Why IT should listen to Palin

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Whatever your political preferences, Sarah Palin’s performance in the Vice Presidential debate can be seen as a blueprint for how IT must learn to respond to the social media wave. If you haven’t noticed, every single technology vendor large and small is now shoveling great amounts of verbiage (sic) about cloud computing, its virtues, its dangers, its (lack of) change from what has come before.

It’s the Hope message that Microsoft launched at the turn of the century with its Web Services initiative: the harnessing of XML as a unification of proprietary remote procedure calls and data streams under the eXtensible banner. Or it’s the Hope We Need for companies strangling on slow-moving ERP migrations and employee abuse of mobile devices and websites to lower productivity while leaking intellectual property across firewalls with abandon. Can social media help IT lock down the new Wild West of free range gunslingers, or is it too late to stop the virus of hierarchy flattening that the Net has spread?

If the campaign is moving toward a culture war as Obama continues to ride the financial crisis, then something similar may be about to occur in the corporate world. That’s why IT needs to look carefully at Sarah Palin’s strategy in the debate, where she simply dropped the pretense of playing ball and told Biden, the media, and most directly the 50 million viewers that she wasn’t going to worry about the format or the rules or what the event sought to project as its rationale, but rather talk directly without filtering to her audience.

It was an effective moment, particularly for an electorate starved for straight talk, and also for a candidate who had been having near-fatal problems with answering questions. But what it mirrors with the dialogue with IT is that she was saying what social media users are saying, namely, we’re gonna use this stuff no matter what you think about it. Palin, who up until that moment had largely succeeded by exceeding dismal expectations, suddenly connected with us no matter whether we think her woefully unprepared for the job or that she brings fresh blood to the process of transforming government.

Similarly, social media-enabled applications and frameworks immediately transform algorithmic text analysis by adding the weight of personal and/or affiliate reputation to the content being routed. This so-called “people” context makes possible much quicker decisions based on more efficient arbitrage of information. In a jury room, the power brokers quickly identify the several key players on both sides of the question, then make sure to give them enough screentime to represent their constituencies, then force a vote. The foreman is usually not the dominant player but rather a floor manager, given the signal when the votes are apparent for a decision.

This social graph mining can be extended via instant messaging without fear of interception over email, which provides an audit trail that implies consequences for either spreading information beyond a need to know basis or not keeping superiors or lateral peers appropriately in the loop. IM is perceived as “dangerous” from IT’s perspective, but strategic from a getting it done view often held by CEOs and consultants who encourage collaborative behavior.

Social media surfaces this conflict and creates the notion of a hybrid – quasi-public IM and activity streaming – that endows a class of messages with implicit power that neither email nor IM nor blogging alone have. By enabling realtime messages that can instantly convert to direct conversations with unanticipated endpoints, micromessages create a business value proposition that transcends the mandated reporting culture of SarbOx as well as endemic information hoarding.

Real work gets done in these conversations, and typically this work is being performed in the “open” because the participants realize (and have been given “permission” to work at this live level) that they have little to fear from competition because their access to participation trumps others who by definition have to react after the fact. Not only has the value moved on to the next set of conversations, but the product of this work is now being marketed to the audience most likely to buy it.

Remember that social graph data encapsulates affinity behavior, which is more likely to yield targets for accelerated business and idea transformation. Those still hanging back while waiting for trends to emerge are caught in a backwater, while the trends are busy being generated and validated by fast-moving microcommunities. So whatever you think of Palin, don’t confuse the power of the idea with the tactical messenger who brought it to the party. IT is ultimately there to serve the most efficient business process mandated by the company’s reason for existence. Palin showed executive competence, and a great deal more, whoever actually wrote the lines.

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