More on Building a Culture of Content Part III

by john on January 9, 2003

In Towards the Culture of Content I introduced the concept of the Culture of Content, a new term for a business culture of sharing and learning modeled after the web log universe of the Internet . In More on Building a Culture of Content Part I I discussed the first requirement – a simple Content Management System. In More on Building a Culture of Content Part II I discussed the second requirement – a network of corporate web logs. My assertion is that Movable Type and other tools like it can serve both needs, helping to build the Culture simply, quickly and cheaply.

In this article I take a look at the other side and go through some of the reasons why this can’t work.

There are three main problems that companies attempting to build a Culture of Content will face:

  1. People don’t want to share and learn.
  2. There is no ROI.
  3. It is risky to write in public and people don’t want to take risks.

On the face of it the idea of being more open about what people are working on seems a good idea. Especially in a distributed organization where there are limited chances to meet in person a system that documents the detailed work of employees would seem to be welcome. Someone in Development in Toronto who has been tasked with adding an SMTP server to an application may easily discover that someone in IT in San Francisco has already done it. A manager tasked with hiring a consultant to train her group on HTML may discover someone internally who is capable. The list goes on.

But this is a fallacy. It looks good on paper. The reality is that developer in Toronto wants to write that SMTP server! People don’t want to document what they are doing because someone may learn they aren’t doing enough! People will think “why should I learn from Joe when I could go to a conference instead?!”

Most employees are hired to do a job – they want to come to work, do that job, then go home and do something else.

The second point is critical – there simply is no ROI. On the cost side of the ledger the startup costs would be minimal. The hardware and server software, the commercial licenses for the web log application and the initial training would be manageable. The cost burner is the time spent writing. Consider an organization of 2000 people. A 50% penetration rate would be fantastic. That means you have 1000 people writing in a corporate web log.

What’s a reasonable amount of time to expect them to write a day? Pretty much anything takes 15 minutes and that sounds about right – go with me. So 1000 employees writing 15 minutes per day at let’s say an average salary of $50,000 per year. That’s $25 per hour. 5 days in a week. 50 weeks in a year (we’ll give them a little vacation). 1000 x ((15 x 5 x 50) / 60) x 25 = $1,562,500

Do you know what the CFO will say? “$1.5 Million for writing a diary?!. Not bloody likely!” When the I is too high the R goes bye bye.

The final point is that writing publicly involves risk. Risk that someone thinks you write poorly. Risk that someone thinks your ideas have no merit. Risk that you will make a fool of yourself.

Writing a web log on the Internet entails some risk but there are limited repercussions. If you think my writing is poor, my ideas without merit and that I’m a fool, no problem, you just don’t come back. You don’t even know who I am (although anyone with any understanding of the Internet could find out easily enough, I’m not that anonymous). In a company where we have to work together it’s a different story. As Mark Twain (supposedly) once wrote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

The cold hard reality is that not everyone wants or understands what is best for the company. I’m reminded of the scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when it is announced there will be no tests. Everyone is ecstatic except for poor Hermione.

Unless your company is stocked with Hermiones the Culture of Content will never fly.


Henry January 10, 2003 at 12:13 am

Writing is considered the worst of all possible communications methods. Not only is it tedious to work with and risks more chances of missing its mark than any other method, once you’ve written it it’s there for everyone to see, including management. The risk is more than just making a fool of yourself. The risk is that you have just done something that someone can use against you. Will weblogs, if accepted widely, become used in lawsuits just as e-mail has?

Henry January 10, 2003 at 12:19 am

That last comment I left was terribly negative. Hmmm. As my department builds a new intranet portal I might try giving the blog idea a shot. I also read the comments with the link to Pyra’s experience. I’m all about giving new things a try on a small scale, even if I don’t think they’ll work. I reserve the right to be surprised.

However, my prior cautions still stand.

john January 10, 2003 at 5:54 am

I appreciate the candor Henry. As a pure communication vehicle maybe writing is not the best but I would argue that the problem we are trying to solve here goes beyond immediate communication to include capturing the history of a person, project, team or company and in that vein writing has proved to be the most important and effective communication vehicle we have.

Jaery January 31, 2003 at 5:31 pm

I read online continually and post next to never…
I will add my own experience with written communication (at my previous employer) and my own take and evangelism with respect to constant communication in an org. I was previously employed by a Troy MI based national lending institution’s regional office in Portland, OR (I currently live in Roseville, CA). After my first visit to the corporate office and after experiencing a National Sales Meeting, I wrote an extended email to my supervisor outlining observations I’d made. With a nod toward protocol I offered to send it to him before sending to our group of 50 employees. He agreed to review it and send it out. This never happened but ideas, recommendations, and suggestions I’d outlined in my email communication came to the fore in future meetings as his ideas. Some would consider this my error for not calling him on it. That course wouldn’t have helped my situation.

I am currently trying to foster and support a free or super inexpensive solution for companywide communication at my present employer as their ROI horizon is naively short. We are an org. with 88 coremployees and upwards of 440 remote SOHOs in the western US. We have a surprisingly expensive and limited intranet that I would like to expand by adding blogging and/or micro-scale CMS. Two solutions I am looking at are CityDesk by Fogcreek Software and Contribute by Macromedia. I too believe our distributed SOHOs would greatly benefit from daily commentary, announcements, or production-centric rants from a select group of the 88 coremployees.

Enthusiasm for this is endeavor is fueled by my own daily digestion of Chris Pirillo’s Windows Daily newsletter. This daily email is known for its evaluation of free/share/shrinkwrapped software, but I ONLY read it to keep up with the moderator’s life.
Good day Sir.

john January 31, 2003 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for stopping by with your thoughts Jaery, and good luck to you. I’ve played with CityDesk some and agree it has good potential.

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