Wisdom of Crowds, Chatter and SAS
One of Salesforce.com’s challenges in driving Chatter’s acceptance comes from positioning it for the buying public. That’s a tall order since the company is simultaneously trying to establish a new product and its category.
The product and the category are classified as social networking and leverage the wisdom of crowds — James Surowiecki’s idea. But Chatter is unlike any of the products that may help a group come up with the answer to a quantitative question of the type, How many jellybeans are in this jar? which Surowiecki uses a lot in his 2004 best seller. Nonetheless, Surowiecki does address the Chatter problem as one of coordination and the wisdom of crowds is a good approach to dealing with coordination with some caveats.
To review briefly, the wisdom of crowds is almost self explanatory — the crowd is smarter than any one of its members and crowd wisdom can lead you to some astonishing revelations such as the number of jellybeans in the mythical jar, the best route to work, which styles will be popular in the fall and which won’t.
The Chatter problem is different from all those examples because the group being sampled is internal to the organization and the customer problem the organization is trying to address may be unique. Regardless, there are three attributes of a successful wisdom of crowds strategy that all approaches seem to need according to Surowiecki — diversity, independence and decentralization.
The three strategies work remarkably well for the jellybean problem and they fit the Chatter problem well too. Briefly, diversity means getting input from as many sources as possible, not just the smartest people in the room, but everyone. Smart people tend to think alike and a creative spark can come from anywhere so the more the merrier. Also, diversity means capturing bad ideas as well as good and the wisdom of crowds makes it possible to let bad ideas cancel each other out leaving you with the good stuff.
Independence means letting each actor in the crowd do what he or she does best without attempting to influence them unduly. Many of us think nothing of begging friends to vote for our ideas in a social forum as often as possible, but as soon as we do, it wrecks the idea of independence and therefore the whole wisdom thing. Finally, decentralization is tied with independence in this example, your begging produces a command and control hierarchy which is responsible for the wrecking.
So, what about Chatter? Chatter neatly implements the three primary social strategies of crowd wisdom for the benefit of the organization. First, there’s diversity — everyone does a job, their job, not someone else’s. That means support does support and sales does sales and when there is a customer problem involving a deal being held up by a support issue, everyone does their part.
Chatter helps this process by opening up lines of communication — and ad hoc coordination — so that sales knows what support is doing and vice versa. Importantly, anyone else who wants to know and lend a hand can also have a ringside seat. This is critical because other independent actors, perhaps a manager, VP or C-level executive, can shine a light on the situation too.
Finally, the critical piece is decentralization. In a Chatter crowd, no one has to be a dictator, taking control of a situation and directing people to do certain things. People do their jobs and that turns out to be enough. The secret ingredient to this decentralized approach is corporate culture. A culture that says, do what makes your boss happy might have a tough time benefitting from Chatter. But a culture that operates on a prime directive approach — like Google’s or Star Trek’s — will do well.
The prime directive can be as simple as “Don’t be evil,” or “First do no harm,” or more practically, “Be good to customers, and always to the right thing,” is all that’s needed. An employee operating along the lines of the culture’s prime directive should be praised and rewarded regardless of outcome, which will usually be fine.
I am at the 35th meeting of the SAS User Group this week in Seattle. SAS is one of those gems of a company we all wish we worked for. In fact, they just won an award for being the best company in America to work for, an award that goes with similar awards from all over the world. I haven’t spent a lot of time following SAS since I worked at a competitor more than a decade ago but what I am learning here is truly remarkable.
I don’t know what SAS’s prime directive is but I know that every employee does. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their conversations and it is definitely pro customer. What makes SAS such a gem is that it is privately held and unlike many private companies this one has revenues north of $2.3 billion and it reinvests more than 20 percent in its products and services. And it appears to me that founder and CEO, Dr. Goodnight, has a prime directive that encompasses customers and employees that I assume goes like this: treat employees well and they’ll treat customers well. It’s a strategy that has worked well for more than 34 years.
SAS grew into a powerhouse without social media — though today it is introducing several products in that realm. Most big companies are not private and they have shareholders to keep happy as well as customers and employees. I can’t help but wonder though if applying crowd wisdom through a product like Chatter might help many other companies to apply their prime directives in ways that help them keep customers, employees and shareholders happy by just doing good. The prime directive idea is tied to corporate culture that that may be the best indicator of whether or not a company is Chatterizeable. (Is that a word?)