David Weinberger
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Business' hardest lesson

20 March 2000

From a conversation with a sympathetic journalist writing about The Cluetrain Manifesto for a magazine whose audience is "human resources" professionals:

Q: OK, so there are all these conversations occurring all over the company, beneath the official radar, and that's where the real work of the company is happening. OK. So, what advice do you have for managers? How can they manage these conversations, get 'em talking about what they want?This is the hardest lesson business has to learn. Ever since the advent of broadcast media, we've assumed we're in control of the conversation. We get to say what we want and our market gets to listen. And the same thing inside the organization: managers get to talk and employees get to listen.

We've labored under the illusion that we're just so fascinating that consumers are happy to have us break into their television programs with commercials and into their landscapes with billboards. And employees think so highly of us that they let us do the talking at meetings because for them every three- hour staff meeting is a valuable LEARNING EXPERIENCE.

In fact, we've been at a cocktail party with a bullhorn in our hands, carrying on a monologue that people go out of their way to avoid.Now the Web enables global conversations among customers, and intranets and the Undernet enable conversations among employees. They — we — only talk with one another when we have something that interests us. We speak in our own voices. We say what we want. We make lots of jokes. The corporate bullhorn sounds more and more like bull.

And business is beginning to realize this. Business' first response, however, is: How can I control these conversations? How can I get them "on message?" How can I become the center of attention yet again?Here's the hard answer: You can't. And if you try, you'll only be annoying. And obnoxious. We're talking about our baby's rash and you want to interrupt with a "message" about your Snuggi Brand Baby Skates? We're figuring out how to get the model 1200's thermostat to work for a customer and you barge in talking about how our company has to be "the leading supplier of temperature-controlled whatevers to global enterprises in the high-growth who-cares segment?" Get outta here! We were getting somewhere until you came along!

It's not your conversation. It's not even about you. If you want to jump in, well, fine, but you better have something interesting to say. "Buy my crap" or "There's no I in team" aren't the least bit interesting. And if you actually have something valuable to contribute, say it like a normal human being, not like a marketing person or a manager. Here's a tip: Start off by saying something funny. Maybe even make fun of yourself.

Better yet, just be quiet while repeating this mantra: "It's not about me. It's not about me." You'll get the hang of it... David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations