order from Amazon

chapter five

the following is the complete fifth chapter of

The Cluetrain Manifesto:
The End of Business as Usual

Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.

cluetrain.com

back to table of contents

NEXT: Chapter 6: EZ answers



The Hyperlinked Organization
David Weinberger


Business sounds different these days.

The words at meetings have an edge. The language used with customers is unfiltered. The e-mails are pithy, often piercing.

Where once bombastic self-confidence got you taken seriously, now being funny does.

In fact, there’s laughter everywhere, although it signals insight and bitterness as often as delight.

Sometimes you could swear you hear children’s laughter in the background, over the sounds of cooking and cockatiels and the UPS truck arriving.

Beneath the formalities of business -- the committees, the schedules, the payroll checks, the spray of assignments falling from above -- there’s a buzz, no, the sound of twigs breaking underfoot as paths are trod on the way to human connection. The most amazing thing: you can tell who’s talking by listening to the voice.

People are beginning to sound like themselves again.

Intranet Apocalypso

You may not hear any of this at your place of work. But if the Web has touched your business -- and it has -- then the sound is there.

The odd thing is that you almost certainly have to be making some of the new sound to hear it. Otherwise, it passes for noise, like an overtone of the 60-cycle thrum of modern business at its automated, time-slicing best.

You hear it or you don’t. You get it or you don’t. The gulf that has opened in companies is about the size of the human heart.

That’s what makes the situation so ripe for humor. And anger. And absurdity.

Consider this: from the other side of the gulf opened by the Web, virtually all of the structures that management identifies as being the business itself seem to be bizarre artifacts of earlier times, like wearing a powdered wig and codpiece to the company picnic.

The gulf the Web opens is, ironically, that of connection. Without anyone asking for it, the Web has given the people inside an organization easy access to one another in a rich variety of ways. They can send e-mail to one person, to a steady group, to a dynamic team, to the entire sales force, or "just" to the board of directors. They can post creative, informative pages that express their interests, correct the mistakes in the official technical documentation, or point to the industry analyst’s report the company doesn’t want anyone to read. They can write a ’zine that parodies the company line savagely and without let-up. They can play backgammon online or blow up their colleagues in a ruthless game of Quake in which the guy who never speaks at meetings routinely turns his manager into animated meat chunks. They can also find every piece of information about the company and its competitors, shop for a car, or learn how to play the blues like Buddy Guy.

The Web, in short, has led every wired person in your organization to expect direct connections not only to information but also to the truth spoken in human voices. And they expect to be able to find what they need and do what they need without any further help from people who dress better than they do. This has happened not because of a management theory or a bestselling business book but because the Web reaches everyone with a computer and a telephone line on her desk.

So, the gulf opens between those who are connected and those who think an office with a door is a sign of success. The gulf is one of expectations, and expectations always guide perception. As a result, the company thinks it’s doing one thing while accomplishing the direct opposite with its connected employees. For example:

  • The company communicates with me through a newsletter and company meetings meant to lift up my morale. In fact, I know from my e-mail pen pals that it’s telling me happy-talk lies, and I find that quite depressing.
  • The company org chart shows me who does what so I know how to get things done. In fact, the org chart is an expression of a power structure. It is red tape. It is a map of whom to avoid.
  • The company manages my work to make sure that all tasks are coordinated and the company is operating efficiently. In fact, the inflexible goals imposed from on high keep me from following what my craft expertise tells me I really ought to be doing.
  • The company provides me with a career path so I’ll see a productive future in the business. In fact, I’ve figured out that because the org chart narrows at the top, most career paths necessarily have to be dead ends.
  • The company provides me with all the information I need to make good decisions. In fact, this information is selected to support a decision (or worldview) in which I have no investment. Statistics and industry surveys are lobbed like anti-aircraft fire to disguise the fact that while we have lots of data, we have no understanding.
  • The company is goal-oriented so that the path from here to there is broken into small, well-marked steps that can be tracked and managed. In fact, if I keep my head down and accomplish my goals, I won’t add the type of value I’m capable of. I need to browse. I even need to play. Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens.
  • The company gives me deadlines so that we ship product on time, maintaining our integrity. In fact, working to arbitrary deadlines makes me ship poor-quality content. My management doesn’t have to use a club to get me to do my job. Where’s the trust, baby?
  • The company looks at customers as adversaries who must be won over. In fact, the ones I’ve been exchanging e-mail with are very cool and enthusiastic about exactly the same thing that got me into this company. You know, I’d rather talk with them than with my manager.
  • The company works in an office building in order to bring together all of the things I need to get my job done and to avoid distracting me. In fact, more and more of what I need is outside the corporate walls. And when I really want to get something done, I go home.
  • The company rewards me for being a professional who acts and behaves in a, well, professional manner, following certain unwritten rules about the coefficient of permitted variation in dress, politics, shoe style, expression of religion, and the relating of humorous stories. In fact, I learn who to trust -- whom I can work with creatively and productively -- only by getting past the professional act.

Something’s gone wrong. Or maybe something now is starting to go right.

What’s wrong isn’t trivial. It isn’t fixed with dress-down Fridays, health food in the cafeteria, or learning to pretend to look into the eyes of the trembling subordinate you’re condescending to chat up on the way in from the parking lot. The power structure, the politics, the sociology, even the spirituality of work has a sick, sour smell to it.

But you don’t need big words. It all begins with pictures. That’s why our hairy-backed ancestors were sketching bison on the wall: they were learning to see. So let’s think instead about the basic picture we have of business.

Inside Fort Business

Somewhere along the line, we confused going to work with building a fort.

Strip away the financial jibber-jabber and the management corpo-speak, and here’s our fundamental image of business:

  • It’s in an imposing office building that towers over the landscape.
  • Inside is everything we need.
  • And that’s good because the outside is dangerous. We are under siege by our competitors, and even by our partners and customers. Thank God for the thick, high walls!
  • The king rules. If we have a wise king, we prosper.
  • The king has a court. The dukes, viscounts, and other subluminaries each receive their authority from the king. (The king even countenances an official fool. Within limits.)
  • We each have our role, our place. If we each do the job assigned to us by the king’s minions, our fort will beat all those other stinking forts.
  • And then we will have succeeded -- or, thinking it’s the same thing, we will say we have "won." We get to dance a stupid jig while chanting "Number one! Number one!"

This fort is, at its heart, a place apart. We report there every morning and spend the next eight, ten, or twelve hours inaccessible to the "real" world. The portcullis drops not only to keep out our enemies, but to separate us from distractions such as our families. As the drawbridge goes up behind us, we become businesspeople, different enough from our normal selves that when we first bring our children to the office, they’ve been known to hide under our desk, crying.

Within this world, the Web looks like a medium that exists to allow Fort Business to publish online marketing materials and make credit card sales easier than ever. Officially, this point of view is known as "denial."

The Web isn’t primarily a medium for information, marketing, or sales. It’s a world in which people meet, talk, build, fight, love, and play. In fact, the Web world is bigger than the business world and is swallowing the business world whole. The vague rumblings you’re hearing are the sounds of digestion.

The change is so profound that it’s not merely a negation of the current situation. You can’t just put a big "not" in front of Fort Business and say, "Ah, the walls are coming down." No, the true opposite of a fort isn’t an unwalled city.

It’s a conversation.

Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy

Fort Business’s assumptions are being challenged by a meek little thing: a hyperlink.

How could something so small alter the fundamentals of business life? Easy. This wee beastie represents an important change in how pieces are put together -- and since all of life is about putting pieces together, this isn’t a wee thing at all.

Sure, businesses are legal entities. But that’s just a piece of paper. In fact, the real business is the set of connections among people.

Modern business almost universally has chosen a particular type of togetherness: a hierarchy. There are two distinguishing marks of a hierarchy: it has a top and a bottom, and the top is narrower than the bottom. Power flows from the top and there are fewer and fewer people as you move up the food chain.

This not only makes the line of authority crystal clear, it also enhances the allure of success by making it into an exclusive club. As La Rochefoucauld once said, "It is not enough that I succeed. It is also necessary that my friends fail."

No wonder so many of us stare at our bare feet in the morning and wonder why we’re putting on our socks.

A couple of other points about business hierarchies:

First, they assume -- along with Ayn Rand and poorly socialized adolescents -- that the fundamental unit of life is the individual. This is despite the evidence of our senses that individuals only emerge from groups -- groups like families and communities. (You know, it really does take a village to raise a child. Just like it takes a corporation to raise an ass kisser.)

But the Web obviously isn’t predicated on individuals. It’s a web. It’s about the connections. And on the World Wide Web, the connections are hyperlinks. It’s not just documents that get hyperlinked in the new world of the Web. People do. Organizations do. The Web, in the form of a corporate intranet, puts everyone in touch with every piece of information and with everyone else inside the organization and beyond.

The potential connections are vast. Hyperlinks are the connections made by real individuals based on what they care about and what they know, the paths that emerge because that’s where the feet are walking, as opposed to the highways bulldozed into existence according to a centralized plan.

Hyperlinks have no symmetry, no plan. They are messy. More can be added, old ones can disappear, and nothing else has to change. Compare this to your latest reorganization where you sat down with the org chart and your straightedge and worried about holes and imbalances and neatness for heaven’s sake! A messy org chart is the devil’s playground, after all.

Second, business hierarchies are power structures only because fundamentally they’re based on fear.

Org charts are pyramids. The ancient pharaohs built their pyramids out of the fear of human mortality. Today’s business pharaohs build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.

To be human is to be imperfect. We die. We make mistakes.

Sometimes we run from our fallibility by being decisive. But doubt is the natural human state, and decisiveness -- more addictive than anything you might shoot into your veins -- is often based on a superstitious belief in the magic of action.

Within the pyramid we have defined roles and responsibilities. We tell ourselves that this is so the business will run efficiently, but in fact having a role brings us the great comfort of having a turf where we’re pretty confident we’re not going to be shown up... except maybe by that ambitious jerk on the fourth floor, but we’ve figured out a way to hook his brains out through his nose, which should delay him at least for a little while.

Of course, dividing the business up into fanatically defended turfs doesn’t really protect anyone from fallibility and uncertainty, the very things that mark us as humans.

So, here’s some news for today’s business pharaohs: your pyramid is being replaced by hyperlinks. It was built on sand anyway.

The Web liberates business from the fear of being exposed as human, even against its will. It throws everyone into immediate connection with everyone else without the safety net of defined roles and authorities, but it also sets the expectation that you’ll make human-size mistakes rather frequently. Now that you’ve lost the trappings of authority, and you find yourself standing next to the junior graphic designer for gawd’s sake, and you can’t hide behind your business card, what the hell are you going to do?

You’re going to talk with her. You’re going to have a conversation. And if you harrumph and try to make sure she knows that you’re Very Important by the power vested in you by the power that vested in you, well, she’s going to laugh once out loud and five times in e-mail and tell everyone else what an asshole you are.

You see, the hyperlinks that replace the org chart as the primary structure of the organization are in fact conversations. They are the paths talk takes. And a business is, more than anything else, the set of conversations going on.

Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is conversation -- literally. And "knowledge workers" are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

"Can I super-size that?" "Have it on my desk by the morning," "There’s no I in Team," and laughing at your manager’s unfunny jokes are not conversations. Conversations are where ideas happen and partnerships are formed. Sometimes they create commitments (in Fernando Flores’ sense), but more often they’re pulling people through fields of common interest with no known destination. The structure of conversations is always hyperlinked and is never hierarchical:

To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human -- acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together.

You can only have a conversation if you’re not afraid to be wrong. Otherwise, you’re not conversing, you’re just declaiming, speechifying, or reading what’s on the PowerPoints. To converse, you have to be willing to be wrong in front of another person.

Conversations occur only between equals. The time your boss’s boss asked you at a meeting about your project’s deadline was not a conversation. The time you sat with your boss’s boss for an hour in the Polynesian-themed bar while on a business trip and you really talked, got past the corporate bullshit, told each other the truth about the dangers ahead, and ended up talking about your kids -- that maybe was a conversation.

Conversations subvert hierarchy. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Being a human being among others subverts hierarchy.

Bottom-Up

The Web is undoubtedly a part of your business plans. You’ve got it safely contained, under control, managed. Why, your organization has probably already installed a corporate intranet so it can publish the human resource policies that no one read on paper to people who now won’t read ’em on screen. Excellent!

Yes, your centralized corporate intranet has eliminated some paper and is making management feel vaguely cool. But that’s not the web that’s going to shake the foundations of your fort.

While you’ve been hiring consultants to create a slick corporate intranet, establishing policies about who gets to post what, and creating a chain of command to ensure that only appropriate and approved materials show up on your internal corporate home page, your engineers, scientists, researchers -- hell even the marketing folks -- have been creating little Web sites for their own use.

No one is controlling what’s posted on them except the people doing the posting. No one is making sure that the corporate logo is in the right place. No one is making sure that the writing is official, officious, and as dull as the pencil drawer of a recently downsized middle manager.

The real party got under way while you were still setting up the banners at the corporate prom. (This year’s prom theme: "Responsibility in a Web Age!")

For example, by the time Sun Microsystems got around to counting, they had eight hundred intranets. And when Texas Instruments put in their corporate intranet, they invited everyone who had one already in place to register with the top-down one. Within a few months, two hundred and fifty internal sites had registered, and no one knows how many unregistered ones there were. Even a top-down intranet can take on a bottom-up feel, as happened at Lucent Technologies, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. After Lucent brought together a product-development team of five hundred engineers across three continents and thirteen time zones, it watched dozens of them insert their own pages into the project intranet. Some of these pages related directly to the project; others were strictly personal, like, "Hey, look at this picture of me and my dog!" Either way, the project took on a human cast that never would have been present otherwise. In the end the team leader attributed the success of the project in no small part to "the ultimate Democracy of the Web."

Granted, these are technology companies, but you don’t have to be a technical genius to create an intranet. If someone wants to share some information, they can turn their computer into a Web server. It’s free, and it’s getting easier every day.

The intranet revolution is bottom-up. There’s no going back. If a company doesn’t recognize this, the top-down intranet it puts in can breed the type of cynicism that results in ugly bathroom graffiti and mysterious golfing cart accidents.

The intranets under the radar screen -- and the rest of the Net panoply, including e-mail, mailing lists, and discussion groups -- ignore the corporate blather and ass-covering pronouncements. Instead, these new Web conversations are actually being used to get some work done.

The Character of the Web

It’s weird, but not totally unexpected.

It turns out that the Web is infecting organizations with the characteristics of its own architecture. So, if you want to know what a hyperlinked organization looks like, look at what the Web itself is like.

What’s the Web’s character? You can slice it into seven basic themes:

  1. Hyperlinked. Before the Web, computer networks were laid out in advance like well-planned cities. Who got connected to whom and how was all part of the master plan. And once you were connected, there was a recognizable central authority responsible for the whole shebang. The Web isn’t even a little like that. The Web literally consists of hundreds of millions of pages hyperlinked together by the author of each individual page. Anyone can plug in and any page can be linked to any other, without asking permission. The Web is constantly spinning itself -- many small pieces loosely joining themselves as they see fit.
  2. Decentralized. No one is in charge of the Net. There is no central clearing house that dispatches all requests and approves all submissions. No one ordered the Web built. There is no CEO of the Web. There is no one to sue. There’s no one to complain to. There’s no one to fix it when it breaks. There’s no one to thank.
  3. Hyper time. Internet time is, famously, seven times the velocity of "normal" time. And yet we use the leisurely verb browse to describe our behavior on the Web because in the virtual world, I feel I can move about at my own pace, exploring when and where I want. I can take a quick look at a site and come back later without having to find another parking space, go to the end of the line, or pay a second entry fee. The Web puts the control of my time into my hands.
  4. Open, direct access. The Net provides what feels like direct access to everyone else on the Net and to every piece of information that’s ever been posted. If you want to go to a page, you just click on the link and, boom, you’re there. (The fact that this might have required, beneath the surface, thirty "hops" among servers in places you never heard of is completely irrelevant. You don’t see the hops; you just see the page.) There’s nothing standing between you and the rest of the world of people and pages.
  5. Rich data. The currency of the Web isn’t green bar printouts of facts and stats. It’s pages. Humans have been creating pages since the invention of paper and dirty water. Pages -- or "documents" as we sometimes say -- are extraordinarily complex ways of presenting information. Typically, they tell you as much about the author as about their topic, a big change from the pre-Web information environment that aimed at generating faceless data.
  6. Broken. Because the Web is by far the largest, most complex network ever built, and because no one owns it or controls it, it is always going to be, in the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, "a little bit broken."
  7. Borderless. Because traditional networks were concerned as much with security as with access, it was usually made clear where your stuff ended and other people’s stuff began. The Web, on the other hand, was designed so that you can include a link to a page without having to get the author’s permission. Thus, on the Web it is often hard to tell exactly where the boundaries are.

From these characteristics of the technical architecture of the Web come the changes that are transforming your business.

The Hyperlinking of the Organization

Your organization is becoming hyperlinked. Whether you like it or not. It’s bottom-up; it’s unstoppable.

Despite the wet stink of fear, you ought to be delighted. Hyperlinked organizations are closer to their markets, act faster, and acquire the valuable survival skill of learning to swerve.

Of course, they also are impossible to manage -- although they can be "unmanaged" -- and you’ll have to give up your pretense of power, status, and lordliness. But, then, as the old saying has it, you can’t make an omelet without nuking the existing social order.

Here’s the drill for the rest of this chapter. We’ve just discussed seven key characteristics of the Web. Now we’re going to go through them one at a time, in order (no talking in the hallways and please stand to the right to enable those in a hurry to pass) to see what’s happening inside organizations touched by the Web -- that is, all organizations to one degree or another.

Let’s put the hyper back into hyperlinks

Here’s one example of how things work in a hyperlinked organization:

You’re a sales rep in the Southwest who has a customer with a product problem. You know that the Southwest tech-support person happens not to know anything about this problem. In fact, she’s a flat-out bozo. So, to do what’s right for your customer you go outside the prescribed channels and pull together the support person from the Northeast, a product manager you respect, and a senior engineer who’s been responsive in the past (no good deed goes unpunished!). Via e-mail or by building a mini-Web site on an intranet, you initiate a discussion, research numbers, check out competitive solutions, and quickly solve the customer’s problem -- all without ever notifying the "appropriate authorities" of what you’re doing because all they’ll do is try to force you back into the official channels.

It’s a little thing. But it’s a big change in the ground rules of work. The official structure is of little use to you. Instead, your network of trusted colleagues becomes paramount. Your effectiveness depends upon how networked you are, how hyperlinked you are.

The hyperlinked teams you form may not be as project-centered as in the example above. As organizations become hyperlinked, they spawn hyperlinked committees, hyperlinked task forces, hyperlinked affiliations, hyperlinked interest groups, hyperlinked communities, hyperlinked cheering squads, hyperlinked pen pals, and hyperlinked attitudes. Humans seem to fill up every available social niche just as nature itself abhors an ecological vacuum.

These hyperlinked relationships are, like the Web of hyperlinked documents, a shifting context of links of varying importance and quality. They are self-asserting, not requiring anyone else’s authority to be put in place. And the value of the individual "node" to a large degree depends upon the node’s links.

This last point is a big shift. Links have value by pointing away from themselves to some other site. All Web pages derive some value from the links on them. (A page with no links is literally a dead end on the Web.) In fact, the single most-visited site on the Web, Yahoo!, derives almost all of its value not from what it contains but from what it points to. Yet our understanding of the nature of knowledge, education, and expertise is bound up with things that contain value, not with things that point you out of themselves to find value elsewhere. Books get their value from their content. Education is the transfer of content into the receptacle that is the student. And an expert is someone who contains a lot of information, like a book contains information. In fact, experts are people who can write books. But, with today’s huge increase in the amount of information, you can be an expert only in something sliced so thin that often it’s trivial. Increasingly, a useful expert is not someone with (containing) all the answers but someone who knows where to find answers. The new experts have value not by centralizing information and control but by being great "pointers" to other people and to useful, current information.

In short, your most valuable employee is likely to be the one who, in response to a question, doesn’t give a concrete answer in a booming voice but who says, "You should talk to Larry. And check Janis’s project plan. Oh, and there’s a mailing list on this topic I ran into a couple of weeks ago... "

How could you hope to capture this on an org chart? And how do you compensate people fairly if their value depends upon their participation in a shifting set of hyperlinked associations? How do you hire great hyperlinked people? How could this ever be expressed on a résumé?

Great questions... because there aren’t clear answers yet. Epochal changes are not Q&A sessions. We’re at the beginning of the biggest Q since the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time to make things up, try them out, fail a thousand times, and laugh at how stupid you look.

The urge to "solve the problem" is nothing but the voice of the old command-and-control psychosis trying to reassert itself.

("Premature elucidation": the plight of men who come to answers way too soon.)

Decentralizing the Fort

Traditionally, business is an indoor sport.

Businesses by their very nature are centralized (or so we think). Even if you are a global enterprise, your organization consists of a headquarters with regional offices. A business is, after all, a bringing together of talented people who agree to work to achieve some common goals. We’ve assumed that "together" means we have to centralize power, control, and resources. But there are lots of ways to be together.

Metaphorical Togetherness

We often assume that complex projects can only be accomplished through centralized planning and control. It worked for building the Hoover Dam, after all. Not to mention World War II.

But, of course, it only works for some types of wars in some types of places. And the builders of the Hoover Dam aimed at creating a massive physical object with delicate dependencies so that there was only one way to succeed and many ways to fail.

A marriage is a far more complex project than any business partnership, and centralized control doesn’t work real well there. Raising a family is likewise a complex project that cannot be centrally organized or planned. And, of course, the most complex network ever imagined -- the World Wide Web -- has been implemented without any central control whatsoever.

But is a business more like a family than a war? Absolutely. Wars are won and then are over, but companies don’t declare victory and disband the troops. And although both wars and companies have missions, companies don’t ever issue a press release that says:

OmniCo is proud to announce that on June 23 we accomplished our mission of being the world’s leading supplier of low-temperature oil to the miniature locomotive industry, so we are now demobilizing so that our brave men and women can rejoin their families. Good night and God bless.

No, families and businesses are open-ended commitments.

Suppose running a business is more like farming than like waging war. Perhaps the real aim of business is to build a place that provides a high yield over the long term, responding to the sometimes vast changes in the environment.

Command and control don’t work when you’re cultivating the wilderness, when you’re experiencing an ecology of surplus, when changes happen faster than response times, when you’re homesteading, not marching to battle. Why is it even necessary to have to point out something so obvious?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We all know enough about the inequities of history to smell something suspicious about the insistence on centralized control. Control and management are the mantras of the people who are in power, who judge personal success by power, and who use power to keep themselves at the top.

Org charts are written by the victors. But hyperlinks are created by people finding other people they trust, enjoy, and, yes, in some ways love.

Self-reliance

In a decentralized environment, people figure out that they have to do things themselves. Indeed, they want to do things themselves.

This is a well-known phenomenon in customer support: people would rather find the answers themselves on your Web site than have the answers delivered to them by picking up the phone. This may sound like a control issue, but in fact it is about time. By browsing your support Web site, not only can I choose when I’m going to look and how long before I’ll give up, I can click through some screens, work on something else, eat lunch, maybe even bookmark the page, and come back to it tomorrow. I can complete the task on my own schedule.

It shouldn’t be surprising that self-reliance is high up in the list of Top Ten Web Virtues. The Web itself started out as a huge do-it-yourself project, and being able to do your own technical support is a mark of Web competency still. More and more, employees and customers want to feel their own hands on the wheel.

Another obvious example: In the old days, if you wanted to find some information, you had to go to the corporate Information Retrieval Expert and fill out a form. But now the Web has reset expectations. If the data hierophants tell you that you’re not trained enough to search the corporate library, you’ll reply, "Hey, I just came back from AltaVista," -- or Excite or Hotbot or any of the myriad of search sites -- "and I searched through hundreds of millions of pages without any training."

It’s time to hand over the keys to the index. Baby’s learned to drive.

Self-reliance, however, goes far beyond the technical realm. For example, Boeing enables mechanics to order parts themselves (through their cleverly named Part Analysis and Requirement Tracking -- PARTS -- system), instead of petitioning the Purchasing department. And Chrysler encourages employees to make their own travel arrangements via an intranet site that shows them only the appropriate choices (for example, the Concorde doesn’t show up as a possibility), saving administrative costs and giving the workers a greater sense (illusion?) of control.

There’s a dark side to self-reliance. It can encourage a type of arrogant cynicism that reacts to anything that the business tries to do for you with: "I can do it better than that." In this view of the world, there’s what I can do with my own two hands and then there’s red tape. To the Web cult of self-reliance, the business is not only an obstacle, it’s them, the other.

Yet if we know that routing a customer comment through the standard structures of the Fort will result in a content-free form letter being sent out six weeks later, we will sit down and bang out an e-mail immediately that actually addresses the customer’s concern. Self-reliance breeds disengagement with the business but more direct engagement with the real work of business.

We are seeing, then, a realignment of loyalties, from resting comfortably in the assumed paternalism of Fort Business to an aggressive devotion to making life better for customers. The business isn’t a machine anymore, it’s a resource I alone and we together can use to make a customer happy.

Hyper Time

We all know that Internet time is seven times the speed of normal time. ("On the Internet, everyone knows you don’t have time to spellcheck.") It affects our business expectations for Internet startups and our expectations about the quality of products we know have been rushed to market, but there’s actually more at stake. In fact, the philosopher Martin Heidegger had it right when he ’splained that time is at the root of all that is.

Business likes to think that it operates on a master schedule that devolves into lots of supporting schedules, just as the corporate strategy devolves into objectives and then into tasks, and just as the org chart foliates into branches, twigs, and finally leaves. In a perfectly run business, all the schedules tick in sync. Tick tock tick tock.

Now, we all know that no complex organization works perfectly, so with a knowing smile we dismiss the possibility -- but yet we hold it out as an ideal. Our clocks are supposed to be driven from on high.

The Web decentralizes time by letting hyperlinked groups form that are driven by their do-it-ourselves zeal to get stuff done now. For these groups, schedules are driven locally, not centrally. The schedules are created by local groups and individuals, accounting for their assessment of what’s realistic. And they route around obstacles, not like building straight-line highways where it’s assumed that all boulders can be blasted out of the way.

Deadlines

But what happens to deadlines if time becomes decentralized?

Let me give you an example that I recount with little pride. I was working in a relatively small software company that was, happily, experiencing growing pains as we went from $3 million to $40 million in revenues. I had been one of the three members of the executive management team that had agreed to roll the dice that set us off on the steep growth curve. My role was strategist. I was never much of an implementer. But because we now desperately needed to run marketing programs, I agreed to step into the role of VP of Marketing. A couple of months later, we hired a Chief Operating Officer to manage our growth. On purpose he was a counter-cultural figure in the company: a hard-bitten, ultra-realistic guy with a relentlessly positive attitude applied as a fresco to mask a cracking wall of disagreeable fear.

A couple of weeks after arriving, he called me into his office to bond with me and also, not incidentally, to find out when the next wave of marketing materials would be ready. I said I didn’t know. Why not? he demanded. I replied that I had a really well-motivated team of professionals who were moving heaven and earth to get it all done; it would be done at the earliest possible moment.

He looked at me in amazement. And gave up on me.

Now, I will admit that as COO, he needed to have some sense of the timing of events. For example, he might have needed to know when the materials would be ready because of an upcoming sales meeting. And in such a case I would have told him what I thought would be ready. And if he wanted it sooner, I would have warned him that some of it would be of poor quality. But, in fact, there was no upcoming event. He managed by holding people to deadlines. I managed by holding people to people.

His view of me, to this day, is that I am an unrealistic, soft-edged, namby-pamby, probably borderline homosexual type of guy. My view of him is that he’s an unrealistic, anal-retentive, power-driven, frightened little boy. (You know, but underneath it all, we actually don’t like each other.)

Is one of us more realistic than the other? I don’t think so. If not living by deadlines is unrealistic, it’s just as unrealistic to think that a motivated group of people, working hard, will get things done by a particular moment just because you set that moment as the endpoint.

Clearly there’s room for both personality types (gosh, I am namby-pamby, aren’t I?), but since the deadline drivers always get to state their point of view, let’s for once not assume that deadlines are the only way to manage, and that people who miss deadlines are like dawdling children who need to be sent to the corner of the org chart where they can sit to think about what they’ve done.

Instead, let’s leave open the possibility that deadlines are frequently a weapon used by managers who assume that workers are basically slackers. In fact, hyperlinked teams -- ruled by the laws of connection -- are motivated by a genuine desire to turn out a product or help a customer. They will work as hard as they can to do right by their customers and their coworkers. They know better than anyone, in many instances, when the work can realistically be finished. Managing them simply means asking them.

Personal Work Time

The decentralization of time creates other ripples. When you allow people to control their own schedules, they don’t always cut their day into clean work and nonwork time periods. Their personal lives begin to invade Fort Business. They know that even if they leave for an hour for the Good News Assembly at their child’s elementary school, they still can get done what needs doing, even if it means working at home over the weekend.

Once the time wall is breached, it rapidly becomes more and more permeable. If the only time I can make calls to further the process of adopting a child is during work hours, I will make those calls. If the only time I can talk with a travel agent to plan my vacation is between nine and five, I will call the travel agent during work. And, of course, the Web makes it easier than ever for me to permeate my work time with personal errands and concerns.

Now, the fact is that office workers have always ignored the temporal walls and called the adoption agency and the travel agency during work hours. We’ve just had to lie and pretend: Sorry to have a life, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.

Some businesses have started to recognize that the temporal walls are full of windows. For example, Aetna realized that their workers inevitably spend time at work on personal issues. And what sort of fish-hearted bastard would tell them not to? So, Aetna built into its intranet the sort of information they thought employees were looking for. You can get information about how to adopt a child, for example, or how to arrange for a college scholarship for your kids. Since people are going to spend "business time" doing that anyway, why not make it easier for them by including the information on the corporate intranet?

Yes, doing this had a practical purpose that speaks to the bottom-line guys because it meant employees were spending less time on nonbusiness issues. But you don’t need bottom-line reasons to do this type of thing if we take as a basic business principle that companies need to wake up and smell the coffee. The walls around Fort Business may have inscribed in them, "Let all who enter here abandon all personal life," but only the truly pathetic pay it any mind. Therefore, you might as well drop the pretense.

Skimming Time

Let’s review, shall we? The Web’s decentralization of time breaks apart the master schedule that supposedly has us ticking and tocking in unison, using artificial deadlines to enforce the corporate will. And personal time infects the purity of our time working behind the Fort walls.

One more thing: the Web changes time from sequential to random.

If you already know what "random access" is, feel free to jump over this paragraph (but not before snickering at its witty self-reference). For example, audio is a sequential medium because you can only get from point A to point C by causing point B to pass the tape heads. CDs, DVDs, and hard drives are random access devices because you can hop all around on them.

The Web is (generally) random; you’re expected to hyperlink around, sampling what you like. Random access spoils you. Instead of having to wait around for the tape to play out, you can skip right to the parts that you care about. (That also means each person’s experience of the tape may be different.)

The Web is making us impatient with anything we can’t skim. This includes:

  • Sixty-seven-slide PowerPoint presentations
  • Almost all meetings
  • Being put on hold when you place a call that an adequate Web site would have made unnecessary
  • Canned online tutorials
  • Managers who hand you a copy of a report and then insist on telling you everything that’s in it
  • Television without a remote
  • Traveling
  • Bores

The point? Web time isn’t just seven times faster than normal time. It’s also a thousand times more random -- in the good sense.

Open Access to Everything

When it comes to information, the Web’s impulse is the opposite of Fort Business’s. The Fort views information access as a publishing process, pushing to the appropriate people precisely the information they need at the right time. The publisher will ascertain your information needs. Your job is to sit back, relax, and open wide.

This model made sense when information was scarce. And it made sense when business could take itself seriously as an omniscient potentate.

That was then. Now employees want to be able to run barefoot through the tall grass of information. And not simply because we’re in a self-reliant sort of mood.

It’s one thing to ask an information retrieval specialist to look up some data in a sanctified database where all the data is assumed to be approved and certified. It’s another to try to gather competitive information from the Web where you’re reading corporate BS from competitors, whining complaints on Usenet, reports from self-proclaimed industry experts (like, um, some of us Cluetrain authors), and libelous comments from anonymous stock manipulators.

In this environment, making judgments about what counts is a honed skill, one as personal as writing well or having a sense of humor. It is not something we’re willing to delegate to others.

Ah, but the Central Committee says that it must control all access because it can’t afford to let out state secrets. Imagine if our competitors got their hands on that stuff!

Sure, there are some trade secrets so important that you need to transport them in briefcases chained to some treasured bodily appendage: Coke’s secret formula, a new molecule developed by a bioengineering company, the stocks a mutual fund company is about to invest in. But those are the exceptions. To talk about the role of secrecy in terms of those types of secrets is like evaluating the rural lifestyle by taking Ted Kaczynski’s cabin as your example.

And there’s a price to assuming that secrecy is normal, that everything is to be kept secret unless otherwise noted. Not only do you have the expense of keeping the secret, but you lose the value of information. Information by its nature only has value insofar as it’s known. And, when combined with smart people with an impulse to solve problems and exploit opportunities, information increases its value.

Information wants to be free, sure. But it wants to be free because it wants to find other ideas, copulate, and spawn whole broods of new ideas.

Controlling information is like trying to control a conversation: it can’t be done and still be genuine. You’re not publishing information, you’re building a kitchen, you’re planting a field. People wander around in information and learn where to find the stuff that counts, the stuff that’s wrong in enlightening ways, the stuff that’s purposefully off-base, the stuff that’s fun, the stuff that’s ludicrous.

Let’s look at one specific type of information that needs to be free: documents.

Heroic Documents

Business currently has a heroic view of documents. When we’re given an assignment -- "Should we do this merger?" "We need a plan for moving into the new office space" -- we go to our cubicle and put our heads down for a day, a week, a fortnight. We go through as many drafts as we have to until we have a killer document -- a report or an overhead presentation, typically -- that nails it all down, comes to conclusions, and is irrefutable.

Then we go to the big meeting and slap it down like Beowulf slaying Grendl. "Here I stand," we declare, bravado masking our anxiety. And if someone calls our bluff, if someone says, "Hmm, you seem not to have consulted the study the Gartner Group did last quarter" or "You haven’t considered the impact of the dilution of their shares," you simply are not permitted to say, "Whoops, heh heh, can I just have those copies back?" You’re toast; you’re dead meat; you’ve had your head handed to you.

What’s gone wrong here is time. Because we are geared towards heroic presentations, we keep our work under wraps until we go public with it (that is, publish it) at the big meeting. Until that moment, no one is allowed to look at it without our permission. It is secret.

But the Web is changing this. There’s already software that lets groups work together on documents over intranets. And that capability is being built into the word processors themselves so that it’ll be as easy to post a draft to a shared Web space as it is to send it to be sprayed on paper.

So, you’ll be given an assignment and, just as before, you’ll retire to your cubicle, but only for about half an hour. You’ll write up some initial ideas, post them to the intranet -- this feels like saving them into a shared folder -- and you’ll send out mail to the people you think can help you with this. (Here’s how much attention you’ll pay to where these people are located in the org chart: zero.) Your e-mail will say, and I quote:

Old Man Withers wants me to solve the Parchesi problem in Tahiti. By next month! Yikes! So, I posted a couple of ideas at https://rsmythe.megacocorp.com/parchesi. I also put in some links to Donkeyballs’ (oops, I mean Donnerby’s) bogus report from last year, the one that didn’t see the crisis coming. You can always count on Donkeyballs. ;-) There are also some links to a couple of sites I found when I did a search at the usual-suspect search sites.

Let me know what you think. And remember, the doc I posted is just a bunch of BS. Kick it around, and let’s get this thing going...

Thx, guys and gals. You’s the greatest!

This may not sound revolutionary, but consider:

  • People used to keep their drafts secret for fear of looking like idiots, but now they post them and acknowledge they may be completely wrong.
  • Work has gone from an individual task to a group task.
  • The old model of keeping drafts secret until the moment of publication has been broken; ideas are now public from their inception.
  • Ideas are assumed to be given out freely rather than hoarded.
  • People are brought in not because they are in a chain of command but because they have necessary skills, share interests, and are fun to work with.
  • Sober-sided reports that were the mark of professionalism are often replaced by humor-filled interchanges.

Where do secrets fit into this picture? Fear of letting information out would cripple this project; the report that would emerge would be far inferior to what arises from a free interchange of ideas.

Besides, the Web lets everyone talk to everyone, in every department, across divisions, with strategic customers and even competitors. There are no secrets.

Decisions, Decisions

Of course, you’re not providing open access simply to fill people’s heads with scurrilous thoughts and titillating tidbits. You want people to make better decisions. But open access to information also means that you’ve undercut your normal decision-making process.

Why do we have a decision chain in the first place? Ostensibly, it’s because those up the org chart have a wider view as well as more experience. There is something to be said for experience, although it can thicken the skin as well as ennoble the mind. But if everyone has access to information, those on top no longer necessarily have the widest view. Being close to the customer and being in constant interaction with one’s suppliers may bring an equally deep view into the business and its real possibilities.

Decisions are centralized also to enable accountability: praise for success, condemnation for failure. But every team member recognizes -- and often resents -- this fiction. I sat through an off-site meeting once at which the middle managers were handed Cross pens to reward them for their success (but really to buy loyalty to the man handing them out). Afterwards one of the managers told me he felt dirty. Though his team had done the work, he got the pen. The pen was now a symbol of what he hated about his job. He would pass along the praise, of course, but clearly -- he thought -- senior management didn’t appreciate how hard the team had worked. Being appreciated is not a commutative property -- it requires eye contact, not the ritualistic passing of pens. And, of course, if the teams had failed, the senior executive accountable for the failure would have passed the criticism down and, not to be cynical, would likely find a way to dodge the bullet.

Does this mean that every decision will be collaborative? Of course not. But neither will every decision be taken by an individual.

We have a rich heritage on which to draw. Our culture has evolved many ways of making decisions simply because we have many ways of being together socially. For example, we seem to think having everyone vote works when it comes to running a country that can start wars, appropriate property, and execute malefactors, yet we assume it’s a bad way to run a business. There are lots of reasons for governance through voting, including assuring that people have a say in setting policies that affect them, but one is particularly relevant to business: wisdom is a property of groups. In most instances, groups are collectively smarter than their individual members and often make more sensible decisions. The fact that typically the only group in a corporation that gets to vote is the board of directors is not an accident; decision-making is usually more an exercise of power than an act of wisdom.

Of course, majority vote isn’t the only way to make decisions. There’s consensus, compromises, negotiations of every stripe, even counting eeny meeny. Yet for all this richness, in business we default to autocratic rulings. It seems a shame.

So, two outcomes are likely as the work of business increasingly moves online. First, we’ll see more ways of deciding because we’re seeing more ways of associating. Second, an important part of every project will be how you are going to decide.

Yes, this requires focusing on something we’ve often taken for granted before. But it will also open up for explicit discussion the nature of the social interaction in any particular project: is this a group effort, a team with leaders, a mob action, a ventriloquist act, or some other type of human association? Even raising this for conversation in a group changes the dynamics, for it acknowledges the fact that there are lots of ways humans can work together -- and every type of association is a matter of choice.

Unmanaging Rich Data

All this open information. Sounds like a nightmare to most of us. But in fact, information is the wrong term for it; we just don’t have anything better.

The term information, as we commonly use it today, is a product of the computer age. Before then, information meant something like news. The term took on special meaning first in information theory, where it received a mathematical definition (to the yawning indifference of the awaiting public) and then in the computer world when data was invented.

As everyone who’s taken Computer Science 101 knows, information consists of significant correlations of data. "Ants #1-#100 died at 8:58" is data. "Ants #1-#100 ate mayonnaise from the office cafeteria at 8:51 and died at 8:58" is information.

Row and Column View of the World
Last_Name First_Name Start_Date Employ_Level SSN
Aardvar Hyman 03-13-1992 J4 012-34-5678
Antear Marjo 11-07-1998 B3 876-54-3210

"Information" is the stuff that goes into computers. And we all understand that to get the relevant facts about the world into our databases, we have to strip out a lot of the subtleties. For example, when we’re populating our employee database, we have fields for "Name," "Start_Date," and "Salary," and maybe one for "Hobbies," but we certainly don’t have fields for "Hates_Thai_Food," "Can’t_Remember_Names," "Hums_While_Reading," and the things we know about our coworkers that together constitute a context for working with them.

We strip out the context because that enables us to manage information: we select rows based on the content of the columns, we sort and arrange the rows, we look for interesting correlations of rows and columns. In short, information is stuff we generate precisely to be managed with computers.

The Web isn’t about information, however. While it takes a database administrator or data entry specialist to enter data into a database, it takes any idiot with a computer to post something -- from naked pictures of your cat to an overheated manifesto -- on an intranet or on the Web. And it’s only going to get easier.

So, while we’re populating our corporate databases with context-less, stripped-down information that can be managed, we’re populating our new Web world with every type of artifact the human hand can devise without a thought about how it will be managed.

Information is built to be managed; the stuff on the Web is the product of the lack of management. Information is stripped down; the content of the Web is rich in its contextuality. These two sets of contrasts go together.

Rich Content and Human Voice

The stuff on the Web tends to be rich, not dry disquisitions loaded with charts and tables. Rather than a nicely printed report entitled, "An Analysis of Competitive Strengths and Weaknesses of Product #456-A," you’re more likely to get "Why ‘Gosh Honey You Smell Great for a Corpse’™ Sucks but Will Rule the Underworld Anyway."

There are bunches of reasons why this is so.

The Web is a document world. Eons ago, there was the Internet and it was populated by a subculture of Jolt-drinkin’, four-eyed, research-crazed academigeeks who used a Unixlike language to ferret out morsels of information. (Unix is the Klingon of cyberspace -- an argot only the true fanatics learn.) Along came the Web with two simple additions to the Internet.

First, the Web replaced screens and terminal emulations with a much more familiar and useful way of presenting stuff to be read: documents.

Second, the Web made it easy to hyperlink to a document without requiring the author’s consent. This made it possible to navigate the Web by clicking on content rather than by typing in path names.

The Web succeeded where the Internet failed, in other words, simply by adding a document front-end, and hyperlinking those documents together. The document user interface made it simple for people to get started with the Web. (Here’s the instruction manual for a Web browser: if it’s blue and underlined, click on it.)

This is important because documents are our most richly evolved type of data. Our culture has spent a couple of thousand years figuring out how to express virtually any type of thought on pages. Because we are so close to documents in all their forms, it can be hard to realize just how good we are at reading them and just how much contextual information they convey. We parse the structures of a page instantly and thus can tell the footer from the footnotes, the header from the headlines, the byline from the lines of bile. Computers still can’t match us at this; just ask any user of optical character recognition software.

The Web is a document-based medium. It is built to handle the richness of documents. And, interestingly, the very first improvements of HTML (the language in which Web pages are written) mainly concerned themselves with simply enabling Web pages to look more like spiffy printed pages.

So, we’re used to documents, documents are capable of handling a huge range of human expression and ways of structuring ideas, and the Web lets us maintain this sophisticated way of communicating.

The world of information on the Web is, therefore, a whole lot richer than the domain of database information in both content and structure.

But, wait, there’s more!

The Web is a voiced world. The Web is the realm of the human voice. As we discussed in Chapter 2, your voice isn’t simply the sounds that come out of your mouth. It’s the way you present yourself in public through speech, writing, dress, body language, manners -- virtually all that you do. The Web liberates voice by making it so damn easy to communicate and publish.

We have been trained throughout our business careers to suppress our individual voice and to sound like a "professional," that is, to sound like everyone else. This professional voice is distinctive. And weird. Taken out of context, it is as mannered as the ritualistic dialogue of the seventeenth-century French court.

We may be accustomed to the professional voice, but it isn’t natural, God-given or neutral: it’s the voice of middle-aged white men who will do anything to keep people from seeing how frightened they are.

If you need to hear how the professional voice sounds, dig out any memo you wrote four years ago and compare it to how you’d write an e-mail about it now. A professional memo obeys implicit rules such as one page is best, no jokes, admit no weakness, spellcheck it carefully, and send it to as few people as possible.

Now, we write e-mails. They’re short, pithy, funny, they sound like us, and we cc the CEO on a whim. That’s why most of us don’t want to use a word processor to write our e-mails. We want to be free of the expectation that we’ve spellchecked it or even re-read it before firing it off. We certainly don’t want to waste our time monkeying with fonts and margins. At most, we’d like to be able to make words bold by hitting the keys harder.

E-mail enables us to construct our voices at our leisure, resulting in some odd artifices. A voice is, after all, a complex "thing." We have different voices for different environments and even for different people -- we don’t talk to our coworkers precisely the same way we speak to our children (well, unless we are very senior managers). Because most of our communications over the Web are "asynchronous" -- i.e., not real time back-and-forth -- we can construct our presence a bit more carefully. Our culture is currently in a phase where people are trying on voices, discovering what works and what doesn’t work over e-mail, bumping up against the limits, and making lots of mistakes. For example, while e-mail can replace many meetings (primarily because at a physical meeting you can’t skim over the remarks of dunderheads), e-mail is a profoundly bad medium for conveying personal criticism precisely because it is textual and thus not very con-textual.

Here’s another way the voice of e-mail is destroying committee meetings: after the carefully controlled meeting is over and the bigwigs are congratulating themselves on how well they managed it ("I think we got exactly what we needed out of that meeting, JB"), the "junior" people are back in their cubes firing off e-mails parodying the results and pillorying the personalities. Meeting go boom.

The return of voice is dooming not only the memo and the pointless, drone-a-thon meeting, it’s also turning the corporate propaganda newsletter into a flat-out embarrassment. Instead, individuals ’zines are popping up in organizations, written by people with points of view, human voices, and usually a sense of humor. For example, at Optika, a small software company in Colorado Springs, Sean Spradling, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Marketing department just up and began publishing Forecast This!, an internal ’zine that presents Sean’s highly biased view of the market and Optika’s marketing efforts. If "uplifting" characterizes most corporate newsletters, "skewering" characterizes Forecast This! But its readers -- the salesforce, marketing, and most of Optika -- know to trust it, and look forward to getting it because it’s written in a real voice stating the real truth. What a concept.

In a hyperlinked organization, voice plays the old role of the org chart, telling you whom you should work with. That Mary is the Under-VP of Expectation Deflations for the western semi-region tells you nothing. That Mary is wicked smart, totally frank, and a trip to work with tells you everything.

Thus do the formal bonds dissolve, replaced by the sound of the human spirit.

Telling Stories

The world is more like a huge set of messy hyperlinks than like a really big table of data. It is a world in which information isn’t abstracted into some seemingly neutral means of expression but is always uttered by some particular human in that person’s own voice.

So what happens to information management?

On the one hand, it continues much as it is. We still need databases that reduce people to numbers. Couldn’t live without ’em. But we also should recognize that the increase in available information has made us feel stupider than ever. All the printouts, all the database dumps, and all the nicely formatted reports and spreadsheets with embedded charts are not describing our world to us. It’s just not adding up. We have statistics but no understanding. And adding more and more information is only increasing the noise level.

We don’t need more information. We don’t need better information. We don’t need automatically filtered and summarized information. We need understanding. We desperately want to understand what’s going on in our business, in our markets. And understanding is not more or higher information.

If you want understanding, you have to reenter the human world of stories. If you don’t have a story, you don’t have understanding. From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savanna, we’ve understood things by telling stories. I don’t mean fiction or stories heavy with plot; I mean narratives that string events together in time and show them unfolding.

For example, my young son in some sense understands World War II. His story is this: the Nazis attacked other countries and were winning until the U.S.A. stepped in and beat the Nazis.

A Russian child’s story about World War II is likely to be very different: The Allies delayed opening a second front until the incredible sacrifices Russia made wore the Nazis down, and then the United States finally came in and finished the job.

Both stories are ways of understanding the war.

My son doesn’t understand the First World War because he doesn’t have a similar sort of story, right or wrong. ("Once upon a time, there was an archduke... ")

Here’s another example. I worked at a company that tanked for lots of good reasons. When a bunch of us ex-employees get together, some of us say that it was because the product got too inbred and complex; others say that Marketing failed to predict the platforms the software would have to run on; others say that the management team was too focused on new products and ignored the bread and butter. None of us tell the same story. And that means that we, as a group, don’t understand what happened.

That’s a sign of trouble, as we point out in the previous chapter. The company’s origins are part of its authentic identity. That identity gets expressed in stories that sound something like these:

  • Our founders were living in a garage and came up with an idea for "mistake management." They thought it’d be great for law offices, but it turned out that lawyers are late adopters of technology. Then, at one of the law firms they called on, they noticed that the secretaries were mixing Wite-Out with cream soda because...
  • We’re 157 years old, and started out making faux papyrus, which was in great demand during the great Egyptian interior decorating craze in the mid-1850s. When that died out, we realized that we had manufacturing equipment that -- if you just adjusted the thickness -- could just as easily turn out prefab walls. And that headed us in the direction we’re still in...
  • This company was founded by tech weenies and got off a great product real early in the 3D fax market. That was a time when being first mattered more than anything, and the company lived on peanut butter and cheap drugs. But, you know how it is, you hit a wall where you have to bring in the suits. So, we went out and hired the former COO of Sears...

When you get past the mission statement and the slide showing why your current market share and revenues are making Croesus envious, and you start to tell your story, only then do people begin to understand your company.

And it’s not just companies that have stories. Every sale worth knowing about has one ("It looked like the bad guys were going to win this one, so I wrote this e-mail, see, and sent it to this guy I know... "). Every repair job has one ("I tried everything in the book to get the X405 to work, including repacking the bearings, which is a total pain. And then while I was tightening the booster ring, I noticed the damndest thing... "). Every product has one ("We couldn’t figure out why no one was using the cup holders in the Deluxe model, so we did a study and we discovered that the engine is so powerful that people were afraid to let go of the wheel. So we decreased it from 36 to 12 cylinders and scored a hit with the scaredy-cat driver market... ").

We live in stories. We breathe stories. Most of our best conversations are about stories. Stories are a big step sidewise and up from information:

  • Unlike information, they have a start and a finish. The order counts a lot.
  • They talk about events, not conditions.
  • They imply a deep relationship among the events, a relationship characterized overall as "unfolding" as if the end were present in the beginning -- as of course it almost always is (as was foretold, in a fractally recursive sense, by Aristotle at our culture’s beginning).
  • Stories are about particular humans; no substitutions allowed.
  • Unlike a set of economic forecasts or trends analysis, they do not pretend to offer the certainty that life will continue to work this way. (On the other hand, the story is more likely to be correct than the forecast because it takes all of our current understanding of the world to accept a story.)
  • Stories are told in a human voice. It matters who’s telling it.

So, stories are not a lot like information. But they are the way we understand.

How to apply this to your workaday world? You already have. When you are telling someone how you won this account or lost that one, when you are explaining why the competitor’s trade-show booth was a disaster, or when you are telling a financial analyst how the market got to be as wacky as it is, you’re already telling stories. You can’t help it. You’re human. Stories are how we make sense of things.

Anything else is just information.

Brokenness

Stories are a way to understand a world that can surprise us. But in Fort Business, surprises are a sign of the failure of management. Management aims at predictability and it tries to get there via control.

The urge to manage is deep in our culture. It ultimately is defeated by the fact of human fallibility.

It’s in the Web’s nature to "always be a little bit broken" because it’s decentralized. No one is in charge of making sure that the page you’re trying to get to hasn’t been taken down. There’s no one to fix the Web, no one to plan it, and no one to complain to.

In fact, all big systems are broken. We don’t always see that because what counts as broken is a matter of perspective. For example, on the phone system sometimes we get busy signals, and sometimes the phone rings and rings and no one answers, but we choose not to count those as signs of brokenness. If the telephone system chose to treat busy and unanswered phones as broken, it could make answering machines a standard telephone service. We could even complain that we have to memorize long strings of numbers, instead of having cute phone "numbers" like david.weinberger.the.balding.one@brookline.ma.usa.

We choose to see the phone system as basically not broken, and choose to see the Web as inevitably broken. Why? Because fallibility is an endearing trait that seems to be a requirement for community. We of course want the people we work with to do everything they can to meet their commitments to us, but we also may find it hard to trust people who refuse to admit fallibility -- their own and others’. We are intensely uncomfortable with people who have no weaknesses. For example: Michael Jordan, Jesus, and my older cousin Don.

The Web’s frailty makes it more human, less threatening. It also lets us move faster. For example, Mark Gransee, VP of Information Systems at Eddie Bauer, said (in an article in InformationWeek):

In the old cycle, you could... hit analysis paralysis. Now you can’t be afraid to make a decision just because the conditions are going to change and make that decision obsolete.

He adds that perfectionism isn’t allowed: "You just have to do the best you can."

Meanwhile, at Owens Corning, Mike Radcliff, CIO, said (also in InformationWeek):

Our staff has to be able to work with incredible ambiguity, be self-confident, simplify and trust others... Most of all we have to embrace "good enough" reengineering, good enough that we can progress... not necessarily what we’d do in the ideal world.

But it’s not just systems that are imperfect. More important, so are we humans. Say it with me: humans are imperfect. I am imperfect.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

We often use the phrase "knowledge is power" to make it seem that hierarchically granted power is justifiable. In most hierarchies, however, knowledge isn’t power, it’s a weapon. Being right advances you and being wrong is a defeat. That sucks.

You can see the politics of "being right" throughout most organizations. People win arguments -- and thus secure their position in the hierarchy -- through the cutting remark, through megatonnage of evidence, through agreeing with industry consultants, and through the smug refusal to ever admit being wrong.

But wrongness has a lot going for it beyond the fact that some things can only be learned through trial and error. For example:

  • Some people are great at generating ideas but terrible at thinking through their impact. You want them to have as many bad ideas as possible because they will thereby randomly generate more good ideas. (I tell my clients that I try to maintain a 9:1 ratio of bad ideas to good. And, no, I can’t tell which are which. If only.)
  • Errors are how assumptions become visible. And there is nothing more valuable than a newly discovered assumption, because only then can you see what’s holding you back and what could propel you forward.
  • There’s too much to know, so all important decisions are, to some extent, random. By being free to make errors, you can try more paths until you stumble on one that takes you somewhere interesting (albeit probably not where you at first thought -- mistakenly -- you should be heading).
  • Errors remind us that we’re fallible humans. A company that’s too embarrassed to admit mistakes and that builds a culture where being wrong is humiliating literally is denying what it is to be human. And you will pay the price -- in this world, if not in the next.
  • Mistakes give us something to talk about.
  • Being wrong is a lot funnier than being right. The right type of laughter -- laughter at what the mistake reveals about our situation rather than laughter aimed at a person who dares to be human -- is enormously liberating. In fact, laughter is the sound that knowledge makes when it’s born.

Does your company have "zero tolerance" for error? Can you change your mind without losing status? If so, consider engaging in the radical politics of wrongness. Go out and commit a whopper. Then embrace it publicly.

It’s a good feeling. It’s liberating. It’s how you find your voice.

Blurry Boundaries

Webs have blurry boundaries. Fort Business, on the other hand, makes an enormous investment in maintaining the integrity of the walls.

Hyperlinked organizations never met a wall they liked.

In the world of closed rooms and weekly meetings, you’re a member or not. To join, you have to commit to sitting in a room at a particular time. In the open, hyperlinked world, it requires nothing but a few clicks to check out what a particular group is doing. You join their e-mail discussion group or visit their group intranet site. Zero commitment. So membership isn’t a yes-or-no decision. You can browse with all the lack of commitment the word implies.

When the hurdles to membership lower, the boundaries blur. The blurring isn’t occurring only inside of the Fort. Businesses are building extranets to enable their strategic partners to access information. There are hundreds of examples of this, in industries that range from retailing to drilling for oil to distributing T-shirts to the people who print slogans on them.

In many cases, extranets are used to get the paper out of the system. This enables process automation and cost savings, which are good things. But some companies -- and someday, all companies -- are going farther than that, giving their partners and customers access to their own intranet, so they can see the sausage being made.

Intranet technology is sophisticated enough to let you control exactly who has access to what, so it’s no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. You can let customers see product-design discussions but keep them from seeing what its competitors are saying to you; you can let a supplier check the processing of a payment but keep it out of the pages where your accountants are evaluating bids. You have all the flexibility you need. The old excuses for pulling up the drawbridge and keeping everyone out entirely just don’t hold.

Why not let your customers see your product-design process? They know that it’s not perfect. They know you’re going to go down wrong paths, you’re going to abandon pieces you thought were locked in, you’re going to squabble senselessly over trivia. That’s what business is like.

Every business is dysfunctional because everything human is at least a little bit broken. It’s not an accident. It’s the human condition.

So what are you protecting your customers from? The obvious truth they know and live with every day? Just exactly whom do we think we’re fooling?

Companies that let their customers and suppliers into the process early on deliver better products. And they forge the bonds of trust and delight that are the only ones that work in the "frictionless" Web.

But maybe you need more than the promise of riches. Perhaps you need the fear of failure to motivate you. So, here it comes: suppose you use your extranet solely as a secure publishing site or for automating transactions that otherwise require paper, rubber stamps, and file folders. This will decrease your expenses and your time to market. Excellent. But if that’s all you do, the first companies that knock down the walls to their customers and suppliers will eat your lunch and then beat up your children for their lunch money.

Imagine the Foobar Company, the leading supplier of pen chains to the banking industry. Its development process calls on it to come up with a marketing requirements document that results in a product spec that in turn results in a new product. The entire development process is done behind walls because Foobar can’t let its competitor, Wumba Chains, find out what it’s doing. But now Foobar has discovered that Wumba is letting its customers into Wumba’s product-development processes way early in the game. As a result, Wumba’s customers are ready with purchase orders the day the product ships, whereas Foobar’s customers need months of explanations and wooing from the sales force. And while Wumba’s customers feel they’re getting the real poop, Foobar’s customers find the carefully constructed and controlled press releases and product brochures to be barriers more than helpers. They have to sort through them to try to get a sense of what’s real and what’s wishful thinking.

So, Foobar decides to open the floodgates. Customers and suppliers are poking all around the innards of Foobar Company. These "outside" companies are seeing the actual workings of the company, and that means they are getting to know the individuals in the organization. They’re learning that for questions about the safety features of pen chains, they should listen to what Paolo has to say, for information about retrofitting cars for advanced pen chains there’s no better source in the industry than Mary, and when it comes to addressing future ideas for pen chains you should never, ever pay attention to what Amit says.

As this sort of knowledge gets absorbed, the "outsiders" start dealing directly with the individuals and hyperlinked groups in the organization. If a partner needs to know how the pen chains are going to work with the new government regulations, why go through Legal or Regulatory Compliance or Marketing which will take six months to formulate some ass-covering BS, when you can pop into a work site or have an e-mail discussion among the people who really know what’s going on and will tell you the truth?

And when you pop into this group, are you going to know or care that in fact some of the members are in fact other partners of Foobar? If Juan is an articulate, knowledgeable, trustworthy voice in the discussion, will you know or care that he is in fact a supplier or an industry expert who works for one of Foobar’s customers?

To the outside, the company begins to look like a set of hyperlinked clusters who select themselves based on trust and respect and even their sense of fun. The trust is built through the quality of voice of the participants: that is all that counts in a hyperlinked team.

The business now consists of a shifting set of hyperlinked groups, self-organizing, inviting in participants based on the quality of their voice, regardless of where -- and whether -- they are on the org chart. Management is simply an impediment to these groups. In fact, rather than employees feeling that they must constantly justify themselves to management, management now needs to give workers a single reason why it should be involved in the life of the business it used to believe it ran.

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Hyperlinks subvert Fort Business.

Business is a conversation.

The Economy of Voice

No one’s asking you to decide if you want to run your business using the Web. It’s a done deal. The Internet has already set expectations for how connections ought to work. The gulf is there; a gulf caused, ironically, by the abundance of connection.

The Web is the sum of these connections. It isn’t a medium, a new type of intercom, or an invention like really cool wristwatch walkie talkies. It is a broad, open place that lets everyone touch everyone else and touch every digit of information by twitching a wrist and tapping a single finger.

What connects you to me to everyone else are Web pages and e-mail and chat and discussions. These are all artifacts of human voice. Each is deliberately created and put forward as our public self, the self that is closest to us and, paradoxically, least knowable to us.

An economy of voice. Has there been such a thing since the Athenians talked democracy into existence?

The voices are heard in conversations. That’s why the Web has its transforming power: it turns out the fundamental elements of our world have been products of deep conversations all along -- conversations carried on by philosophers, artists, poets, and other crafters of language. Had those conversations across the generations been different, we would not have the world we do.

These particular conversations have given rise to a deterministic, causal world in which outputs result from inputs according to natural principles and self-evident rules. The world’s mechanism depends not only on predictable -- and thus interchangeable -- parts but also on the centrality and predictability of laws of nature, principles of behavior, and time itself, a recent achievement in our history. (Socrates never said, "Hey, Alcibiades, what do you say we meet at the corner of Hesiod and Pericles at three-fifteen? Later, babe.")

Physical laws, rules of behavior, contracts, schedules, deadlines, professionalism, org charts, and management practices are all types of connections. They all are attempts to control not only the object of the connection but also the nature of the connection itself. Why? Because they promise control over the two things we fear most: the vicissitudes of our world and the passion of our selves. As a manager armed with a theory and the latest business book, I not only know what to do, I know who to be.

Then the Web crept into our offices under false pretenses. We thought first it was a library of information. Then we thought it was a publishing medium. Then we thought it was a toy or a dangerous distraction. But in fact it is a conversation of a new type, free of the need to get permission from Dad and his army buddies.

New types of connections. The heart flowing to other hearts. A new rhythm. A new causality. A new understanding of power. Conversation that understands that it isn’t a distraction from work, it’s the real work of business.

The Web is hitting business with the force of a whirlwind because it is a whirlwind. The closely held, tightly packed, beautifully tooled pieces are being pulled apart. They are rebinding themselves in patterns determined by the conversations that are occurring in every conceivable tone of voice.

The character of business is becoming the same as the character of the Web -- an explosion reconfigured by the intersection of hearts.



The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.

NEXT: Chapter 6: EZ answers

back to Table of Contents