David Weinberger
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Three days to a smart company

01 May 2000

I still get a knot in my stomach whenever I think about the Gartner Group form that used to arrive annually. The Gartners had this idea that they could gather detailed product information from all the vendors, populate a vast database and then charge Gartner's clients to spit out the products that most closely matched their requirements.

Great theory, and maybe it even worked. But the form that was delivered with a thud in the office of the hapless product manager was something like 150 pages long. Small type. It literally took weeks of time to fill in, and a ridiculous percentage of the questions required the product manager to write in a comment amending the question so that it applied -- or to avoid having to put in a flat-out No: E.g., "Our document management product does not shoo away horseflies automatically, but its optional DM DiaperPack(tm) removes the initial cause of horseflies."

Similarly, in the past few weeks I've seen two products that let you manage your product "knowledge" by filling in endless forms that feed a database. (At least it's your database in this case.) Having done so for your products and those of your competitors, the information can be easily shared among your sales force and development teams. Further, filling in the forms forces a discipline that can uncover products strengths and weaknesses.

It's probably a left brain vs. right brain thing -- or maybe it's a Democrat vs. Republican thing, or possibly a Pepsi vs. Coke or GenX vs. Boomer or Man vs. Woman or Shirts vs. Skins thing. In any case, all I know is that when I'm confronted with forms like these, I'm fully prepared to chew off my own leg to escape. Yes, the database is very useful. Yes, it organizes information in ways that can bring benefit. Yes and yes and yes. But, you know, my left leg is beginning to look mighty tasty.

Even after all the information is neatly wrapped and stored in labeled pigeon holes, we have a better informed company, but not necessarily a smarter one. But what does it mean to have a smarter company? It does not necessarily mean having people who know more. Applications like the product information databases we just discussed mean that knowledge can be outsourced: I can be smart without knowing much if I know how to look things up.

No, a smart company is characterized not by what's in people's heads but by the quality of the conversations in the hallways. You want to know what knowledge sounds like? Listen to people talk. They sound like themselves (not like the processed CheeseWiz of corporate data), they're funny, and they're so on point that the "relevancy" of their communication just isn't in question. You can also hear the sound of the human voice in e-mail which is, fundamentally, a conversational medium.

So, how can you have better conversations at work? Here are some cheap and easy (and obvious) tricks to make your company smarter:

• Turn a meeting room into a living room. Take out the conference table. Put in beanbag chairs.

• Add an espresso machine that requires individual attention. The longer people spend making coffee, the more likely they'll turn their break from a drug-guzzling pit stop into a time for some talk.

• Set up mail aliases. For example, set one up for your sales force and include marketing and the development team as (primarily) auditors. Now when a salesperson asks, "Has anyone ever tried to interface the 2100 with a Hobart Frapulator?" the question will go to everyone and the answers will be read by everyone. Mail aliases are like dehydrated smartness -- just add water and stir!

• Integrate your office. Let marketing dweebs bump into engineering geeks. They'll both be better for it.

• Encourage parents to bring in their children on occasion. Sure-fire ice breaker. (Also, it helps remind you that work is really just a distraction.)

• Learn to listen. Stop being a pompous jerk who has to dominate every conversation. 'Nuff said.

• Make wider hallways.

Nothing very startling here? Why are you surprised? The techniques for encouraging conversation are as old as civilization itself. In fact, civilization itself got smart through good conversation.

(Next week, how to end poverty with just a water pistol and two teaspoons of baking soda!)

David Weinberger publishes JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) and is a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.