – the kind you’d expect of a leading investment/ private bank. The lollipop seems out-of-place. As rare as a Myspace page in a set of banker’s bookmarks (it turns out).

Gemma looks after learning and development for the bank’s 25,000 back-office staff, as well as overseeing learning and development (co-ordinating, sharing best practice etc), for Europe, the Middle East and Africa – this role also covers employees in private banking, investment banking and asset management.

Gemma’s unit operates as a kind of internal consultancy, brokering deals between internal ‘clients’ and external vendors, including executive coaches, facilitators and IT training providers.

Gemma has been at the bank for nine years so when she started, the internet wasn’t much of an issue. Today however, there are tight limits on what can and can’t be viewed:

“We’re very restricted with what we can access, apart from LinkedIn and Google. We can access the BBC and news sites…LinkedIn is seen as professional tool. Most Facebook groups [for example] would not be considered professional.”

With regards to internal communications, a knowledge management team has just been set up, charged with looking at KM in its entirety across the bank. But the watchwords are effectiveness and ROI, rather than radical change:

“They’ll be looking at knowledge management in terms of efficiency. The last thing anyone wants in the market right now is innovation or risk-taking!”

The bank’s vast corporate intranet serves 45,000 people across 51 countries.

“There’s a massive staff directory, and Sharepoint, which includes a lot of shared sites where people have blogs and wikis. There’s a lot of stuff on there, a lot of videos. There’s a huge amount of e-learning.”

Gemma points to the webcam on her desktop, used for Camtasia presentations.

“We design and develop our own content, working with outside vendors. We also use Harvard Management a lot, and Intuition Plus.”

In a large, multinational company, it’s a challenge to produce e-learning videos where the message hits home. And Gemma’s team needs to catch the attention of people who are extremely busy and frequently stressed.

“The shorter, the better, the funnier we can make [the videos], the better. Actually funny is a flippant comment. Because we can’t afford to have something that’s funny in London being unfunny in Singapore.”

How would she describe the overall culture of the company?

“We’re a real mix. The dominant cultures are Swiss and American. We have some people coming in who are very innovative, but then we’re also very traditional. We have people who’ve made it up themselves through adversity but also people with double PhDs in Maths – again, that duality.”

The staff is, culturally, very diverse. The bank has just won an award for its multicultural leadership programme, and Gemma clearly works hard to promote harmony.

She admits she looks for parallels where possible:

“The Singapore and Zurich offices aren’t dissimilar; their attitude is ‘we’re here to serve’. The approach of London and New York is more, ‘we’re here to work with you, and we want to get the credit’.”

“My role is to create a great working environment. A manager has to be all things – a coach, a mentor. The predominant style of the lead manager has a huge impact on mangers below. [Our CEO] isn’t a ‘show and tell’ guy so his team aren’t out there banging the drum. That creates very much a team-based culture.”

Recent experiments in sub-prime mortgages aside, the banking industry tends to be conservative by nature, especially where leadership is concerned.

“The front office tends to be very command and control. That sort of method is seen as outdated but in practice still exists. There’s a real dichtonomy there.”

Above all, the bank’s well-heeled clients want to see respect:

“We’ve got to strike a balance. It is quite formal. You don’t say ‘Great!’, ‘How you doing?’ or ‘Wassup?!’ to personal clients, a lot of whom are billionaires. There’s no room for casual language in that way. These are high net worth individuals we’re speaking to. Luckily, there’s huge amount going on socially so we’ve got plenty of opportunity to be informal and casual.”

Maybe that’s what the person who left the lollipop thought.


Telling tales

It all comes back to stories, according to Ziv Navoth.

Ziv is sitting in his New York office (AOL’s headquarters on Broadway), chatting to me on Skype.

“Leaders see opportunity where other people see difficulties or challenges…then what you have to do as a leader is convince other people; make them think they can win. The ability to do that requires the ability to tell stories.

“Look at where Barack Obama was 21 months ago. Watching his campaign has been mind-boggling. [The US] is a country that doesn’t like change. The thought of voting for a black person is anathema to some people. But Obama can paint a picture of what the future could look like.”

Ziv works for Bebo, the world’s third biggest social network (45m registered users), which was acquired by AOL for $850m in March 2008. As Senior VP, Marketing & Partnerships, Ziv is part of “People Networks” – a business unit at AOL which includes Bebo, AIM, ICQ and Socialthing.

Ziv should know all about stories. In February 2007, the same week he started at Bebo, (as VP of marketing and business development), he published his first book, Nanotales, a collection of 83 short stories.

Inspired by the book, Bebo ran a competition encouraging users to write their own ‘nanotales’ – short stories of under 1000 words. The stories were uploaded to the web where they could be reviewed and rated by other users.

The contest was a perfect reflection of the potential ambitions of Bebo’s core 16 – 24 year old demographic, and a great way of harnessing the viral power of the internet. Shortlisted writers such as Tolu Ogunlesi, Richard Mooney and Shirley Davenport promoted the competition on their sites, asking readers to vote for them, and spread the word.

“Social media enables you to cross barriers of space and time,” says Ziv. “You can broadcast your story with zero investment and the only thing that will effect how far it spreads is the power of your story. Before there were barriers and hierarchy, now it’s just up to you.”

Whether it’s teenagers on Bebo, or CEOs of multinational companies, the internet is a great leveller. Craft your message in the right way, touch a chord, and your words will spread like wildfire.

Scott Monty, Ford’s head of social media, stresses the importance of simplistic story telling. To succeed in the digital world, he says, you need to decide your story and repeat it again and again. Polish up your story-telling talents, and you’re more likely to be on to a winner.

The Oxford academic Keith Grint praises imaginative story-telling in his book, “The Arts of Leadership”. He compares leadership to a series of artistic disciplines – and defines the effective portrayal of a strategic vision as the ‘fine art’ of leadership.

“This art is most appropriately considered as the one responsible for constructing the strategic vision of an organisation – that is, its future destination, its current direction, and its past deployment. It is, in effect, the world of the artist’s studio, for here the fine artist/leader must draw or paint or sculpt the future…the imaginative vision can be crucial in explaining the success or failure of a leader.” (p.16)

Add network effects to an appropriate imaginative vision, and you have a virtuous circle. But if you allow them to amplify a mistaken vision, you have a public relations disaster, as brands such as Virgin, Kryptonite and Cillit Bang have found to their cost.

AOL is a media giant “beginning to get its groove back”. It’ll be interesting to see which stories Ziv will weave to ensure his brand regains maximum respect in cyberspace.


The novelty has worn off, we’re now in a period of consolidation

Richard Sambrook is sitting in his office on the first floor of Bush House, television blaring. It’s 6th November, the day after the US election result has been declared and the BBC’s World News channel is going into overdrive, broadcasting minute by minute reports of President-elect Barack Obama’s every move – or so it seems.

This is the sort of character-filled room that you imagine should be featured in The Observer magazine’s My Space series. Cartoon caricatures mix with modern art on the walls. A large comfy maroon sofa sprawls at one end of the office, a relatively-contained network of high tech communications (plasma screen, laptop, TV monitor, fax) at the other.

Richard himself seems pretty relaxed, given that the last few days must have been hectic. As Director of the BBC’s Global News division, Richard is in charge of all the BBC’s international news services, across radio, television and digital media. Guiding and monitoring the US presidential election coverage in 32 different languages can’t be easy.

Before we meet, I check Richard’s blog to see how things have been going. Maybe not surprisingly, there’s been a bit of a lull – the most recent post is 29th October, over a week ago. 

Richard readily admits he’s not posting quite as frequently as he was when his first internal blog launched in 2004. Back then, he was the first senior manager at the BBC to do such a thing. 

“I’d moved into my new role and I thought it would be an interesting communications tool. The BBC can be very insular and inward-looking. It’s not just about journalism. I wanted to communicate with the new staff. After about three months I was getting 6,000 unique visitors each month. People I didn’t know would stop me and talk to me in the corridor, just because they’d read something of interest on the blog.”

“Part of it was learning about digital media and social media. Blogging is a way of getting to understand the dynamics, how it all works.”

Richard is refreshingly honest about the four things that bothered him at the outset. His editor’s head identified drawbacks from the start: 

  1. Am I going to be taken to task for something I write?
  2. Am I going to offend a specific constituency or community?
  3. Is anyone going to be interested?
  4. Can I do it?

While he found the blog relatively easy to write, he was concerned about the way his audience would react:

“Being a journalist, the actual writing wasn’t a problem. Finding a personal tone was. As well as issues like transparency, honesty and frankness. If you take all the contentious stuff out, will it be interesting?”

So far, the most awkward moment was during a dispute between the BBC and the unions:

“I said the only way through is negotation. And then found out the official BBC position is not to negotiate.”

Hmm. So would he extol the virtues of blogging to all senior managers?

“I wouldn’t say everyone should do it. It only works for some people. You need to get the right mix of informality and openness. Otherwise it won’t work. It’s good to have a very clear purpose, to see if you can open discussion and dialogue that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

“For example, last year I talked about advertising on the BBC World Service website (outside the UK). A small number of staff felt strongly about it and voiced their opinions on the blog – I wouldn’t have found out otherwise.”

When Richard went to his bosses with the idea of setting up a blog, they must have thought they were relatively safe. After all, to use an old cliché, Richard is a BBC man through and through – he joined the organisation in 1980 as a sub-editor in the radio newsroom (after training as  journalist with Thomson Regional Newspapers) and worked his way up the ranks, becoming News Editor and head of newsgathering, then Director, BBC News, before moving onto his current role. Plus, they must have hoped Richard’s editorial experience should create some kind of Pavlov’s dog-type reaction if he ever thought about writing anything too close to the edge.

“Initially their attitude [the bosses] was, ‘that’s novel’. But I think they were generally very happy for someone like me to do it.”

In 2006, two years after launching the internal blog, Richard moved his ideas into the public domain with the launch of Sacred Facts on Typepad. The site now averages around 2,000 visitors a month.

“Because I’d already done it inside and they [the bosses] had seen my blog, it was okay. They clearly thought that I, more than anyone, should know the risks.”

Richard was Director, BBC News, in May 2003 when BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ran a report claiming that the British Government had knowingly exaggerated claims over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in a dossier published in 2002. The government’s vehement rebuking of the accusations levied by the report led to a British judicial inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, and eventual resignations of the BBC’s Chairman and Director-General.

“Part of my experience of going through the weapons of mass destruction incident motivated me. If I’d been blogging at that time, it would have been an opportunity to say something, to speak out against the spin – although the corporate line would have been tight.”

I ask him what he thinks about the current storm raging over the BBC – the whole furore around the – some would say cheeky, others offensive – telephone calls made by Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross to actor, Andrew Sachs.

Admittedly entertainment is not Richard’s milieu, and he won’t be drawn, saying, diplomatically: “I’d only want to say something that adds value”.

Sacred Facts has clearly given Richard a great feel for social media. As all of you out there will know, BBC News has an impressive presence across digital media, and Richard is looking for the next big thing to develop.

“The novelty [of social media] has worn off; we’re now in a period of consolidation. 2006 was the year of Facebook. Now, I’m on Twitter more than anything else. But it’s not so much professional. It’s more a back-channel to a group of friends who are interested in the same stuff. Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Seesmic, Threads, 12seconds, Qik – all have a BBC presence. It’s all experimentation, all extending our journalistic reach. We don’t get a huge amount of feedback.”

So, go on – he works hard – make Richard’s day and give him a comment!


Like water finds its level

There’s no doubt Horsesmouth is going to be a success. First, it’s a great idea. Second, founder MT Rainey has run a few businesses, and won enough awards, in her time.

After studying psychology at Glasgow University, MT (short for Mary Teresa) took an MSc, then worked in advertising in the late 70s, moving to LA to work for the seminal agency Chiat/Day.

She made her mark planning the launch of the world’s first Apple Mac in 1984. And moved up the ranks before being asked to set up Chiat/Day London in 1989. She was voted UK Advertising’s Woman of The Year the following year.

In 1993, she founded her own agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which soon secured top name clients such as Virgin Group, Land Rover and M&S. In 1999, the company was acquired by WPP and merged with Young & Rubicam. MT stayed as joint CEO of RKCR/ Y&R for four years, and then became chair.

In 2005, she left to set up her first social enterprise – Horsesmouth.

And this is where we are now. Sitting in a large, comfortably-furnished room in the Horsesmouth offices, tucked under the eaves of an eighteenth century building in Soho’s Golden Square, on a darkening, chilly November afternoon.

“I became very excited about the power of social media while everyone else was preoccupied with the dotcom boom of Web 2.0,” says MT. “I knew it had great potential…if I’ve learnt anything in life, it’s that everything communicates. There’s a frustration when communication is blocked – social media finds a way.”

The comment makes me think of water. And its ubiquitous, essential, life-bearing properties.

If there’s one thing Horsesmouth enables, it’s hearts-on-sleeves, in-your-face communication. Horsesmouth is a mentoring site – a giant, interactive agony column, helping people share knowledge about life, love, work, whatever else concerns them.

Anyone can register, everyone is anonymous, and the idea is that while you may sign up to get advice, your own life experience can enable you, in turn, to help others.

It’s a virtuous circle, and one which, in true Web 2.0 fashion, makes use of network effects – becoming more useful, more relevant, as the number of users grows.

“On Horsesmouth people bare their souls but it’s not attached to their identity,” says MT. “I can be more authentic if my identity is private. We see people coming across as very liberated on the site – because they can’t be judged.”

Launched in January 2008, the site now has 13,000 registered users and gets 100,000 unique page views a month. Each person lists three topics they can help with, so in theory 40,000 topics are possible.

Horsesmouth is growing slowly, organically by word of mouth (none of your Facebook-esque ‘invite friends’ tactics here). MT wants people to sign up because they’re motivated, not simply because an invite from someone they know has landed in their inbox.

“10,000 was a critical mass for coming up with a result on any search term – now we can do that,” she says, with pride.

The site provides an interesting mirror on society. Since September, they’ve noticed a change in the big themes: ‘Enterprise’, ‘debt’ and ‘relationship stress’ now represent the most popular key words, according to MT.

Working with visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Jay Chiat, and as an excellent strategic planner herself, MT is clearly happiest a few steps ahead of the curve. So, what’s her advice to businesses considering social media as a tool?

“Businesses think it’s happening ‘out there’, that it’s social, that it’s not meaningful. They see it as outside mainstream commerce, but it isn’t.”

“One of the challenges with so much chatter is that you have to sift through it. There’s too much information. Take Tesco Club Cards, for example. You get a negative spiral of irrelevance. Just because I bought nappies doesn’t mean I’m going to buy soup. Companies shouldn’t worry about all that. The web is universal ubiquity combined with pinpoint relevance.”

Above all, she stresses it’s important to accommodate – not ignore – the conversations taking place:

“If people make a negative comment online, then at least it’s out there and everyone can deal with it…Social media can demonise and victimise but that can be dealt with. It isn’t primarily bad or unsafe. Good leaders will be competent. They’ll deal with it.”


From soy sauce to open source

It’s gone 1.30pm and it’s been a long morning. James Governor and I are sitting in the Hanoi Café in London’s Kingsland Road watching the owner’s two daughters run, play and generally get in the way of the ever-smiling kitchen staff as they try to prepare food.

When the Vietnamese waitress finally arrives with plates of steaming Cha Nem Chay (spring rolls), Pho Xao Dau Rau (stir fried tofu) and Dau Xao Sup Lo Xanh (Spicy Broccoli tofu), we tuck in, hungry.

James and I were due to meet earlier but he has had to wait in for a special delivery – which it turns out was DHL coming to pick up his postal vote for the US presidential election. (Anyone who follows James on Twitter will be painfully aware that he’s an American citizen and there was no way he was going to miss his chance to assist an Obama win).

So, over Cha Nem Chay, we get to discuss the merits of open source business.

RedMonk, the industry analysis firm James co-founded in 2002, publishes research papers for free and is 100 per cent funded by ‘supporters’, ‘sponsors’ and ‘patrons’ who pay subscriptions for additional service packages. This is an entirely different model to others in the sector.

“The open source model came out of our frustrations with editing each other’s work,” says James, between mouthfuls. “We just started blogging and thought, let the internet be the editor. We don’t agree with companies writing white papers for vendors. You claim you’re independent but you’re really a PR man. Blogging became a much more natural way of developing our content.

“I am sure some white papers are ok. Mostly we don’t like doing them. When I started RedMonk I used to rail against our industry’s ethics – but these days I prefer to focus on value. I think the internet model, with internet based peer-oriented production, has significant value.

“[Before RedMonk] Software developers and information architects thought they couldn’t actually talk to industry analysts. But that’s exactly where our community is. We’re neither buy side or sell side, we’re ‘make’ side.”

In 2004, James and his partner Stephen O’Grady wrote a paper on compliance-orientated archictecture and published it under a creative commons licence.

“[The IT company] EMC took our paper and built on it, and gave it out to their customers. We told people they were allowed to create derivative works. We never got paid for it. Another company got back to us and said [what you’re doing] is completely changing our business model. That was great. But again we got no money.

“Then, in 2006, Thomas Otter [now Gartner Group, then SAP] got in touch wanting to use one of our papers in a workshop. This eventually led to SAP becoming a client.

“When you’re open in this way, other people become your evangelists. You don’t need a huge sales and marketing team.”

RedMonk is a bit like marmite to the IT industry – people either love it or hate it. Oracle was apparently none too pleased when James and Stephen merged names associated with Microsoft (Redmond) and IBM (Armonk) to christen their new business. And other industry analysts no doubt watch RedMonk’s rise with trepidation.

But James, Stephen, and the new team members, Michael Coté and Tom Raftery (who heads up sustainability initiative, GreenMonk) are popular speakers on the global IT conference circuit. Meanwhile, clients include IBM, Sun, Abobe, Atlassian, BMC, Dell, Eclipse, Loglogic, Microsoft and Redhat.

For James, the recipe is simple:

“We don’t sell content – at least, not white papers – but we sell services around that research. It’s all free, but when people want to take it somewhere else, then they have to pay. We’re out in these networks, without any groupthink, and that’s increasingly valuable.”


It’s like changing tyres on a car going 60 miles an hour!

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.

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.

Metanoia Passion

Time to Huddle

Huddle MD Alastair Mitchell isn’t having the best of days. He’s about to exchange on a house and the electronic money transfer system of his bank – a well-known online only service – has gone down. Luckily, given the current economic climate, it’s only a temporary blip. But Ali is having to jump every time his Blackberry bleeps, and he’s constantly apologising.

Alastair – or Ali to everyone who knows him – is bit of a champion of all things digital, so the fact that his internet bank should be shafting him in this manner is ironic.

Two years ago, Ali and his partner, Andy McLoughlin, launched Huddle from a renovated warehouse in South London. The idea behind Huddle is simple: a network of online workspaces where people can chat, share files, organise a project, etc all in a safe, protected environment, but with anyone they care to invite, anywhere in the world.

“From the start, we wanted to bring Web 2.0 concepts into enterprise working methods,” says Ali, when the Blackberry’s been silent for long enough to let him speak. “Everyone hates using enterprise tools. We wanted all the ‘hygiene’ aspects – security, control, back-ups – but to make it social as well – easy to use, friendly and organic.”

Not only have Andy and Ali created Huddle online, they’ve also replicated a mini-version of the concept offline. Their Bermondsey warehouse space is shared with a number of other technology start-ups, and they run a regular event, DrinkTank, specifically for tech entrepreneurs and investors.

“We’re really passionate about entrepreneurship, so we really wanted to do something to support the start-up community here; we wanted to come back and circle in. If you’re an entrepreneur in the UK you tend to retire and go to live in the Cotswolds. But Silicon Valley is like a big business park. We wanted to find a way of getting entrepreneurs together over here, helping them to talk to each other – that’s what DrinkTank is all about.”

Helping people communicate more easily was the impetus for Huddle – the idea to create an online collaborative space came out of Ali’s own frustrations at his previous employer:

“I was running the product team at dunhumby [the marketing company], which was made up of 300 people working in five different countries. Everyone was working via email or social networks because the existing enterprise technology simply wasn’t good enough. So, when I began to think about doing my own thing, I knew exactly what I wanted to create.”

A mutual friend introduced Ali to technology specialist Andy, funds were raised from Eden Ventures – and Huddle was born.

Take up has been enthusiastic, with the company’s user-base growing steadily by around 40 per cent each month (“Because we’re a low cost technology with a relatively small base, the impact of the credit crunch, so far, has been hard to see”).

And, despite, the current gloomy economic outlook, Ali’s for the future are bright: he admits to having “Google-esque ambitions” for the company.

“On the one hand, we’d like Huddle to become a verb: ‘let’s huddle it’. And we’d like to be as ubiquitous as Facebook. On the other, we’d like to become an enabler for social change. We set up the Huddle Foundation to give Huddle away free to charities. In fact, our customer service manager spends about 50 per cent of his time working – for free – with the charities that use us.”

That social element is key in a company where the majority of the workforce are under 30 and keen to feel that they are involved in something that’s about more than just making money: “Our culture is not just about business. It’s very much built around being nice to each other.”

And Ali believes they can keep hold of that dynamic, start-up mentality, citing Virgin and Google as two companies that have grown dramatically yet continue to prioritise innovation:

“The perceived wisdom is that as companies grow they become bigger and more boring; inertia creeps in. It’ll be interesting if we can stay with the culture we’ve built so far. That will be the real test. We believe in what we call ‘loose’ leadership. You hire the very best people and let them get on with it. Give them more than enough rope to hang themselves. I’m constantly surprised and amazed at what these people can do.”

And on that positive note, Ali rushes off to take a call from his mortgage broker. I keep my fingers crossed for him.


Finding Headspace

I first meet Head’s Ramsey Khoury at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York where we’re both on a panel discussing the pros and cons of doing transatlantic business.

Ramsey once ran a fashion company out of New York so he knows a thing or two about US/UK cultural differences. We all agree the world’s a lot smaller now that social media means you chat to friends and colleagues across the pond every day, usually without even thinking of the distance involved.

Today, as founder and managing director of Head, one of the UK’s longer-established digital agencies, Ramsey is as equally concerned with what you might call a company’s inner beauty as its outward appearance.

When we hook up again, Ramsey tells me Head prides itself on strategic thinking: “trying to educate our clients to think more long-term rather than short-term, transient campaigns”.

We’re sitting in the boardroom in the townhouse on Percy Street, where Head’s 17-strong team is based. Whiteboards adorn the walls, and the table is half covered by a roll of brown paper and multi-coloured marker pens. Words and pictures are scribbled on the paper – the productive work of a brainstorm that’s recently taken place.

Strategic slow-build is intrinsic to successful social media so maybe it’s not surprising that social media projects now make up a significant proportion of Head’s workload.

Ramsey finds the company spends a lot of its time helping clients get up to speed with the whole culture of social media:

“There’s definitely an education side to it. We run free workshops at the start of projects where we ask clients what their issues and concerns are around the social media space. We’ll run the workshops either here or at clients’ offices. We’ll set out an agenda and share knowledge. We want to hear their stories. It’s important to take the time, do the workshops and have the senior people buy into the process. If you have a client who’s not 100 per cent behind what you’re doing, you’ll run into problems.”

Head famously started life in a ‘broom cupboard’ in London’s Langham Street in 2000. At a time when other digital/ dotcom businesses were boasting swanky shopfront offices and large teams of under-qualified, over-paid VPs, Head chose to grow slowly and organically – possibly one reason why the company is still thriving today.

So why did Ramsey turn his Dolce & Gabbana-covered back on fashion?

“I wanted to get involved with something a little less complex, more intimate, more collaborative. I’ve an equal interest in creativity and technology. Both have a voice at Head. I went to fashion school but I’m also interested in how things work.”

Now, he loves what he does:

“We really enjoy our space and it’s an interesting space [the web] because there are so many different areas. We’re really interested in what start-ups are doing. We go to Minibar every month. You’ve got all the agencies in the NMA top 100 – all evolving, all doing interesting things. There’s so much to understand.”

Ramsey’s enthusiasm spills over onto the corporate website which is liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘loveable’ and ‘marvellous’. The website boasts (not without irony) that Head’s workplace can feel like “the happiest place on earth”.

Certainly the townhouse offices are pleasant with ambient music pumped out over the speakers and, Caroline, the business development manager, dishing out free samples of herbal tea.

How does Ramsey hope to sustain this positive environment?

“I think the ecosystem [you’ve established] stays. You nurture talent. And you choose the right people. As long as you’ve got the right people you can grow the hierarchy without using the culture.”

As mentioned, the emphasis is on long-term, sustainable projects. The task of finding the Next Big Thing is not one that appeals to Ramsey:

“We don’t want to develop the next Youtube. Neither do we want to become a factory just churning out work. We’re experimenting. More and more we’re trying to find our specialist area, which I think is sites that have a long-term dialogue with their reader/user-base. Webcameron was a good example.”

Back in 2006, Head came up with the idea of the UK’s opposition leader, David Cameron, keeping an online video diary – a project which enabled the Tories to grab a piece of the digital limelight and steal a march on Labour, the UK’s ruling party.

Currently, Head is working with Microsoft on building and maintaining a social network for the 1.2m people employed across the NHS. With 20,000 registered users so far, the aim is to get around 70,000 to sign up. Staff can build their own avatar (weemee), form a group or discussion around any topic, as well as be kept informed of NHS events.

Working with big clients such as this can be all-consuming. In order to ensure they don’t miss the more innovative stuff, Ramsey re-invests a “significant amount” of Head’s annual profits into Head Labs, its R&D arm which was set up in 2005.

“We treat Head Labs and clients as projects of equal value. A lot of ideas that start in Labs can be fed back into client work. There might be 2 or 3 people working in Labs at any one time – or we outsource it; I’ve had an outside developer working on Labs for two or three months.”

Ramsey finds he has to tread a careful balance between the two areas:

“If you start to be more of a ‘think’ space you can lose focus and efficiencies, but if you don’t do that you can lose talent. Before Labs, we had to make things in our downtime. Now innovation becomes part of day-to-day operations.”

But it’s important to keep a focus. Above all, Ramsey thinks it’s essential to resist the temptation to be all things to all people:

“It’s very hard for a brand to know what to buy. There’s few agencies that know everything, do everything well. As a client I wouldn’t go to just one agency for everything.”


It’s like Christmas came early

Having momentarily forgotten Obama’s win, it made me smile when I saw this headline on my way home last night, just outside Piccadilly Circus tube station.

At last, a leader we all want to follow, who appears to have the world’s interests at heart and has worked hard to build an online audience. Now it’ll be interesting to see how he uses that constituency in decision-making.

Good luck, Barack!