Burn the Org Chart – if Not the Organization – Down to the Ground

Don’t panic.

This is just a quote.

It is a quote from one of my favorite favorite favorite books: The Cluetrain Manifesto, first published in 1999 and now available for free.

The Cluetrain Manifesto
Cover of the original version. www.cluetrain.com

The website – and the book is a call to the people of earth and puts forward 95 theses, the first of them being Markets are Conversations.

You might say: Yawn. That’s web 2.0 – so what? And the site exhibits HTML design from the last millennium.

But bear with me and remember (people of earth) that this was 1999. Back then I was in charge of “managing” some of those infamous web projects and of operating “compliant” corporate web sites. That is: Theoretically I should have disciplined anarchic web site builders and force them to use the corporate CI. Above all, they should refrain from ordering a domain and web space elsewhere, circumventing “corporate” and setup their subversive departmental website. On the other hand I should have – theoretically – motivated people to add some content to the zombie corporate content management system nobody wanted to use.

But dictatorial directives – “All Web pages must be formally approved by the Department of Business Prevention” — throw cold water onto all that magic-mushroom enthusiasm. (Quote from Chapter 1)

Markets are conversations, and conversations between genuine human beings are at the heart of business. Corporation that ignore this are doomed.

In a nutshell that’s the message of the book, and in contrast to its deceptive simplicity, this is not one of those business books (if it is a business book at all) that make you think that an article in a magazine would have been sufficient to cover it all. The reason is that Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger tell their stories instead of stating a message. This makes the book remarkably self-consistent.

Christopher Locke narrates the story of his transformation from phony PR guy to covert publisher of a subversive e-zine called Entropy Gradient Reversal. His alter ego RageBoy has probably inspired my own explorations into strange corners of the web, in the disguise of the Subversive Element. He let his subscribers decide via checkbox if they want their addresses to be disclosed to  aromatherapy salesmen and ritual axe murderers.

Though the authors are true geeks at heart they use the powerful and tangible metaphor of the ancient real-life market place in order to explain what business actually is. Selling and buying resembles trading spices and camels at an Oriental bazaar, and companies epically fail in trying to push a message down to their target audience by confusing the internet with TV with a big buy button. Rick Levine is a potter’s kid explaining that there is no difference in the pride a craftsman takes in his works to the pride a geeky techie that built one of these systems that let human people communicate over the net.

The full quote is:

We embrace the Web not knowing what it is, but hoping that it will burn the org chart – if not the organization – down to the ground. (Chapter 2)

Did it happen? Did hyperlinks subvert hierarchy?

There is new version of the book for sale, Cluetrain+10 that I have not read yet, and my conclusions are unaffected by the authors’ updates.

I have seconded the cluetrain guys on everything in 1999. Their description of the corporate world is true literally and even the most satirical account can’t probably top the reality of marketing brochures anyway. Would anybody disagree that Dilbert is more real than ever and that the following quote still describes most accurately how products and services are marketed today – in particular in hightec industry?

We don’t even make products. Instead we make solutions, a fatuous noun further bloated by empty modifiers such as total, full, seamless, industry standard, and state-of-the-art.

Equally vague and common are platform, open, environment, and support when used as a verb. A veterinarian using TechnoLatin might say that a dog serves as a platform for sniffing, is an open environment for fleas, and that it supports barking. (Chapter 4)

However, a superficial glance on everyday’s online conversations seems to show it has all come true. Nowadays conversations are happening mainly on blogs, facebook and twitter and e-mail. IRC Chat and usenet seem like clad tablets compared to paper. But technology is not important here – as the cluetrain authors have also pointed out in the original version. Any of these helps to get more people “on the net” and “join the conversation”.

Not necessarily for the better. Yes, the days of home-grown HTML pages exhibiting tacky design are gone – blogs look better. But we have instead:

1) A more subtle kind of new phoniness:

Social media strategists support companies with marketing their products by utilizing social media, virally, . It has definitely become more difficult to tell the true human voice from the old PR messages that nowadays flow through net, cloaked as authentic customers’ testimonials and seemingly innocent stories told for the sake of being told. Any tool invented for adding credibility to companies, products and individual in web 2.0 is (mis-)used strategically. Don’t we all know numerous examples of how The Great Success Story does not all resemble The Great Project That Nearly Failed?

I assume that The Manifesto  is now recommended to aspiring web 2.0 marketing managers who try to launch a campaign using social media – which is self-irony at its best.

2) Above all we have: A glaring chasm between

  • a new openness in terms of employees discussing their companies’ products on the web (just as the car dealer guy quoted in The Manifesto) and soaring of the global conversations between individuals on blog and all kinds of platforms. Conversations that cover business and private matters and anything in between.
  • an enforcement of compliance by corporations to a level reaching bizarre and Orwellian levels. Quality management, the methodology police (a term I learned from Edward Yourdon) and all sorts of metrics and process enforcing departments seem to dominate business as usual. BTW also academia. Ever attended a corporate business ethics training? Actually this is of the examples The Manifesto makes fun of: Employees sending fun e-mails around ridiculing the overly serious HR-enforced training.

I am happy to be convinced that is all wong and based on anecdotal evidence and my biased and unscientific research on this. That corporations did not surgically implant a lawyer where their sense of humour has been (Cluetrain M.). Until this happens I keep wondering how corporations are able to sell profitable products at all, given the efforts in time and money that go into what I would call command and control taken to the next level. Sometimes I wonder that these products – pardon, solutions – do work at all.

And an important disclaimer needs to be added: I am not all blaming persons – human beings. It is always the system that sucks, not the individual. In an organization that demands entering daily progress reports and forecasts into The Great New Metrics-Enforcing Tool – nearly any employee will rant about. So how did it get that way? Thus, as Orwellian and Kafkaesque at it may seem: Human beings bundled together to form The Company unfortunately morph into a networked system that exhibits emergent properties, unfortunately in a way not anticipated by the evangelizers of the new networked culture driven by self-organization.

As a (former) security consultant I cannot resist quoting thesis 41 as a particular example : Companies make a religion of security, but it largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.

I could not agree more – think data leak prevention, automated e-monitoring, technical compliance enforcement <insert more buzzwords created by the security industry here>. It is not true any more – as described in The Manifesto – that e-mail is an option to let flow information and less compliant stuff traverse the boundaries of The Corporation freely.

The Manifesto 1999, chapter 1, starts with We die and ends with The scary part if over now. You can come out. It’s safe.

My blog post started out cheeringly and ends with a conspiracy theory on the self-emergent consciousness of The Business.

I can only conclude that we – inhabitants of the The Trueman Show world – would need to become more innovative again.

The Cluetrain Manifesto is as valid as it was in 1999.

It is us geeks who first have built the networks for fun and then become network managers and compliance enforcers. Let’s return to the playground, start something from scratch again that grows like the weed between the cracks in the monolithic steel-and-glass empire.

Whatever this should be, I am not sure it would be about global connected-ness or about anything that is grounded in technology so much as the internet was.

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