posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
The knowledge | Jerry Bowles
Social media tools have yet to fulfil their potential in organisations, says Jerry Bowles. Having watched companies move from quality to knowledge management he shares his tips for building successful social networks and gives five good reasons why CEOs simply shouldn’t blog.
By Sandra Higgison
Some people are natural connectors. They build communities, bring together like-minded people and thrive on seeing others form new relationships. Jerry Bowles is a connector. An advocate and avid user of the mass of social media tools that constitute the so-called Web 2.0 revolution, he is founder of the Social Media Collective, the Ancient Thespians and Sequenza21: distinct clusters of people with shared interests.
As a journalist, writing has always been at the core of Bowles’ work. He has created and edited award-winning corporate magazines and contributed to some of the world’s best-known business publications, including Fortune, Forbes and Newsweek. In the 1980s, Bowles focused on the quality-management movement, but in the 1990s his work turned to knowledge management (KM). His writing and travelling introduced him to many of his closest friends, including Tom Stewart, now editor of Harvard Business Review, Association of Knowledgework founder Jerry Ash and Professor Leif Edvinsson.
The realisation in the 1980s that Japanese manufacturers were beating their American and European counterparts on production costs and standards sharpened the West’s interest in quality management. To help advance its thinking, Fortune launched a special annual supplement in 1985, which Bowles edited and ran for the next 13 years. “At the beginning the problems were mostly with inefficiencies in the processes and production,” he says. “The Toyota system showed that there were more effective manufacturing methods companies could employ.”
Towards the end of the 1990s the movement realised that it had wrung as much process improvement out as it could and shifted its focus to people and knowledge management. At the same time, Stewart, then editor of Fortune, wrote the article that would become the basis for his book, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organisations. As Bowles says, “He found that the idea of quality improvement comes down to enabling people to capture what they know and re-use it.”
Bowles describes the move towards knowledge management as a necessary evolution from quality management. “If we could capture, store and re-use tacit knowledge and make it easier for people to collaborate, a lot of the inefficiencies would disappear. That was the original theory,” he says.
As the concept developed, so did the number of technologies and software vendors offering solutions. Bowles recalls the failure of some of the early collaboration platforms. “They discouraged many people as they were so difficult to use and usually required more training and effort than anybody got out of them.”
Despite the systems’ failings many companies spent heavily on building their collaboration infrastructures, which, he says, is part of the reason why social media has not been adopted as enthusiastically by organisations as they have by individuals.
“Suddenly you have all these wonderful do-it-yourself applications that people can configure and use for themselves: wikis and blogs, and RSS [really simple syndication] to pull everything together,” says Bowles. “We now have more tools than we know what to do with for capturing knowledge. They may be free or inexpensive but companies have an invested interest in the old infrastructure; there’s a lot of what we call ‘copper in the ground’ syndrome.”
The pace at which these new applications have been developed is astounding. Bowles points to how Gartner’s hype cycle of emerging technologies nearly missed corporate blogging. “In 2005 it only just made it on; by 2006 it had already slipped into the trough of disillusionment.” He sees this as a challenge not only for the organisations using them, but also the experts who have worked with knowledge management since it first emerged. “Most of the ‘gurus’ don’t fully understand these tools and feel left behind. They’re surprised at how they’ve suddenly appeared and don’t require much consulting, all they need is a willing audience of people to use them.”
Keeping up with the many blogs on social media, Bowles became aware that there were many people creating interesting material, but that they weren’t sharing or connecting with each other. He created the Social Media Collective in 2006 to provide a back channel to exchange ideas. “We have a good mix of people involved: bloggers, entrepreneurs, small start-up companies, journalists, investors and analysts. It provides a practical avenue that helps them find the experts and keep in touch.”
Gathering the best writing from the collective’s members on Social Media Today, Bowles hopes that it will become a viable source of content on the subject. With 3,000 people recently downloading a Forrester report from the site it looks as if it is already a key repository for many people. The website also includes posts from his own blog, Enterprise Web 2.0 (www.enterpriseweb2.com), which he describes as a micro-publication on the management, leadership and people issues raised by the next-generation of web technologies.
Examining the many uses for Web 2.0 in organisations, Bowles says that the biggest advances have been made on the external side, but that internal applications will catch up. “The marketing and public relations departments are using these tools to create clout for their brands. We had about 100 marketers and CEOs sign up to a recent webinar we held on social media.” But while blogs and wikis may well be today’s darling technologies there are risks companies should be aware of.
It is no longer unusual for organisations to have public-facing blogs with employees from all departments sharing their thoughts. But there is less noise from the higher echelons of the world’s largest organisations. “There are only a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs blogging,” says Bowles. “One of the problems they face is running foul of the regulator or upsetting the legal department.”
Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of technology giant Sun Microsystems, is one of the few to have embraced the medium wholeheartedly, not only by posting regularly and offering candid insights into the firm and his own opinions, but by also petitioning to have these channels recognised officially by the regulator itself.
In an open discussion with the chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Schwartz has asked the regulatory body to relax its rules on fair disclosure so that companies can announce financial performance or release material transaction information online instead of in the more traditional print media.
Schwartz argues that as the Sun website has about a million visitors a day and his blog is syndicated across the internet they are tremendous vehicles for the broad delivery of information about the company, perhaps more so than the proprietary news outlets. Holding such a dialogue openly via Schwartz’s blog is a first, as will be the outcome should it fall in his favour. It can only herald the way of things to come.
Not all CEOs, however, fair as well as Schwartz with their blogs. Having witnessed various car-crash attempts Bowles wrote a piece giving five good reasons why CEOs should not blog. A summarised version highlights the following risks:
1 Just as CEOs don’t do their own television commercials, they should not blog. Writing is a form of public performance and unless you’re a natural like Schwartz you might embarrass yourself and your company;
2 Blogging is time consuming. Unless you can spare and commit to the three-to-four hours a week that it will take to write a couple of decent posts, don’t do it as you’ll end up with a deserted blog;
3 Legal risks. You may come up against intellectual property issues, possible defamation claims, or unhappy employees or customers chasing common-law tort actions. Lawyers are sometimes right to be cautious;
4 Fading fads. Blogs can be valuable marketing and public-relations tools and most companies should be able to find ways to use them effectively. But the CEO blog has been over-hyped and may not age well;
5 The foot-in-mouth syndrome. Are you really going to provide ‘vital’ information to investors (or anybody else) in your blog? Will you discuss unreleased new products? Companies you’re eyeing for acquisition? The suspicion that you may not meet projected targets next quarter? If so, a public blog should not be the method for sharing what you know.
The point Bowles makes is not that CEOs should avoid blogging altogether, but that the same guidelines and processes given to other corporate communications channels are required so that the benefits of the medium are realised without damaging companies through misuse. “We’re still learning every day,” says Bowles. “These tools are very powerful and demand a new set of rules.”
It is mostly, however, in the internal applications of social media where Bowles sees there is much work left to do. “The idea of managing knowledge is becoming feasible as these technologies have caught up with the concept; their democratic and open nature encourages people to use them.” Internal blogs and wikis enable employees to work together and collaborate more effectively, but the main challenge is finding a use for them. “You can give a blog to everybody who wants one, but most people don’t have anything to say,” he says.
But there are many uses within a corporate setting. Groups of experts in an organisation, for example, will want to share ideas and get feedback from each other. “The CIA has a blogging network where experts can write about their work and compare what they’re doing,” he says. “Wikis are best used on specific projects to share team members’ knowledge. Once completed you can store and re-use the knowledge captured so that people can see what they did. That’s enormously useful. There has to be a compelling business reason for people to use these tools voluntarily.”
Bowles says that this has always been the biggest challenge for knowledge management. “You want to preserve the specialised knowledge – the secret recipe for Campbell’s soup – before it walks out the door. Using these tools over time is the difference between walking through your thinking at a leisurely pace and being made to sit through an intense two-hour debrief.”
These are just the latest hurdles Bowles has watched organisations attempt to clear. During his work over the past 40 years he has travelled the world and met writers, photographers, consultants, entrepreneurs and editors. “When you’re travelling you meet hundreds of people and only really spend two or three days together. You then stay in touch with a Christmas card at most. I thought it would be good to take some of these interesting people, some of whom I’d worked with quite a lot, and create an e-mail group so we could share thoughts on anything we wanted to.”
He started the group in 1998. Called the Ancient Thespians – because the entire world’s a stage and the members are between 40-70 years old – members have exchanged around 15,000 e-mails to date, and there are few subjects they haven’t discussed in detail. “We didn’t know we were a pioneering online social-networking group at the time, we were just a group of middle-aged men who shared the same interests and passions.”
In keeping with his ability to bring people together, Bowles has also built a community around his love for contemporary classical music. Sequenza21.com has a loyal and passionate following and won the internet award from the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2005. “Almost all the visitors are composers or performers who really know their stuff and contribute erudite comments to posts. In November, we tried an experiment as we realised few people had met. We held a concert of the composers in New York and about 200 people showed up to fill the hall. It shows that you can build a real community with these tools.”
Being at the centre of so many networks, Bowles is in a strong position to say what he believes makes them successful. He finds that social networks work best when they are:
· Extensions of real-world relationships;
· Initiated by a trusted individual;
· More homogenous than diverse;
· Not a substitute for at least some face-to-face contact. You do not truly know another person until you have shared a bottle of Puligny Montrachet with them.
Indeed, just like a fine wine, all of Bowles’ communities have got better with age, which bodes well for the future of social media. He predicts that a backlash is probably due as these tools have received a lot of hype, but this correction will be healthy in the long term and help people realise what works and what does not. And perhaps then social media will truly challenge what he calls the last great frontier of knowledge management: tacit interaction.
Name: Jerry Bowles
Place of birth: Oak Hill, West Virginia, USA
Education: B.A., Marshall University; M.S. West Virginia University
Employment history: Dow Jones, KPMG, Ernst & Young
Contract Writer/Consultant: Fortune, Forbes, Business Week
Personal strengths: Loyalty, curiosity
Must improve: Ability to say no
Can't live without: My wife, my cat, and the internet
Must read: Gramophone, New Yorker