The Blog

  • April 26, 2011
  • The Big Bad Boston Burrito Brouhaha

    You would think by now that social media is old hat, what with all of the prognostications that my legions of friends and I have dedicated to the technology, but you would be wrong.  There are still multitudes of otherwise smart people out there who don’t know a blog from a burrito.  Here’s a case in point.

    About a week and a half ago, Boston launched a bike sharing program.  It’s similar to programs in other cities like Washington and like programs set up in many European cities.  People rent bikes to travel short distances in a city then drop them off at another location when they are through.  Bike sharing makes cities greener and helps us all get a little exercise while avoiding other forms of crowded and dirty mass transit.  So Boston is pioneering the idea in the northeast.

    To inaugurate the system Mayor Tom Menino’s office set up a noontime ceremony to attract people and news cameras to the event — a common practice in political circles.  An aide to the mayor thought it would be a good idea to serve some food at the event and asked a local burrito chain, Boloco, to donate some burritos.

    Boston, like any well-run city, really is a community.  Boloco’s CEO, John Pepper, is a supporter of the mayor and was happy to make the donation.  That’s about where the story should end with the exception of a phone call from the mayor or a letter with a signed photo of the two men at the event or something like it.  But Boston being Boston we still have some distance to travel.

    Deep in the bowels of city hall lives the Inspectional Services Department which protects the health and safety of the people by inspecting and certifying outdoor food purveyors among other things.  I am not making this up, lots of cities have them.  The department got wind of the impending outdoor distribution of free victuals and sprang into action.  It didn’t matter that Boloco had all of the necessary permits and certifications to run a burrito shop (best ones in the city by unofficial reports) that people routinely use for takeout.  Nope, if Boloco wanted to give away burritos it had to have a certificate.

    Pepper was surprised and argued with the department — heck it was free food from a permitted restaurant and it was a one time thing.  But when Pepper did that the bureaucrat in charge went nuclear and threatened to shut down the offending Boloco location if it failed to get the necessary permit (and pay the thirty dollar fee).

    More calls went out to city hall and it was clear that the left hand knew not what the right was up to.  All this was to no avail.  The simplest solution was for a Boloco staffer to march down to city hall, check in hand, to procure the necessary permit.  Then all was bliss, right?  Nope, this is Boston in the digital age.

    Boloco does a lot of its business with the city’s estimated half million or so college kids.  The burrito chain is hip and has its social game on for attracting business.  So it was natural that the CEO would use his social clout to express his displeasure about the whole affair to his audience.  The mayor, who also holds the unofficial moniker of “Mumbles Menino” for his ability to make George W. Bush sound positively Shakespearean by comparison, got really sensitive for some reason and was quoted in the Boston Globe saying: “He wants to blog, make news? Ok, you do your blog.”  It sounds more menacing if you know Mumbles or any big city mayor.

    Actually, it was Twitter and Facebook from what I know, not a blog but here in lies the Social CRM lession for all, but especially all of the still uninitiated in government and other pockets of late adopter resistance.

    The mayor and the CEO later had a private phone call and resolved their issues but I can’t shake the notion that Hizonner got the best of the encounter.  When it was all over Pepper understandably wanted to put the whole thing behind him and told the press, “He thinks I could have gone about this in a more positive manner.”  I beg to differ.

    In my view, Pepper acted reasonably in the circumstances, this is the digital age you know.  It’s the politicos who need to step into the twenty-first century.  In an era where we all have devices in our pockets that access the world through voice and Internet we, especially leaders, need to tune our antennae to the lightening quick reaction time of the marketplace.  And I am not simply talking about the interaction between the mayor and the CEO, it’s crucial to see that the people at Inspectional Services handled things, if not badly, then at least in a nineteenth century manner.

    To see how this matter should be handled in the twenty-first century you need to look to a twenty-first century company and its CEO.  You might ask how would Salesforce have handled this?  Glad you asked.  Here’s what I think, though I have not checked with anyone at Salesforce and the following is a dramatization.  No burritos were harmed in this dialog.

    First and foremost everyone at city hall would be on Chatter, the social collaboration service from Salesforce.  I could envision the Chatter feed looking something like this:

    The mayor will announce the city’s new bike sharing program in a ceremony at noon today.

    Noon?  It would be great if we had some food to give out!  Could attract a crowd and make the news feed look better.

    Yeah, who’s in charge of food for the event?

    Nobody.  We don’t have budget for snow removal, we’re not giving away free lunch.

    No wait, we must have some supporters in the restaurant biz who want some publicity?

    It’s 9 AM guys, we can’t ask for much.

    Hey, lets ask that guy at Boloco.  Didn’t he come to the mayor’s last meet up?

    Yeah, Peppers.  I’ll call him.

    Ok, that’s highly stylized and it’s not even the important part.  The real importance is that Inspectional Services would also be on Chatter.  Certainly, the rank and file inspectors have better things to do than watch a Chatter stream all day.  But the head of the department, and all other departments for that matter, ought to be monitoring the Chatter from the mayor’s office just as any company’s department heads should be on the same page with the CEO’s Chatter stream.

    Here’s the critical part, in a modern organization, when the boss wants to get something done, everybody who can, needs to find a way to help out.  Various writers like Steven Denning refer to this as building self-organizing teams.  In this case somebody at Inspectional Services should have grabbed a certificate and marched over to Boloco’s offices across town to do the deal.  A really efficient organization would have called down the hall, or wherever, to find out that Boloco passed its last kitchen inspection about six weeks earlier (or whatever, I am making this up) so the rush to permit the chain for the event was really the no-brainer it looked like on the surface.

    Had this happened — and truth be told, it didn’t require Chatter or any other technology, just some initiative and an attitude transplant at Inspectional Services — the CEO, who was donating 200 burritos, would have felt well served by a responsive local government.  The mayor would have looked like the captain of a well-run organization and none of this would have made the papers.

    As it was, the mayor and one of his supporters got their feathers needlessly ruffled and the culprits at Inspectional Services skated away secure in the mistaken belief that they had protected the city’s gastro-intestinal virtue.

    The bigger issue here is that people are about twice as likely to launch a social airstrike against someone violating the unwritten rules of the social economy than they are to give out attaboys.  With that reality it is not surprising that Boloco’s CEO did what he did and it is hugely disappointing that the city government still doesn’t know what it did wrong.

    Don’t let this happen to you.  Be nice.  Be social.

    Published: 13 years ago

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