To blog, or not to blog....that is the question. With apologies to Shakespeare, who is probably turning over in his grave about now, but this question is on the minds of a great many business people, all the way from the small business owner to the boardrooms of the corporate world. What is this communication phenomenon that is sweeping a large part of the world? Is it merely a passing fad or a stepping stone on the path to bigger and better things? One thing is certain and that its impact is definitely being felt right now! A quick look at the Technorati website (something akin to the Google of the blog world or 'blogosphere' as it has been christened) shows that they are tracking a massive 45.2 million sites and 2.6 billion links! How many of the 45.2 million are business related is hard to know. Links are important because the more people who link to your blog site to add content to their own site, the more 'Google juice' (don't you just love that term!) you get, ie. the higher up the Google search pecking order you appear. For good or bad that means credibility in the blogoshpere.
Remember the time a few years ago when people would publish stats on how many new websites per day were appearing, well now its blogs. From a very few in 2000, it has grown at an unbelievable rate and appears to be accelerating. So what's the big deal? I think that is best explained by some things which are business related, some which are human nature and how they are interlinked. The human race, for as long as we can remember, has craved conversation and loved storytelling. The important point here is that conversation is a two way process, involving two or more people, and storytelling has always been an outlet for passing on experience, advice and wisdom. There is another very important component that figures in this and that is the element of 'trust'. Whenever, we have a conversation with someone we instinctively decide if this is someone that we can 'trust', and we are not likely to listen to advice from someone that we do not trust. All human interaction is based around 'trust' and ultimately 'respect', which cannot exist without trust.
So what does this have to do with blogging and in particular business? In general, the compute age has gradually taken us away from the 'campfire' conversation and story telling of the past. True, technology has advanced communications. Email is now ubiquitous and we can find information like never before; but all of this is basically one way. Email is not really a conversation and how do you choose which information to 'trust'? Modern communications and blogging technology has now begun to take us full circle by providing the ability to converse on a global scale with almost anyone, at any time and with rapid response. At the same time people have become increasing disillusioned and mistrustful of the business world. There have been far too many reasons lately to give credence to that. Many companies have become entities unto themselves and appear to have forgotten who the customer is; you know the one who pays them!
Typical communications between 'business' and the 'public' is handled either by the PR or marketing people, either in the form of press releases or by promotional material. As a group the PR community has been steadily losing credibility and are often now at best likened to 'spin doctors' and at worst 'used car salespeople'. Further, people have become resistant to traditional marketing approaches. Very often the growing disconnection between a company and its customers is just not apparent to the management until some sort of crisis arises. Those companies, such as Microsoft, that have been smart enough to recognize that disconnect and have encouraged their employees to blog have, in general, seen tremendous benefits. It isn't without risk, of course, and that is why many people are still pondering. In an unmoderated environment, it can lead to ill-behaviour, possible public embarrassment or even loss of intellectual property. All you can do is encourage your employees to behave appropriately and blog 'smartly'. In some cases, Sun for example, it has so changed their public image that it has given the company a new lease on life.
Will this inevitably change how companies communicate with their partners, vendors, employees, investors, prospects and media? Personally, I believe that it will because it helps to remove that 'false' communication layer that exists in many cases. Blogging has passed through the 'ridiculed' and 'violently opposed' phases of anything revolutionary and is now entering the 'accepted as self-evident' phase. Hence the reason that it is on the minds of many in the boardroom. So is blogging for everyone? Probably not. If you do it because your competition is doing it, but you don't truly believe and work at it, it will backfire. You will soon become transparent and lose the credibility and trust that you were so desperately seeking. The corporate culture must be conducive to blogging if it is to be effective. Will it ultimately result in changes in the corporate culture in some large organizations? Quite possibly.
For the corporate executive, the prospect of blogging themselves can, I am sure, feel very intimidating. They can no longer 'hide' behind the 'corporate machine'. For many of those who have been brave enough to take the potential criticism, listen and answer honestly it has been a watershed. They have discovered a new found freedom and have enjoyed the interaction. Perhaps executives are people too after all! However, blogging comes at not only the potential price of criticism or disagreement, but it can be very time consuming if done properly. This, of course, is a concern for everyone. "If I encourage my employees to blog where is the ROI?", I am sure is one of the questions that gets regularly asked. That is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand blogging infrastructure is relatively cheap but peoples' time certainly isn't. Besides, shouldn't employees be spending their time on running the business? If building good customer relationships, educating them and keeping them regularly informed isn't running the business, what is? Thanks to technology, all that has really changed is the business model. Those in PR and marketing might not agree but then they have territory to defend. The smart ones will see the direction that the wind is blowing, show how their skills can be valuable in the blogosphere, and adapt. The rest will be flipping burgers somewhere!
What prompted this blog on blogging was the fact that I recently read a book entitled, 'Naked Conversations' (how blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers) by Robert Scoble (recently of Microsoft's Channel 9) and Shel Israel. Scoble (Scobleizer) and Israel are unashamed bloggers and proffer a 'blog or die' business philosophy. Now, whether you subscribe to such an extreme position or not, Naked Conversations is definitely worth a read if you want to be enlightened about the world of blogging. If you are in business, you should at least find out what you might be missing and if you are already blogging get some advice on how to do it better. They offer a number of examples of where and why blogging has worked in business and some where it has not, again with the reasons why they feel it did not.
Inevitably, as I read the book it made me think about my contributions to the CIM blog. After all contributing here was my first blogging experience and I really didn't know much about the blogosphere and its expectations. The blogosphere has developed a culture all of its own, even to the point of starting to develop its own language shorthand, and it will readily shut you out and/or let you know about it if your blogging is 'lame'. On the other hand, currently there is no other way that an individual can readily and quickly reach a global audience. It is the modern day version of the 'jungle drums'. When I was invited to be a guest blogger here, I was very flattered but then had what I can only assume is the first-time novelist's nightmare thought, 'what do I write about and, most importantly, will anybody really care?'. I am no stranger to speaking in public but writing in public is another story. It is also easy to feel the journalist's pressure of needing to try and produce variety and quality on a fairly regular basis. It certainly can be time and thought consuming. On reflection, would I have chosen a different path? Not for an instant! I have always enjoyed 'communicating' and trying to pass on my 'experience'. I guess that's why I enjoy teaching. The opportunity to blog here has been yet another important step in my own personal development at a time in my life when it would be easy to think most of the 'steps' are over. Just think about the collective 'experience' and 'wisdom' that is out there and how we can all benefit from sharing it openly.
So what comes next? Advancing technology will inevitably enhance our 'conversation' and 'storytelling' opportunities. Podcasting for example is gathering speed and has the advantage of suiting the mobile technophile. It is only a matter of time before video becomes more prevalent. There is already a name for video logs, 'vlogs'; seems logical. An important point is that when technology meets the needs of human nature, it is a winning combination. When human nature has to adapt to technology, it will be met with ongoing resistance and criticism, and possibly abject failure. This connection between technology and human needs reminds me of something from my engineering career. When CAD (Computer Aided Design) started to become popular, the draftsman/designer recognized the speed and accuracy but did not like the new working environment. They had gone from a large drawing board, which had evolved to that point for very good reasons, to a small screen. About twenty years ago I told them that I was confident that in time they would be back to their drawing board size working environment when touch-screen display technology affordably permitted it. That cannot be too many years away now! The other technology which has become prevalent in the engineering world is 'virtual reality' representation. I don't want to go too sci-fi on you but could it be that in time we will have 'virtual' campfire conversations and storytelling? After all, Star Trek's Enterprise has the holo-suite :).
There's a kind of virtual world Graham called Second Life...click on the link about and explore :-)
I looked up Second Life; very interesting. I also read the article in Business Week about it (<a href="http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_18/b3982001.htm">http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_18/b3982001.htm</a>). It reminds me of the critically acclaimed <i>Neuromancer</i> by William Gibson. It is interesting how, over the years, many well known, forward thinking sci-fi writers have been eerily close to predicting a possible future, often many years ahead.
Whilst Second Life is a sign of the times and perhpas a peek into the future (a slightly scary future in some ways), I was referring to virtual reality in the total 'immersion'sense, using a headset for example. I have experienced this wrt plant design in my engineering days. It is frighteningly 'real'. This was at least 10 years ago when Silicon Graphics Unix workstations were the leaders. They had a research facility at Reading in England. I am sure that things must have advanced considerably since then; cpu speeds and graphics engines have advanced a lot in that time.
Perhaps Third or Fourth Life will bring the total 'immersion' experience? I can imagine how exilerating that might be and at the same time the potential for abuse also concerns and frightens me!