Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Are You Afraid To Let Your People Speak?

Corporations are scared. They're scared of their employees. They're scared of email. They're scared of social media. They're scared of YouTube. They're scared of SMS. They're scared of employees using email, social media, YouTube, and SMS to communicate. They're scared of employees communicating. They're scared of the loss of control.

Corporations want to control the message. They want to control every byte and bit of the message, so they smother the message and silence the speaker.

In Proofpoint's latest annual study of, Outbound Email Security and Data Loss Prevention in Today's Enterprise (Download The Report - pdf), Osterman Research surveyed the guys (or gals) in charge of email at 220 corporations with over 1000 employees. Here's some of what they found...

  • According to the study, 19.7% of outbound email poses a "legal, financial or regulatory risk."

  • A little more than half of the respondents (51.2%) are concerned or very concerned about that confidential and/or proprietary information will be divulged by email "sent from your organization’s SMTP email system."

  • The same number (50.5%) are worried about email sent from phones (i.e., mail that may not pass through the corporate server).

  • Similar numbers (49.8%) worry about third party webmail services, such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail.

  • Blog and message board postings have 46.2% "highly concerned."

  • Social networking worries 45.1%.

  • Instant messaging poses a "high" level of concern for 44.6% of respondents.

  • SMS or text messaging worries 44.1%.

  • Media sharing sites like YouTube worry 42.1%.

  • Twitter, a web based SMS system, has 41.5% concerned.

Okay, this level of paranoia seems a bit over the top. Do corporate executives really think that one out of five emails poses a risk? If every fifth email poses a risk, employees are spending so much time on non-productive activities that it's hard to see how anyone could get anything done. Risk aside, the productivity cost of email would exceed its benefits and CEOs would simply shut off the pipe for most employees.

And do nearly half of corporate decision makers really worry about 140 character messages texted or tweeted? Apparently.

Big Risk Or Much Ado About Nothing?

Significant numbers reported real problems with data loss...

  • One third of companies (33%) have had customer information "exposed" (whatever that means).

  • Over one quarter (28%) have had intellectual property "exposed."

That seems serious, but these are companies with 1,000 or more employees. Of the 220 companies, 145 had more than 5,000 employees and 60 had more than 20,000 employees.

Take a company with 10,000 odd employees. Chances are good someone's going to say something he shouldn't from time to time, though it's probably not going to be anything that will damage the company.

The report didn't define how serious the "exposures" were. All we know is a significant number of huge companies felt something about customers or intellectual property was exposed that shouldn't have been.

When I worked as an automation engineer at a Fortune 500 level durable goods manufacturer, I presented a paper at an international robotics conference. A guy from a semiconductor magazine liked what I had to say and wanted to interview me. Before granting an outside interview, I was supposed to involve corporate PR, and did.

The level of micromanagement was incredible. It frustrated me and I'm sure irritated the time pressed editor of the semi-conductor magazine. I wasn't sharing secrets or even non-secrets. I was simply offering technical opinions about factory automation with a trade magazine in a wholly different industry.

Eventually, the piece ran. The semi-conductor guy never called again and intimated that our PR department was too difficult to work with. I understood.

Years later, with a different manufacturer, I was given the opportunity to write a guest column for a trade magazine. My superiors analyzed every word, looking for ways each could be twisted like a pretzel into some obtuse indicator of corporate weakness that would cause customers to switch business to a competitor. It was so frustrating that I didn't attempt to write again until I changed jobs.

I suspect that much of what gets classified as the exposure of customer or proprietary information is about as secret and confidential as the yellow pages. Corporations have a need for control and the bigger the corporation, the greater the control reflex becomes.

Big Corporations Go Big Brother

In response to their concerns about data loss, nearly all of the corporations adopted acceptable use policies regarding email, social media, etc. That's not a bad idea.

Make sure the troops know what concerns you. People are generally smart enough to avoid crossing the line if someone takes the time to draw it and explain it.

Is a greater response needed? Apparently corporate decision makers think so...

In this year’s survey, more than a third of all US respondents—38.4%—reported that they employ staff to monitor (read or otherwise analyze) outbound email content. An additional 23% of companies surveyed said that they intend to deploy such staff in the future. This technique is even more common in the largest organizations—48.3% of US companies surveyed with more than 20,000 employees employ staff to monitor the content of outbound email (and 21.6% say they intend to deploy such staff in the future).

Does this seem a little creepy to you? It's not simply email that's checked. These guys are monitoring YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, MySpace, and so on.

If your "job" is to find a problem, you will. Thus, the monitors look long and hard until they find a "violation." The miscreant is then disciplined or fired, justifying the need for continued corporate oversight.

I realize that corporations operate in a litigious environment today, but come on! This big brother behavior strikes me as a waste of resources. Worse, it sends the message that the company doesn't trust its people. The company doesn't trust their discernment. It doesn't trust their integrity.

What happens in this environment? People do what I did. They shut up. The don't try. They refuse to engage. Eventually, they leave. And the company is the big loser every step of the way.

Large Corporations Aren't On The Cluetrain

Shortly after launching the Service Roundtable, I read The Cluetrain Manifesto. I found it powerful. It explained what I was observing in the online world and experiencing with the Service Roundtable. Below is the preamble before the 95 theses of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.

While many such people already work for companies today, most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets literally too smart to buy it.

However, employees are getting hyperlinked even as markets are. Companies need to listen carefully to both. Mostly, they need to get out of the way so intranetworked employees can converse directly with internetworked markets.

Corporate firewalls have kept smart employees in and smart markets out. It's going to cause real pain to tear those walls down. But the result will be a new kind of conversation. And it will be the most exciting conversation business has ever engaged in.

Does it sound like most of the corporations surveyed in the Proofpoint study are on or off the cluetrain? Personally, I don't think most have a clue.

As a small business owner, you don't face PR executives more concerned with avoiding the utterance of the wrong thing than saying the right thing. You can speak to your customers with a real voice... yours.

And you can let your employees speak. Sure, someone might say the wrong thing. That comes with humanity. Humanity separates your company from the stainless steel, monolithic, unfathomable, cold corporation. Yours is a company of humans; humans your prospects and customers can relate with.

Your voice, your true, real, authentic voice can be a competitive advantage for you, as can the voices of your employees. Speak. And encourage your employees to speak. Speak through email lists. Speak on blogs. Send tweets. Join Facebook. Connect with LinkedIn. Sign up for Plaxo. Make a video and host it on YouTube.

When your customers ask questions, engage them. Start a dialogue. Don't worry if others might see you deal with an upset customer. Don't worry if you find yourself forced to acknowledge a mistake.

Everyone knows people get mad. What's better, to have an angry customer spewing venon while you hide and fret, or to have an angry customer engaged by a concerned empathetic owner? Your good response (note: good response) with an upset customer in a public forum can do more for your business than 10,000 direct mail pieces.

Everyone knows companies make mistakes from time to time. What's unusual is the company that stands up, acknowledges error promptly and without coercion, and fixes the problem fast. Look, if you screw up you're going to fix the problem anyway, so why worry about public exposure of the problem if its accompanied by a rapid, proactive response? That won't make you look like a sucker. It will make you a hero.

Speak with authenticity. And allow your team to speak. But before you start, read The Cluetrain Manifesto. Order it from Amazon in print or audio versions or read in online for free. Read it and either review it with your employees or buy them copies.

(c) 2009 Matt Michel

1 comment:

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