Corporate Blogging and Network Dynamics

At the end of my last post on corporate blogging and McLuhan I wrote:

McLuhan’s ideas may be of genuine use to the advocates of corporate blogging to help corporations recognize that, like it or not, they are operating in a new media environment with both new dangers and opportunities.

McLuhan isn’t much help identifying those dangers and opportunities – he just tells us that they are going to be there and why we ignore them at our peril. For the particular dangers and opportunities created by a new medium you need a theorist who is interacting with the new medium in question. To see corporate blogs in that perspective we need to back up a little. I first wrote about the application of Eric Raymond’s ideas to blogging in general here:

Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar provides a powerful general explanation of the phenomena of Open Software – Linux in particular. Raymond’s book – available free on line here and well worth reading – is about two different styles of software development. To grossly simplify, the cathedral style is that used by hierarchically organized companies like Microsoft or IBM. The bazaar style is used by open software development projects like Linux. The former uses tightly held propriety code developed by a well supervised team with assigned roles. It is the tried and true method of engineering that has been used to successfully build battleships, bridges, software, and, well, cathedrals for a long time. The latter style, in apparent defiance of common sense, openly posts source code on the Internet where any interested party can change it any way they want, scrutinize it for bugs, and post suggested fixes. The amazing outcome is that Linux has become serious competition for Microsoft even though its developers are all unpaid volunteers. Raymond’s explanation of this phenomena is convincing. Linux can muster a large number of volunteers world wide who bring very different backgrounds and abilities to the code they review. What has emerged is that those best qualified to spot problems and those with the skills to fix them (usually different people) are ‘found’ by the net – in much the same way that buyers and sellers find each other in a bazaar. Raymond characterized this phenomena as Linus’s law: “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.”

The principle that Eric Raymond has elucidated here does not just apply to computer programming, but, I argue can be extended to networked media in general. The network, the Internet, makes any project that requires only attention and labor accessible to anyone with a computer and a connection. You can’t mine coal or manufacture car parts with only a computer and an Internet connection, but you can tackle anything that only requires your labor and skill. What the network does is connect skills and attention to a particular task and greatly improves the chances that the persons with the most appropriate skills and the time to put them to work will come in contact with the task.

Blogging has already demonstrated that it thrives in the networked environment. There are 40 million of us the last time I saw a statistic. In this post I want to focus in on a relatively new kind of blogging – corporate blogging – and how Eric Raymond’s ideas might help understand and implement it better. With a corporate blog you have a subset of the Internet – the corporate network which is a reflection of a sharply defined entity called a corporation that is normally an organization created for the purpose of supplying goods and services on a for profit basis. The sharpness of the line between the privately held corporation and the public is a critical aspect of corporations that allow them to make a profit. What crosses that line – money, information, people, good and services are all carefully controlled to maximize the survival and profitability of the corporation. Success and control are closely linked. There are the controls over money both internal and governmental that attempt to keep corporations honest and profitable and find out quickly when they are not. But information is also tightly controlled in the interests of protecting the money. Not only does Dupont keep its formulas secret, it and every other corporation, carefully cultivates what the public knows about the corporation. It protects its ‘brand’ like a mother tiger, and works hard to avoid negative publicity.

Corporate blogging must make its way into this environment that so values control. Furthermore while corporations will take calculated risks on familiar ground, it is much harder to get them to take risks in unfamiliar territory – like with a new medium such as blogging. If I seem to be building a case against corporate blogging it is because I want to give a realistic picture of the difficulties involved. I also want to avoid a too optimistic view which ignores real problems – something that techno optimists are perennially guilty of doing. In Eric Raymond’s terms I am saying that corporations are Cathedral like organizations – hierarchical, controlled from the top down. How do they take advantage of the bizarre like nature of the Internet when considering corporate blogs? The problem is that initially the risks seem to outweigh the rewards, but that once people start doing it successfully, the firm that fails to do it is giving away a possible way to grow and profit. Early adopters of corporate blogging who succeed will gain an advantage – just as companies – for example Wrigley’s Gum – that first took advantage of electrically lit billboards as an advertising medium a century ago did well. The obvious advantage is that the company gets better known through a new channel of communication. It is also an opportunity for corporations to develop the public’s understanding of them both as customers and potential employees to a level not previously possible. Corporate blogging is a quite different opportunity for the company to tell its story and for its customers to respond. Unexpectedly, that bright kid in college who might be your future CEO can get to know what it is like to work for your company and put you on his short list. In short, blogging can improve the quality of the interaction and if you have something to offer it can get the word out to those most interested who might otherwise never know of the company’s existence.

Is that kind of advantage worth the risk of inappropriate blogging – taking workplace gossip and power struggles public or worse putting the kind of destructive material on the Internet that disgruntled employees are famous for? I’ll just say this here – it has worked for the US military – an organization even more concerned with control and secrecy than business. Counterintuitively, milbolggers have not compromised operational security or created massive PR problems. Their fresh approach is, in practice, much more effective than the institutionalized (think Cathedral like) efforts of the military’s public information effort because they reach out to the public directly. Positive or negative, agree or disagree with them, the voices are authentic, and that makes all the difference. The military also deserves credit for not doing what it would be so easy for them to do – simply issue an order prohibiting blogging. Somehow, an institution not famous for recognizing innovation in a timely fashion got this one right and reaped the benefit of their soldier’s creativity without paying a prohibitive price.

I would argue that the reason the military succeeded and the general approach to ensuring that a corporate blog is a success will involve the right balance of control and openness. You need the control – as with any corporate activity – to ensure that the activity contributes positively to the company. You need the openness to let the nature of networks – the bizarre effect – to work in your company’s favor. There is no way of knowing who on your staff might turn out to be a star blogger. Or what unanticipated approach to blogging they might come up with that benefits the company. It might be the mail girl, the loading dock guy, that loud mouth in sales who no one likes but who always seems to sell the most – it might even be the CEO. You just don’t know, but armed with an understanding of the dynamics of networks it should be obvious that it might not work to just task the PR department to create a corporate blog. Here is an example of an alternate strategy based on Eric Raymond’s theory.

Keep you blog within the company to start with. There is probably already a password protected corporate network not accessible to the public. Open blogging to anyone in the company on your private network. Let them know that if they are good at it it will go onto the Internet and that the prize might even be a good job. The inhouse blogging phase should reveal the talent and both the opportunities and the problems while controlling risk. That’s the place to get the balance right between control and creativity and to create the polices that will let potential corporate bloggers know what they can and cannot do. When the inhouse bloggers are ready for public exposure then you can let them go public with a much clearer idea of what the impact will be. The inhouse blogs can even be kept as a kind of farm team to develop new talent.

This example is intended as a simple demonstration of how to apply a particular theory to the emerging issue of corporate blogging. The larger point I want to make here is that however you do it you must recognize that, in a time of change, risk and opportunity come together and seeing one and not the other is itself risky. Effective corporate people already know this is true in the marketplace. It is equally true, but sometime harder to see, in the arena of emerging new media.

6 Responses to “Corporate Blogging and Network Dynamics”  

  1. 1 Easton Ellsworth

    Good thoughts. I agree that companies should look at the different challenges before they leap into corporate blogging. I’m doing a post series on Fortune 500 corporate blogs right now and it’s amazing to me how lame some of them are. The fact that they have tons of money doesn’t guarantee that they make something so potentially inexpensive and easy as a blog into a nightmarishly complicated (or just plain boring) exercise.

  2. 2 officer Catsy

    Well back in the good ole days when I was working in a terminally ill part of the manufacturing sector, I was inclined to want to change things quickly without necessarily having thought it out totally and also lacking in untold level of cynicism and experience (the latter the generator of the former). Some of my colleagues, whom one might categorize as heirarchy racists, would simply stonewall, cement wall, nuclearly wall the changes. Though even then I could see that that my young “turk(ey)” view was not necessarily suffering from an over load of skillful means, I did wish that the old TURKS would not be so rigid in their defense of the status quo. For my suspicion was that the best solution would be located somewhere between the two extremes of our differing views.

    Since I suspect that the old rigid maintain the tried and ture and young lively rip things open and see what happens is also a function of the human aging, corporate blogging will also tend to find its own level over time. Some of the young turkeys will over do and some of the old fogeies will prevent advancement. The companies that succeed with be those that experiment in manners such as you suggest or radically different ways and find what works for them in their industry.

  3. 3 admin

    Mr. Ellsworth made the following comment and I approved it but it didn’t post for some reason.

    Great thoughts! That last paragraph put it into perspective very nicely. I didnt know anything about McLuhan before I read this.

    Thanks for the thoughts and I am glad my theoretical musings have enough connection to the corporate scene to get a strong response. I am trying to develop a theoretical approach to media in general using theorists such as McLuhan and Raymond and this exploration of corporate blogging was, for me, a chance to try it out in a failry narrow and emerging area.

  4. 4 Cornelius Puschmann

    Thank you for sharing your insights, Mr. Yankee (or is it Mr. Wombat?). I’m academically interested in corporate blogging myself (though from a different perspective) and found your two posts very thought-provoking.

    I’ve commented in length in my own blog:

    You’re most welcome to respond and correct me if necessary (my knowledge of McLuhan is fairly basic). I’m very much looking forward to reading more of your ideas on the topic.



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