Competing vs. Collaborating

There’s lots of talk about collaborative technologies in the news. Products like Google Wave, Skype, Cisco’s teleconferencing, and GoToMeeting all highlight the zeitgeist of businesses today: collaboration. Everyone believes that the success of their company can be improved if just more people in their organization collaborated. However, there’s a lot more to this than just providing an avenue for collaboration.

A recent piece in The New York Times shows how Microsoft has failed to innovate, mainly due to a competitive culture that has been fostered there. Innovation happens within, but it gets quashed by internal competition. While it’s easy to look at the dysfunction at Microsoft, it’s much more difficult to confront the issues within your own organization.

This story reminds me of anecdote from Franklin Covey, where he discusses a company that’s charging its employees to cooperate, but offering individual incentives to the highest performer. You’ve got to first organize the company to collaborate before the services really matter.

Collaborators have a strong interest in their personal beliefs and in the personal beliefs of others, whereas competitors only focus on their own benefits. We all dealt with kids like that on a sports team at some point, and it turns out they grow up. Being able to align the interest of competitors with the goals of the group or company becomes essential to get them on board.

There’s certainly a place for competition between organizations, but within organizations, it’s trickier. Do you really want your gaming and television departments competing against each other instead of working together (Sony)? Do you want different car lines working against each other instead of collaborating (any car manufacturer)? Before getting people to compete, think about what you’re trying to achieve. If there’s any benefits from them working together, it’s essential that any rewards are designed that way.

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Information as an Asset

What we think of as value has gone a fundamental shift in the last couple of decades. Traditional “Blue-Chip” stocks have always been companies the produced something physical or offered a clear service. However, that notion is changing.

Google gets most of its value from information. It offers services for free in order to get more information from consumers. Then all it does is sell ads. Well, it’s got a few other income streams, but a large majority is derived from ad sales. It’s just extremely accurate in the ads it sells. Is it strange that one of the most innovative companies in the world that offers great technologies to everyone for free is really just a large ad sales company?

Well, that could be derived from anthropological reasons. Historically, people only sold physical objects. Songs and stories couldn’t be copyrighted because they belonged to everybody. Intellectual property was a difficult concept to wrap your head around. If you sold a chair, why couldn’t someone else make a chair with the same design?

This really isn’t so different from other business models that offer something free in hopes of being able to make money of you later. CD and book clubs used to offer the first few items at an extreme discount to get people onboard, and then charge much more. Food producers often give the first item free in hopes that you’ll buy more. Restaurants offer happy hour specials to get you in the door and then hopefully sell you some appetizers or full meals.

What’s different today is that it’s intangible. Free services in hopes that you’ll click on ads that are targeted right at you. It seems like a great way to go broke. But Google made it work. Additional information is always useful, and can give quite an advantage to people. However, we still aren’t used to thinking of it as an asset that you can make billions of dollars from. There’s a reason libraries don’t sustain themselves, right?

In this information age, we have to recalibrate how we view value. If a company is able to take existing information and create insights into it, then it’s got an asset. If it can make money off said insights then they’ve got a good asset. It’s a bit unnatural to view companies this way, but it’s something to begin to think about as our economy continues to advance.

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Citizen Journalism and Social Media

First, a caveat. This isn’t a political blog. Not by a long shot. I’ve written those before and it just gets my blood pressure high. But this does address a political issue and takes a stand on that issue. For me it’s pretty clear, but for others not so much. If you disagree, that’s fine. But I’m trying to examine a larger issue here.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued this surprising decision about corporate political spending. Overturning over a hundred years of legal precedent, they’ve decided to allow corporations the same amount of first amendment protection as a person and let them spend directly on political campaigns, just not directly for the candidate. In essence, if a company doesn’t like a candidate, they can spend from their corporate accounts to see to it that person is defeated. This creates a number of problems:

  • It could stifle innovation, as large companies with entrenched interests can support politicians to stop new companies from gaining traction
  • It allows for foreign individuals to now have a much greater impact on US national elections
  • It enables corporations an even larger sphere of influence on the political system (at a time when we really need less)

So for all of these downsides, I’m not despairing. What this would likely mean would be increased spending on advertising. Mainly TV commercials. However, political ads are basically exercises in marketing individuals. Their positions as well, but mainly them. And while commercials continue to evolve, people seem to evolve faster. And political ads have plenty of people watching them in the blogosphere and at places like that break them down.

Advertisements used to focus on the actual product, now they focus more and more on lifestyles. However, people are realizing this. Often campaigns target different micro-demographics in order to make people feel as though everyone else they know is voting a certain way. Products do the same thing. Buy this product and enjoy a different lifestyle. However, especially with campaigns, it’s easier than ever to go against the flow.

This quote really sums it up:

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”    –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823

We’re now in a world with more free speech and free press than ever imagined by the founders of the USA. It’s as though everyone can have a newspaper and town crier. It’s much louder, but everyone can keep everyone else in check. Social media and blogs enable anyone to call out hypocrisy. If companies decide to enter the political fray, it’ll be obvious. Everyone can shout it from the rooftops. If someone sets up a fake company to run money through to support a candidate, a freedom of information request can easily expose what’s happening, and a blogger can get it out to the masses.

If the supreme court’s decision had happened 20 years ago, it would’ve had a much more devastating effect. Without free and cheap communication platforms, people would just be left to their own devices and cliques to discuss these elements. But in this day in age, we have enough smart and savvy people to keep political ads in check. Companies are free to spend their money, but just like television ads, they’re getting more expensive and less effective everyday.

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Business without Borders

In the aftermath of the crisis in Haiti, there’s been a lot of talk about Doctors without Borders. They’re a fantastic organization that brings medical care to developing countries in the midst of crises. There’s also a Reporters without Borders group that works to monitor journalistic freedoms worldwide. Several other groups like these exist for engineers, lawyers, and other groups of professionals. However, one that’s notably missing is a group dedicated to connecting some of the great business minds of the developed world with countries that are trying to grow their economy into something sustainable.

Social entrepreneurship and for profit philanthropy are the non-profits of the 21st century. People are constantly looking to create sustainable initiatives for developing countries, but they seem to only want to fund them, rather than try to teach people what that truly means. There needs to be a group dedicated to educating and coaching the in-country entrepreneurs.

Eventually this could offer lots of opportunities for investments from the developed world into developing countries. By having people there on the ground that they’re used to doing business with, it could offer an extra layer of insurance. It could become an angel fund. College students could have a chance to help out in developing countries by putting their business skills to work.

This could be a great way for companies to extend their skills to places that could benefit, and then work to invest in that country by having a continual presence on the ground. If you’ve read about where population growth will be in the coming decades, then you undoubtedly recognize that having a presence in some of the developing countries of today can reap huge dividends later on. This would all be on top of just doing something good for others.

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Creative Destruction

Innovation is what really makes the free market system great. Unless it’s financial innovation, but that’s another story. But the ways that industries must constantly reinvent themselves or fall by the wayside help to ensure that consumers win out. What’s even more interesting is the ways that these companies becoming irrelevant enables everyone to contribute.

Musicians used to have to do a deal with the devil to make it big. They basically signed away their firstborn child to record companies in hopes that they could hit it big. Now, you see bands like the Arctic Monkeys who hit it big just from MySpace. It’s an actual meritocracy. You can copyright and upload your songs on iTunes and you’re up there with everyone else.

Soon we’ll be seeing that with the publishing industry. Writing books is never hard (writing good books is, but that’s a different story), but getting them published has always been tricky. Once e-readers take off, it won’t be too hard for you to format a book to get it on Amazon’s store. Podcasts have done the same thing.

We’re starting to see the same thing happen to TV. While most people still have TV’s in their houses, plenty of people are watching a variety of non-tv shows on them. Whether it’s their Netflix subscriptions, Hulu shows of their computers, video podcasts, or video games, the wealth of content is leading people to watch things they actually like more. While Conan O’Brien didn’t bring in the same ratings as Jay Leno did, he was consistently one of the top watched shows on Hulu. People are out doing stuff, and don’t want to be beholden to programming schedules. The failure to recognize this is what will move networks to a more à la carte model soon, where they simply produce shows and affiliates can pick them up.

All this to say that the barriers to producing content have never been lower. Even to do a high quality video only takes a couple hundred dollars. To become an expert on something takes tenacity more than anything (just ask Gary Vaynerchuk of Everyone consumes content. But by jumping to the creating side, you get to control the conversations. Suddenly you’re an expert or a superstar and can influence as many people as will listen. And you don’t need a big corporation to do it.

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The Return of Social

One of the most interesting trends emerging is that technology is coming around to do a better job of connecting people in real life. Social networking sites started this by gathering information on people and then letting you connect the dots of who is your friend and who isn’t. Now there’s an emergence of sites like Gowalla, Foursquare, and Loopt that are enabling you to catch up with people in real life. Not only that, but with Gowalla and Foursquare, there’s a gaming aspect as well. Games are no longer just mobile, they’re location aware.

One of the biggest capabilities of this is how you can much more easily organize a group of people for going out. You can find people you know nearby and catch up with them. You can see price specials and suggestions about where you are. You’re no longer just recreating your social network (your real one) online, you’re enhancing your real world interactions. While previously we had focused on connecting to each other online, now we’re in the infancy of using location based networks to connect us in real life.

This is certainly going to be an interesting trend to watch. As the online networks become increasingly interconnected, it’ll be interesting to see how companies are able to synthesize that information and make recommendations based off of it. Maybe we’ll see friend recommendations based on location (which is actually a good predictor of friendship) and other synthesized information. We’re also finally witnessing networks that actually pull people together in real life. While previously everyone marveled at the capability to connect with people around the world (and that is a great feature), maybe it’s about time we thought about how to better connect to our friends right around the corner.

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Making a Difference with Mobile Donations

Text “Haiti” to 90999 to donate. 100% of your $10 donation passes thru to @RedCross for Haiti relief. Your cell carrier keeps nothing.

If you haven’t see or heard this message yet, you’re probably living under a rock somewhere. The New York Times reports that the Red Cross has collected over $5 million dollars this way so far for the relief effort in Haiti. Here in Austin, Mobile Loaves and Fishes did something similar a few weeks ago when there was extreme cold by raising money for blankets to help the city’s homeless.

Campaigns like these are seeing a lot of success because it helps people connect their donations to a specific cause. And they’re easy. Overcoming some of the barriers that traditionally plague non-profits for fundraising such as filling out credit card information online (since that is really difficult), and making it something people can do while watching TV is leading to great results. Having a direct connection to a specific cause also helps people feel more involved with the cause. Instead of thinking “I just gave $10 to help the Red Cross,” they’re thinking “I just gave $10 to help the people of Haiti.”

Those types of connections matter. People usually only give to abstract causes when they’re trying to get a tax write-off. Being able to engage people in what you do, even in a small way, can help them feel involved.

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