End Game

After years of writing about such company-centric issues as knowledge management and company intranets, David Weinberger, whose résumé includes the editorship of Joho (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organisation), commentator on National Public Radio, columnist for KMWorld and Intranet Design Magazine, writer for Wired and consultant for Open Text, has finally discovered business's big secret, which he shares in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, the Web mantra turned book he assembled with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke and Doc Searls. Weinberger's cohorts are no strangers themselves to organisations' attempts to grapple with the Internet: Levine is a Web designer and software architect for Sun Microsystems' Java group; Locke consults with such operations as Carnegie Mellon University, MCI WorldCom and IBM on their business strategies; and Searls, president of the Silicon Valley marketing consultancy The Searls Group, is senior editor of Linux Journal.

Weinberger's epiphany in "The Hyperlinked Organisation" chapter of The Cluetrain Manifesto is simple: Businesses don't consist of slots on an org chart or entries in a database. Businesses are made up of people. And people define and organise the business by continually discussing, literally and metaphorically, what their company is really all about. The Internet's influence is killing traditional business structures and allowing these human hyperlinks to organise businesses. Web Writer Emelie Rutherford recently caught up with Weinberger and he clued her in to business's big secret: that we are all human. "Here's some news for today's business pharaohs," Weinberger said. "Your pyramid is being replaced by hyperlinks. It was built on sand anyway."

CIO: how is the Internet affecting traditional business structures?

Weinberger: Businesses are taking on the structure of the Web - decentralised, messy, self-organising. For example, intranets are making it much easier for teams to hyperlink themselves together. To solve a customer problem, you use the intranet and e-mail to pull together the people that you know can solve it, regardless of their position on the org chart. These motivated, intelligent, committed hyperlinked teams keep the business closer to the customer.

But many businesses are devoted to maintaining the org chart through everything from disciplinary action to body language, so hyperlinked teams route around org charts. Even informing your manager about a hyperlinked project can feel like a waste of time. Yet these teams constitute a second life of the organisation and the place where the most valuable work is getting done.

CIO: That sounds messy. How do you manage the information resources in that type of environment?

Weinberger: You have to learn to love messiness - although messiness has been the sworn enemy of information management professionals. For example, when you build an employee database, you capture the information that's essential to be managed, but you leave out most of the stuff humans actually use to decide with whom we want to work. We leave out that Sally is wickedly funny, that Fred is really creative but many of his ideas are bad, that Carlos is a great initiator but is weak on follow-through and that Wanda is a great person to travel with.

Humans get a huge amount of value from this richer data. We listen to the tone of the voice, and we use that as an important guide to whether the information being communicated is worthwhile. The Web is full of this richer data - Web pages and other Web communications are fuller expressions of individuality than can be captured on a form or managed in a database. They include tone of voice, attitude, humour - all of which are crucial to understanding what's being said. We are learning to expect richer data, to be suspicious of data pared down so that it can be placed in a database and managed.

CIO: How do you evaluate the validity of information in this type of open, messy environment?

Weinberger: Say you're thinking about buying a watch and you're trying to decide between a Seiko and another brand. You can probably get all of the facts and stats from Seiko's Web pages, but a Usenet discussion may contain people who are trashing and waxing enthusiastic about Seiko. And you listen to those voices and you make judgements. You say: "I've seen a number of messages from this one person and he's always enthusiastic about Seiko. According to him, they can do no wrong. I'm not sure I trust him. This other person seems to have some distance, is funny, has comments pro and con. I really like this person's voice. This person I'll trust."

We've always done this in conversations, but this is now becoming a requirement for evaluating business information - business information now is wrapped in human voices and that's an essential part of our ability to make sense of this information.

CIO: Doesn't this favour those with great communication skills?

Weinberger: Very much so. But more and more styles and modes of communication are becoming not only accepted but valued. The person who absolutely cannot stand up in front of customers and deliver a smooth PowerPoint presentation may turn out to be the one who's able to engage in rapid - and hilariously funny - e-mail back and forth with the very same customers. They may hate him in a conference but love him on a mailing list. And an important new skill is being required of our best communicators: they need to stand for something, to care about what they're talking about, to be able to talk from the heart in their own words.

CIO: So these new conversations aren't simply among a business's customers.

Weinberger: Not at all. Customers want to talk with the crazy woman in your back room who actually comes up with all the good ideas as well as tons of bad ideas. They want to talk with the designers of the interface or of the controls. They want to talk with everybody who's involved with the product. After all, your customers and employees share a common passion: the product.

That's the way it was before the industrial revolution when there were real, literal markets where the customers engaged with the craftspeople who cared about the pot they were shaping or the flute they were carving or the apple they were growing. The industrial revolution introduced a separation between the producers and the consumers.

But in the world of the Web, once again there's a direct connection between the customers who care about the products and the people in the company who care about the products. It can't be stopped. The firewall can't stop it because people go home. They're on e-mail or they're going to a customer's Web pages that talks about the product because they love it or they hate it. And it shouldn't be stopped. These conversations are where the passion of your business occurs. It is your business's greatest asset.

CIO: So does a hyperlinked organisation still have a marketing department?

Weinberger: Yes, but it may be quite unlike the one it has now, if it's following the post-industrial broadcast model of marketing that thinks its job is to drill a single, simple brand message into the heads of masses of consumers. Imagine that you had a TV set that allowed you to engage in conversations with everybody else who's watching the same ad. Now when you see an ad that makes some stupid, ridiculous claim, you can hear the rest of the country laughing at it along with you. You can hear the rest of the country saying: "Nobody believes this. How dumb do they think we are?".

If you were able to have this type of active audience, you couldn't do the dumb ads that are insulting and implausible. You couldn't do branding where you simply try to take a simple idea and impress it upon the couch potato brain of the market. Well, we do have that way of communicating. We can find out, for example, if the Saturn [a US car model] ads that claim that their dealers are friendly, warm and supportive, are true. We can find out in three minutes on the Web by listening to conversations among Saturn owners, by finding Saturn owners and asking them on the Web.

That changes the nature of the medium. You can broadcast all you want. You can take up every available physical space from billboards to the risers of escalators and fill them with ads saying that Maytags never break. After $100 million in ads, I can find out in 90 seconds whether that's true or not. So it changes the power in the relationship between the market and the business doing the mass marketing. The Web is enabling markets to become much smarter, much faster than businesses can hope to - at least businesses along the old model. The markets can't be fooled, at least not as easily as before, because a networked market is as smart as the smartest person in the market. And that's happening simply because the Web enables global conversations in which people speak the truth to one another in their own distinctive voices.

CIO: Why do consumers engage in these conversations about other companies' products but return to work and assume the role of the clueless corporate representative?

Weinberger: It's odd, isn't it? Yet we all do it. We learn to write memos so that they all sound exactly the same no matter who they're from. We learn exactly what types of jokes we can tell where. We learn how much politics we can talk in the office. We live by a narrowly circumscribed set of rules. Why? In part it's so that we can maintain the belief that we're living in a well-managed environment, that if we play by the rules we'll be taken care of. We agree to believe that the world is manageable. That's a very comforting thing. It allows us to be efficient in many ways, to be undistracted by side issues.

But the price for it is our own voice. We can't sound like who we are. We have to drive an axe into our head - as my co-author Doc Searls says - so that we can act one way at work and another way outside of work.

The hyperlinked organisation promises to let us have our voices back. We can once again sound like who we are.

CIO: What happens to the professional voice that we all adopt at work?

Weinberger: The professional voice is going to become an object of ridicule within a few years. It already is in many places. Find an e-mail where somebody has put on his or her professional voice and you'll find an e-mail that's being passed around as an object lesson in how to be a jerk. The days in which the CEO can stand up and make a CEO-like presentation and not sound like a frightened windbag are already here.

CIO: Have you encountered many hyperlinked organisations?

Weinberger: Every company already to one degree or another is a hyperlinked organisation, although management may not yet know it.

There's a division of an oil company that flattened hierarchies that were getting in the way of product work and reorganised around projects. They recognised that the role playing was less important than the roles. And they acted organisationally to take care of it.

Western Digital's site moves people with customer support questions to their open, unmoderated support board where people post flaming messages about how much they hate their drive they just bought that's not working. And within a couple of hours they have an answer from a technical support person, but frequently also from another customer who responds in a friendly way about what the problem is and how it can be fixed. Here's a company that doesn't think that it has to pretend to be infallible, that's willing to admit that, gee, sometimes its drives don't work - which every customer already knows about every drive manufacturer. And as a result they get not only customer loyalty and a great support system, they are also able to do quality assurance that they could not do internally. They found out in one case that the drive wasn't working with a motherboard manufactured in Eastern Europe at the time. They found out and solved the problem.

CIO: How can VPs and senior managers further the hyperlinked organisation?

Weinberger: By getting out of the way. It's not your job to create conversations, to create voices. It's your job to listen to the conversations and voices already there. The Web is remaking business in its image. This is a bottom-up, distributed network of people creating their own loose structure. You're not in charge anymore. Resist the reflex to reassert your control.

CIO: if the corporate information environment is becoming enriched, what is the role of the CIO in a hyperlinked organisation?

Weinberger: Just as the Web is non-hierarchical, so too is the information flow in organisations becoming non-hierarchical. People are coming to expect to be set loose into a wickedly rich, unmanaged "information environment" where they need to be the ones to weigh, sift, evaluate and engage in the push and shove of conversation. They don't want to be given what someone else has decided is the right information at the right time; my value to the company increasingly is my ability to ferret out what's important by listening to the tone of voice of the person speaking, reading other people's responses, actually engaging in some e-mail about or with the person talking. The role of the CIO in this environment is not to set up sanctified, authenticating information hierarchies with a single orifice spouting the official truth. It is instead to enable these conversations to occur and to enable the fruits of these conversations to further enrich the environment.

CIO: Are you predicting a communisation of business?

Weinberger: Only in the sense that it's from each according to ability, not to each according to their need, the old tagline of the Marxists (although the current difference in pay between the top and the bottom is insupportable by any measure). How the power structure is going to be dismantled, what's going to happen to the corner office, what's going to happen to the big salaries, is hard to predict. Senior people who are entrenched will be able to retire happily. The next generation of leaders, however, is not going to earn its big offices by the number of people they manage. They'll earn respect by being out in the fray, by being able to laugh at mistakes and especially at their own mistakes - it's important to learn to enjoy being wrong. They'll earn the respect by being a participant just like everybody else. That's pure democracy. At last.

No Going Back

Author David Weinberger argues that the Web has changed corporate culture in seven key ways. Business is now:

1. Hyperlinked. Before the Web, computer networks were laid out in advance like well-planned cities. Who got connected to whom and how was all part of the master plan. And once you were connected, there was a recognisable central authority responsible for the whole shebang. The Web isn't even a little like that. The Web literally consists of hundreds of millions of pages hyperlinked together by the author of each individual page. Anyone can plug in and any page can be linked to any other, without asking permission. The Web is constantly spinning itself - many small pieces loosely joining themselves as they see fit.

2. Decentralised. No one is in charge of the Net. There is no central clearinghouse that dispatches all requests and approves all submissions. No one ordered the Web built. There is no CEO of the Web. There is no one to sue. There's no one to complain to. There's no one to fix it when it breaks. There's no one to thank.

3. Running in hypertime. Internet time is, famously, seven times the velocity of "normal" time. And yet we use the leisurely verb browse to describe our behaviour on the Web, because in the virtual world I feel I can move about at my own pace, exploring when and where I want. I can take a quick look at a site and come back later without having to find another parking space, go to the end of the line or pay a second entry fee. The Web puts the control of my time into my hands.

4. Open to direct access. The Net provides what feels like direct access to everyone else on the Net and to every piece of information that's ever been posted. If you want to go to a page, you just click on the link and, boom, you're there. (The fact that this might have required, beneath the surface, 30 "hops" among servers in places you never heard of is completely irrelevant. You don't see the hops; you just see the page.) There's nothing standing between you and the rest of the world of people and pages.

5. Rich in data. The currency of the Web isn't green bar printouts of facts and stats. It's pages. Humans have been creating pages since the invention of paper and dirty water. Pages - or "documents", as we sometimes say - are extraordinarily complex ways of presenting information. Typically, they tell you as much about the author as about the topic, a big change from the pre-Web information environment that aimed at generating faceless data.

6. Broken. Because the Web is by far the largest, most complex network ever built, and because no one owns it or controls it, it is always going to be, in the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, "a little bit broken".

7. Borderless. Because traditional networks were concerned as much with security as with access, it was usually made clear where your stuff ended and other people's stuff began. The Web, on the other hand, was designed so that you can include a link to a page without having to get the author's permission. Thus, on the Web it is often hard to tell exactly where the boundaries are.

- Excerpted from The Cluetrain ManifestoThe Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as UsualBy Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger; Perseus Books, 2000; $24.95