SMUG Textbook: Trust Agents

Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

I got to have dinner with Chris Brogan at a conference in May in San Francisco, and from our conversation (and his blog) I was pretty sure this book would be good, but this is one of those books that had me nodding in agreement almost from the start.

I particularly liked the chapter called “Make Your Own Game,” which is about seeing your life and career as a game, and progressing from playing to “hacking” to programming, and is similar to what I call “The MacGyver Mindset.” It’s about understanding the rules of social media so you can help develop the rules for your own game, tinkering with tools and seeing how they can let you do your work in a new way, and maybe even create a whole new business.

Here’s how Brogan and Smith define what a trust agent is:

Trust agents have established themselves as being non-sales-oriented, non-high-pressure marketers. Instead, they are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business. They’re interested in people (prospective customers, employees, colleagues, and more), and they have realized that these tools that enable more unique, robust communication also allow more business opportunities for everyone.

Who, exactly, are trust agents? They are the power users of the new tools of the Web, educated more by way of their own experiences and experiments than from the core of their professional experiences. They speak online technology fluently. They learn by trying, so they are bold in their efforts to try new applications and devices…. Trust agents use today’s Web tools to spread their influence faster, wider and deeper than a typical company’s PR or marketing department might be capable of achieving, and with more genuine interest in people, too.

I added some emphasis on elements in the above that embody the SMUG philosophy, but would just take issue with the “digital native” descriptor. I don’t think you need to have grown up with digital tools to become a trust agent. It’s perfectly fine to be a naturalized digital citizen. But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent book that has the SMUG textbook seal of approval.

SMUG Textbook: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky.

I read this book more than a year ago, and it has significantly affected my thinking. Shirky’s main point is that complex projects formerly required the overhead of an organization, which meant that there had to be some way of funding that overhead, either through business profits or government taxation. The advent of digital tools has made complex projects possible without the organizational overhead. Some of these, such as Linux or Wikipedia or Craigslist, have seriously challenged or even “beaten” the products of formerly profitable organizations. But these tools have also made it possible to undertake projects that previously weren’t worth doing. In a section he calls “The Tectonic Shift,” Shirky explains:

For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups. We haven’t had all the groups we’ve wanted, we’ve simply had all the groups we could afford. The old limits of what unmanaged and unpaid groups can do are no longer in operation; the difficulties that kep self-assembled groups from working together are shrinking, meaning that the number and kinds of things groups can get done without financial motivation or managerial oversight are growing.

You will find traces of Here Comes Everybody in many of the 35 Social Media Theses. I highly recommend it to all SMUGgles.

The Danger of “Core Competence”

Among the books I’ve been devouring recently is The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth by Clayton Christensen. (I highly recommend it!) As I was listening to the unabridged audio version, the following statement — though read in the same measured tones as the rest of the tome — screamed its relevance:

Core competence, as it is used by many managers, is a dangerously inward-looking notion. Competitiveness is far more about doing what customers value than doing what you think you’re good at. And staying competitive as the basis of competition shifts necessarily requires a willingness and ability to learn new things rather than clinging hopefully to the sources of past glory.

The challenge for incumbent companies is to rebuild their ships while at sea, rather than dismantling themselves plank by plank while someone else builds a new, faster boat with what they cast overboard as detritus.

The context of the statement is a discussion of companies that outsource elements of their product or service that they perceive to be less important. For example, in developing its PC in the early 1980s, IBM outsourced both its microprocessor (to Intel) and its operating system (to Microsoft.) This enabled IBM to catch up with Apple, but in the process it handed over the two most significant revenue streams and sources of profit to others. Today Intel and Microsoft are still earning billions of dollars a year from the PC business, while IBM is no longer making PCs.

This is relevant not only for our organizations and employers as a whole but also for us as individuals, and now I’m speaking directly to those involved professionally in communications, public relations, marketing, advertising or related disciplines. 

I wish I had $82.43 for every time I’ve heard someone say, “All you need to do to use social media in your business is hire some young kids, just out of college. They really understand this stuff.” As the father of two relatively recent college graduates, I appreciate the job opportunities such a statement offers. But I offer a word of caution.

You need to understand social media yourself, and not dismiss them as being outside your “core competence.”

OK, that was 17 words. But the point is that as social media grow in importance over time, and as the audiences for mainstream media shrink, if you fail to adapt your “core competence” will become less relevant. That means less marketable.

By understanding social media, you will see how they can be applied to solve your business problems, or perhaps even as a whole new business model. Otherwise, as Christensen indicates, you will find yourself disrupted by low-end innovators.

To think more about the implications of disruptive innovation, get The Innovator’s Solution or anything else Christensen has written. I’m particularly looking forward to reading his books about health care and education.

To learn how to apply the sustaining (and in some cases disruptive) innovation of social media to your work, you’re at the right place already. Become a SMUGgle and we’ll learn and share applications together.

Book Review: What Would Google Do?

I’m almost done listening to the Audible version of Jeff Jarvis’ new book, What Would Google Do?  I’ve long been a reader of Jeff’s Buzzmachine blog, and so had eagerly anticipated his book. 

I wasn’t disappointed.

As a former media critic for People and the founding publisher of Entertainment Weekly, Jeff knows “old media” and has been thinking in public on his blog for several years about newspapers and other mainstream media can adapt to the realities of the Internet age. In WWGD?, he applies the new rules he’s observed to various other industries as well. I haven’t gotten to his recommendations for health care yet. That might deserve a separate post.

(As an aside, check out Jeff’s post on Buzzmachine today, in which he estimates that today’s print edition of the New York Times is $2.6 million short of the paper’s target for display ad revenue. That’s for a single day! And the Times reports today that the Boston Globe is losing $85 million a year.)
Continue reading “Book Review: What Would Google Do?

Required Reading: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

As your Chancellor, from time to time I offer book reviews. And most of my reviews are really book recommendations. In other words, I don’t write a review unless it’s a book I think you would find worthwhile.

With Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, we reach another level: beyond review or even recommendation.

It’s a Requirement.

You really need to read this book. I downloaded it last week through Audible and listened to it while doing some work around the house and yard. It’s absolutely riveting.

Gladwell’s subtitle for the book is, “The Story of Success.” His aim is to look at wildly successful people and to evaluate what sets them apart…what makes them “outliers.”

He disappoints the rugged individualist by showing how cultural history and accidents of birth (even the month of the year we are born) play huge roles in our opportunities for success.

And with his elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule, he dispels the myth that there is such a thing as a “natural talent” that can be extraordinarily successful without sustained practice and skill development.

Along the way, Gladwell provides surprising, interesting (and compelling) answers to perplexing questions, such as:

  • Why are Asians so much better at math than westerners are?
  • Why did Korean Airlines have such an abysmal safety record?
  • Why were the mountains of Kentucky home to so many notorious family feuds?
  • Why do so many of the most successful corporate lawyers in New York City have amazingly similar biographies (born in the 1930s to Jewish parents who worked in the garment industry) and how did those factors contribute to their success?

Outliers is both humbling and motivating. It’s humbling because it reminds all of us that for any success we have, we can trust that factors and background beyond our control (and perhaps even seemingly random, like the month in which we were born), have played a role. And it’s motivating because the 10,000-hour rule emphasizes that hard work is an indispensable ingredient for success, though it offers no guarantees.

Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller, as he demonstrated in The Tipping Point and Blink, both previously reviewed (or rather recommended) here. Any of his books would make excellent Christmas presents.

By definition, the vast majority of us won’t be outliers. But everyone reading this post has access to a computer with power far beyond what Bill Gates had as junior high school kid in 1968. He and Steve Jobs were born at the right time, and had extraordinary access to computers as youngsters that enabled them to put in their 10,000 hours and be in position to take advantage of (and help create) the personal computer revolution. But because of the legacy they have left, we have amazing opportunities our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

In the scope of human history, we’re all outliers. Based on our SMUG enrollment figures, it’s highly likely that within 24 hours of this post being published it will have been read by at least one person on virtually every continent except Antarctica.

Fifty years ago, no one had that kind of power – not even the richest or most powerful rulers on earth.

But today, if you’re reading this post, you do.

I’m not suggesting that you spend 10,000 hours learning and practicing social media skills. But in just a few minutes a day you can work through the entire SMUG curriculum, taking advantage of the Jobs/Gates computer revolution, the Internet and Google to develop a whole new set of skills that you can use practically in your work and in your avocational pursuits.

I hope you will make becoming proficient in social media one of your New Year’s resolutions. (And for tips on keeping your resolutions, see this post.) If SMUG can help in your learning, I’d be honored to have that opportunity.

But meanwhile, get Outliers and read it. It will change the way think about success and its causes.

Update 12/29/08: Seth Godin has a thoughtful take on the 10,000 hour rule and its application in newer or niche markets.

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