Getting a clue

A little while ago, Doug Cornelius posted a review of Groundswell. At the time, I looked at the book and the authors’ blog;* I wasn’t tempted to buy it, but something looked familiar. When a colleague recommended the book to me today, I took another look and realised where the resonance was: the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I remember when the Cluetrain Manifesto was all the rage. Nine years ago, I was working in a University, and was part of the group trying to plan for or avoid Y2K meltdown. For both those reasons, the significance of the Cluetrain passed me by at the time. Looking back at it recently, it made much more sense, and chimed with some of the things I think we should be doing (as part of KM or otherwise).

I wondered whether the Groundswell editors referred to Cluetrain. I still don’t know if they do so in the book itself, but Josh Bernoff has written a number of related posts in their blog. One of them (“Corporate social technology strategy, Purists, and Corporatists — why companies CAN participate“) is particularly insightful.

On the one side are the folks who say, “The social world is an emergent phenomenon generated by people connecting.” The original Cluetrain Manifesto rails against many aspects of the corporate world and basically posits that the right way for companies to get involved is for people inside those companies to connect to their customers. … For shorthand, let’s call these folks the Purists.

On the other side are companies who are looking at the social Internet and saying “how can we exploit this to do what we already do — PR and advertising, for example?” PR and advertising are mostly one-way, broadcast type communications, and these folks continue to try to adapt those one-way modes of thinking in the two-way, read-write world of social computing. I’ll caricature these folks as the Corporatists.

I’m here to stand up and proudly say, Purists and Corporatists, you’re both wrong.

Josh then goes on to provide reasons why they are both right. Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

As a corporate staffer, you have no business in the groundswell unless you know what you are trying to do there. You could be trying to increase awareness, generate word of mouth, surface leads, save on support costs, on tap into innovation. But regardless, no corporate activity should go forward without a measurable goal, and this is no different.

Looking back at the Cluetrain Manifesto, and at the list of case studies in Groundswell, I wonder what the typical law firm view would be. There is a clear bias in both publications towards examination of relationships between businesses and individual consumers. That is not to say that B2B relationships do not involve individuals, but those relationships are already conducted on a different level (in professional services firms, at least).

The first of the Cluetrain Manifesto’s 95 theses is:

Markets are conversations.

As far as I can tell, professional services cannot be provided effectively without conversations. However, this is often only true at the point of delivery. Looking at law firm newsletters, for example, we might reasonably conclude that firms have no interest in conversing with their clients. Adding that attitude to lawyers’ professional risk aversion, it is not surprising that very few firms have ventured into public engagement with their markets in the way that the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto or Groundswell might suggest.


* Coincidentally, it is Charlene Li’s last day at Forrester today. I don’t know whether the blog will survive her departure.