the following is the complete sixth chapter of
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em
From the furthest historical reaches of Jump Street, markets have been conversations. Craft and voice were joined at the hip -- what you made was how you spoke. But then it turned out that the world was round, there were other places across that Big Blue Wet Thing, and trade routes got longer, natch. Producers became further removed from markets. Gradually, marketing became an abstract pipe down which producers shipped products to customers, though nobody would invent FedEx for several centuries. Somewhere along the line, speech and craft lost each other’s phone numbers.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, new power sources replaced much human grunt work. Producers immediately saw that this was a Good Thing. Moreover, they saw that repeatable processes and interchangeable parts were an Even Better Thing, as such mechanization led to significant economies of scale -- a fancy way of saying more money.
By the time the twentieth century rolled around, industry hit upon an even more potent multiplier: interchangeable workers. The assembly line turned workers into machines. Through this stroke of genius, craft skill was effectively hosed, and workers were told to shut up and do what they were told.
Economies of scale also required economies of management. Telling them what to do efficiently required a new form of business organization. Bureaucracy fine-tuned the division of labor needed to make this new setup work, and a breakthrough concept called the org chart determined who got to speak at all. Welcome to management by command and control. This resulted in huge economies of scale -- a fancy way of saying "robber barons."
Mass production led to mass marketing, which led to (ta-da!) mass media. Broadcast applied the fundamental mass-production brainstorm to marketing communications. This development signaled the dawn of junk mail. Corporate speech became mass produced "messages" jammed into a one-way spam cannon aimed at a dream that hasn’t faded since: interchangeable consumers.
Ignoring the clear lessons of history (for example, the nuking of Hiroshima and the saturation bombing of Dresden), upstart "foreign" companies started selling into markets the United States figured it had permanent dibs on. Guess again. The global economy threw a monkey wrench into the sweet deal that was mass production. Established markets broke up into a zillion micromarkets, leading to an explosion of new products and services: now you could get a car specifically designed for your urban, sports, just-divorced, hockey-fan lifestyle. Or whatever.
New knowledge was desperately needed to fuel this expansion, and this is when companies discovered what workers had long suspected but never talked about except in the washroom: management didn’t know its ass from a hole in the ground. (See clear lessons of history, above.) While managers had gotten really good at bossing people around, they didn’t know much about how things actually got made. This naturally resulted in many exciting high-level executive-type conferences about "The Knowledge Deficit."
Slowly (some are still attending summer school), companies began to realize that workers knew more than they’d been letting on -- mostly because no one had asked them for about a hundred years. This led to the reemergence of craft in the workplace, and a concomitant revaluing of speech -- a fancy way of saying "lead, follow, or get out of the way."
Ideas, talk, and conversation were now encouraged among workers because they helped to deliver what organizations so desperately needed: a clue. During this period (which unfortunately ended in large measure due to "downsizing" -- but that’s another story), "empowerment" became the watchword of the day, and org charts were upended or tossed out altogether at companies like GE, Ford, Motorola, Corning, Cadillac, and Federal Express (which by now, of course, had been invented). This was the era of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Baldrige Award when the pursuit of Quality -- always capitalized -- took on a decidedly religious fervor. What Quality really meant was: "We changed our minds. Please don’t check your brain at the door."
While speech was actively elicited from workers because it carried suddenly invaluable knowledge, it was not yet sought in any significant way from customers -- a concept still perceived by many corporations as more dangerous than godless communism and universal healthcare combined. However, due to market fractionation, "consumers" had already become far less interchangeable.
Then along came the Internet and all hell broke loose.
Just as the global economy had precipitated exponential growth in the array of choice among new products and services, so the Net caused an explosive proliferation of choice among new information sources. The broadcast model faltered and failed online. Embarrassing attempts to force it to work, such as "push," were quickly swept under the rug -- where, in the form of a large pig-in-the-python lump, they continue to trip up wannabe online businesses.
By its nature, Internet technology encourages open distributed speech, a fancy way of saying "tellin’ it like it is." The human voice is the primary attractor, both to the medium and within it. Markets and workers are once again crafting their own conversations, and these conversations are also about craft -- things we do that we actually care about.
As a result of the profound and unexpected changes wrought by the Net, the two-hundred-year-long industrial interruption of the human conversation is finally coming to an end, both inside companies and in the marketplace. That’s what www.cluetrain.com basically had to say when it hit the Web in 1999.
And you should see the flame-mail we got! This is because we’re now living in a period that could be called "the Hangover." Command and control is widely perceived as dysfunctional, but it’s a hard-to-break habit. Many business leaders are well aware that bureaucratic hierarchy works against needed knowledge and communication, yet inertia is a powerful force. ("The cluelessness is strong in this one, Darth.")
Though the Internet represents an unprecedented invitation to break out of this impasse, many organizations today resemble the Berlin Wall -- monoliths interposing themselves between the internal conversation of the workforce and the external conversation of the marketplace. They are still pumping out mass-produced messages, still trying to control workers and consumers, still trying to create mass markets based on old industrial models.
Via intranets, workers are already speaking among themselves. Via the Internet, markets are already speaking among themselves. The convergence of these two conversations is not only necessary, but inevitable. Why? Because markets, unencumbered by corporate bureaucracy and the need to ask permission at every turn, are learning faster than organizations. Markets are therefore coming into a new ascendancy, a fancy way of saying "We rule, dude!" And increasingly, we value only two qualities:
The simple, if painful, prognosis: organizations must encourage and engage in genuine conversation with workers and markets -- or go belly up.
So what, if anything, can businesses do at this juncture? They can begin by searching out people within the organization who understand what’s going on. In almost every case, they’re there. Make friends with them. Make friends with the marketplace again. Start listening. Find your voice. Then start talking as if your life depended on it. It does.
Business is being transformed, but not by technology. The Web is simply liberating an atavistic human desire, the longing for connection through talk. That’s the one constant throughout our evolution, from caves to mud huts to open-air bazaars, from city-states to empires, nations, interdependent global powers. We’ve always conversed, connecting to the people of our world in our authentic voices. We connect to ourselves the same way; that’s the mystery of voice.
But part of us still has a deep resistance to the unmanageability of the Web. We keep wanting to contain it within a business model, to build it into our business plans and see it as an yet another "opportunity" for more/cheaper/ faster/better business-as-usual. E-commerce, oh boy! Ka-ching! The sound of the cash register is all too often the sound of attempts to co-opt the Web. To tame it, domesticate it, make it more familiar. To shoot it, stuff it, and mount it in the corporate board room along with the other trophies of corporate conquest.
At the same time that it spooks us, we’re fascinated. We’ve been waiting for the Web to happen all along. We’ve been hating our jobs for generations. We’ve been longing to speak in our own voices since we made the Faustian deal to keep quiet in the first place. The Web is not aimed at business in particular. It wasn’t built for business, it isn’t fundamentally about business, and it can’t be controlled by business -- any more than the Internet could be controlled by the Pentagon that sponsored it.
The Web is inherently and intrinsically free. Businesses will perceive this fact as either a blessing or a curse depending on how much they value freedom, a quality of mind and heart not typically underscored in the average corporate mission statement.
Literature is the question minus the answer.
If love is the answer, could you please rephrase the question.
Overheard at the cocktail party that was the 1990s:
And they say there’s no such thing as a dumb question.
Continents drifting across the oceans have trends. Bullets have directions. Cannonballs have trajectories. The future doesn’t. The future is the intersection of choice and interruptions. The Web -- what a surprise! -- is more like the future than a cannonball. It will be what we make of it.
This leads to a funny conclusion. Ironic, actually. We ask questions about the future of the Web because we think there’s a present direction that can be traced into the future. But in fact, the questions we ask aren’t going to predict the future. They will create the future.
Not to get all heavy and ontological, but since questions are a type of conversation, it looks a bit like conversations give the world its shape, doesn’t it? Questions do the spade work. They prepare the ground for answers. Be careful what you ask or you just might become it.
So far, the questions about the Web we hear the most -- the ones some journalists use to stir up fear, the ones some politicians use to prepare us for the revelation that they just happen to be our saviors, the ones most businesses use to keep us in line and to sell us more stuff -- these questions are actually decisions to look for the same old things. Their assumptions are wrong, and the answers they call for are mean-spirited. The questions themselves are intended to confuse the issue, and the answers are nothing but the smirk on the face of someone who just proved himself right.
There are other questions possible, better questions. Questions that come from the heart, not the wallet, the gonads, or the lobe of the brain responsible for smugness. Questions that open the future instead of making sure the dead bolt on the door is nice and tight.
For example, take the ever-popular question, Will the Web become a broadcast medium? Will it become TV? That’s vitally interesting to media titans who see the Web as a threat to how they make money. But that’s not a question of the heart.
What the heart wants to know is, When the buttons at our fingers let us talk with the polyglot world’s artists, how will we cope? What will we share as a culture and community? What will we talk about together? What will we laugh about? What type of laughter -- mocking, ironic, cynical, sinister, belly-shaking guffaws -- are we going to hear? Will we find we all share a common sense of humor, or will we learn to laugh in new languages? When will we record the first case of Web inebriation, a trans-global xenophilia induced by pure, uncut connectedness?
Here’s a question beloved of industry analysts and others who think the point of conversation is to appear smart: How quickly will commerce move to the Web? Let’s trot out the charts and studies, confident that at least one of them is going to turn out to be right.
But is this question really so important, or does it just address a detail about timing? Is your business going to be transformed if it turns out we’re not going to hit the gazillion mark until 2004 instead of 2003?
But there is a heartfelt question lurking here. It has to do with the things of the world that quench our thirsts and raise our souls. It has to do with our fear of replacing the shops -- and the neighborhoods they enable -- with a paper-souled efficiency that lets us search out and consume commodity products at disquietingly low prices. We’re afraid that the last shred of human skin left on the bones of commerce is about to come off in our hands. We want to know how we’ll reconnect to the other people in the market: buyers and sellers, people we know or whose faces are the landscape of our life in the agora. And we have this fear precisely because the e-commerce question has been asked wrongly so often, as if once commerce becomes virtual it will become cruelly automatic. We need to ask the heartfelt question about how we’re going to talk about the things we care about, or e-commerce will indeed become nothing but the soundless scrape of coins over the wire.
Here’s another question -- top of the hit parade, actually -- that steers us in a wrong direction as surely as asking, How can I drive straight to Hell, buddy? The question is, What are we going to do about pornography on the Web? This question seems to have nothing to do with business, but in fact it goes straight to the heart of maintaining a corporate wall between employees and customers, between internal and external behavior.
The question has to do with drawing the line between the public and the private -- no trivial matter since looking at the line is the quick and dirty way we decide who’s civilized and who’s savage, who’s refined and who’s a brute. The line between public and private is, of course, arbitrary, although we adamantly deny this by using every method of intimidation, from the law to dirty looks, to maintain it. The main point of the line is that there be a line -- one that we can control.
And then we turn on our computer and filth comes pouring out of every orifice, from our e-mail inbox to our browser. Go to whitehouse.com and you discover it’s a porn site. (Hint: next time, try whitehouse.gov.) Open an e-mail titled "The info you asked about... " and get lewd invitations. Mistype a single letter of a Web address and you’re staring at strange genitals in strange configurations. The Web isn’t just redrawing the line, it’s changing the nature of the line, making it explicitly permeable. But a new type of line means a new type of public.
So, our hearts ask questions, with dread as well as excited curiosity, about the new public world and its relation to the private. What is the relation of our night selves and our day selves, our self behind the company walls and outside of them? Why do we think of our private selves as our real selves? What would privacy be like if it weren’t connected to shame? What is the fierce price we pay for every desire, every whim, every idea we stamp "Secret"? To what degree are shame and embarrassment the expression of the will to control? If we abandon the illusion of controlling private behavior, what type of public-ness will we have? How is the control we yearn to exert over the behavior of others -- at work and beyond -- identical with the white-knuckle control we need to preserve our selves?
More questions meant to distract us: How will we know what’s junk on the Web and what’s worth believing? How will we avoid being fooled by anyone with a plausible story and a Web address? What will be the new criteria, the new marks of authenticity? These questions express a longing for someone to take charge of our knowledge. We want experts and authorities, just as we crave censors more than we crave sex and prefer certainty to freedom.
But our hearts have a different set of questions: when we can’t rely on a central authority -- the government, the newspaper, the experts in the witness box -- for our information, what new ways of believing will we find? How will we be smart in a world where it’s easier to look something up than to know it? How will we learn to listen to ideas in context, to information inextricably tied to the voice that’s uttering it? How can we reverse our habit of understanding matters by jumping to further levels of abstraction and instead learn to dig into the concrete, the personal, and the unique, told as stories worthy of our time?
We are -- all of us -- asked questions like, How will we manage (control) virtual workers in a distributed organization? when our hearts want to know how we are going to live with our families again.
We are asked, How are we going to keep our children safe on the Internet? when our hearts also want to know what it would be like to be a child who can talk within the world’s society of children.
We’re asked, How can you tell if the person you’re talking with is really the person you’re talking with? when our hearts want to know what people we will really become online and what having a disembodied identity will mean.
We are asked, How are the poor people of the world going to get Internet access? when our hearts want to know how we can connect with the poor of the world, because there isn’t a single person we don’t want to talk with. And once we talk, we know the conversation will make palpable the injustice of today’s economics.
Our job now is not to answer questions. It is to listen past the questions based on fear and to hear the questions of the heart. Why? Because the proper answer to a heartfelt question is a conversation, and conversations make the world.
Hit One Outta the Park
Good then. That ought to put all the wrongheaded questions to rest, right? No, of course not. Business-as-usual being what it is, the questions never quit. Companies have said yes, the Cluetrain ideas are interesting, but give us a place to start. A methodology. A suite of best practices maybe. A set of guidelines. For God’s sake, something!
"What’s the bottom line?" they want to know. "How can my company profit from the coming transcultural train wreck? How can we leap tall buildings in Internet time, innovate faster than a speeding data packet, and establish Peace, Justice, and the American Way in hyperlinked global markets?"
Well... OK. Because you’ve been so patient and read so bloody much, we’ll let you in on the Secret of Our Success. Just follow the twelve easy steps below and you’re sure to be on your way to fame and fortune in the exciting new world of Webusiness. (Caution: It is vital that you follow these steps precisely in the order given. Otherwise, we are not responsible for the mutant hellspawn you may inadvertently call forth from the realm of the undead.)
Do these things and you just can’t miss.
Of course, there’s as much distance between this advice and the decisions you make every day as there is between "Go forth and multiply" and "100 Ways to Pick Up Hot Chicks and Radical Dudes." Still, we yearn for easy advice. It’s so hard to give up the old wish for stimulus-response marketing and management. Hard to go back to the days of the "talking cure" when psychotherapy meant years of slogging through memories and dreams instead of a slap on the back, and instructions to "nurture the inner child" and eat two bran muffins every day. Hard to forget the televised version of Anna Karenina that goes from start to finish in two hours (the train comes to a screeching halt just in time) and reopen the musty volume and soak into every snow-flecked page.
Look, we’d love to derive twelve happy instructions from the wash of ideas swirling around us. Really. We could market those puppies like Tang in a sauna. Seminars, workbooks, T-shirts, coffee mugs...
But it doesn’t work that way. This is an existential moment. It’s characterized by uncertainty, the dissolving of the normal ways of settling uncertainties, the evaporation of the memory of what certainty was once like. In times like this, we all have an impulse to find something stable and cling to it, but then we’d miss the moment entirely. There isn’t a list of things you can do to work the whirlwind. The desire to have such a list betrays the moment.
There may not be twelve or five or twenty things you can do, but there are ten thousand. The trick is, you have to figure out what they are. They have to come from you. They have to be your words, your moves, your authentic voice.
The Web got built by people who chose to build it. The lesson is: don’t wait for someone to show you how. Learn from your spontaneous mistakes, not from safe prescriptions and cautiously analyzed procedures. Don’t try to keep people from going wrong by repeating the mantra of how to get it right. Getting it right isn’t enough any more. There’s no invention in it. There’s no voice.
Maybe we’d have more luck with the Cluetrain List of Don’ts than with a List of Dos. The first ninety-four items would be things like: don’t snoop on your employees, don’t build knowledge management systems and corporate portals that are nothing but funnels for the same old propaganda. Don’t hire people who claim to be experts at increasing morale. And right at the bottom of the list, number ninety-five, would be the most important one: don’t rely on lists, self-styled "gurus," or business books.
Scary, isn’t it? Good. You ought to be scared. That’s a realistic reaction. You want comfort? Invent your own. Exhilaration and joy are also in order. But face the facts: the tracks end at the edge of the jungle.