Why the web needs thought leaders
The internet may be as important as its evangelists suggest, or not, but companies will only realise its potential when senior management thinks about it, David Bowen says.
|The Connected Business|
The internet is wildly overvalued and given far too much attention. The internet is undervalued and not given anything like the attention it deserves.
Let me make sense of these contradictions by inserting ‘by some people’ after each statement. Add the unifying thought that the internet is widely misunderstood. And suggest that we really need to do something about that.
The ‘overvalued’ claim has just slipped from the metaphorical to the financial. Goldman Sachs and Russian investors recently injected money into Facebook at a rate implying a valuation of $50bn. In a BBC radio Media Show interview, financial media analyst Matthew Horsman said he found that number hard to justify. But Benjamin Cohen, the technology editor for television broadcaster Channel 4 in the UK, said Facebook was “100 per cent” worth it.
Having lived through the dotcom bubble at close quarters, I’m inclined to give Mr Horsman my vote. Or, rather, I definitely do not give it to Mr Cohen who said, among other things, that “social networking is the absolute future of communications… owning a stake in something like Facebook is a bit like owning the patent for the telephone… Everyone you know is on Facebook”.
This sort of puppyish enthusiasm is all too familiar. The overwhelming message is ‘We get it, we are the future, if you don’t get it you are losers’. All Mr Cohen’s friends may be on Facebook, but well under half mine are – and that’s not just because I’m deep into middle age.
It takes a particular mentality to enjoy Facebook. If Mr Cohen is right, and it is ‘the future of communications’, we will have a new sort of digital divide – between those who do Facebook and those who don’t. I know teenagers who have no interest in it; even my highly-connected 17-year-old son says he “can’t see it being as long lasting as something like Amazon”.
This column is not about investment. The Facebook valuation story is simply a way of illustrating the slightly desperate enthusiasm social media’s proponents often transmit. It’s as though they don’t quite believe it themselves (I leave aside the fact that some are making money from it – that would be cynical).
But this tendency is nothing like as worrying as the opposite: the belief among many senior managers that the internet (not just social media) is still marginal, not quite the real world, and at best unproven as a business tool. They will pay lip service to it, but deep down they do not think it should really change the way they and their businesses work.
You won’t hear them saying this, not least because they never express themselves online. I hear them, though. Or, rather, as I make my way around large organisations I hear constant grumbles about bosses or department heads who regard the internet as a diversion from their real jobs. Sometimes I even meet them, and am greeted with anything from alarm to suspicion.
The really bad news is that these folk are vastly more important than any number of evangelists, because they control the budgets. Why are so many corporate online teams thinly resourced? Because they are not being given the money they need. We can point to the difficulty of measuring return on investment as a rational driver for this – but deep down, I am sure, scepticism is the bigger drag.
Change at the top
What can be done about? About the evangelists, probably little. And we do need enthusiasts for something as important as social media, no doubt about that. No, the change needs to happen at or near the top of large organisations.
In the companies that are putting adequate resources into online, you will often find a young chief executive who ‘gets it’ or some event that has thrust the internet into the boardroom’s face. Siemens got serious after the (young) chief executive decided the web could be used to restore its tarnished reputation after the bribery scandal that erupted in 2007. Shell’s managers could not help noticing that Greenpeace was using the web to run rings round them during the Brent Spar affair of 1996 (Shell wanted to sink a platform in the Atlantic; Greenpeace stopped it). BP got going during John Browne’s chairmanship – he was young and sat on the board of Intel. And my favourite government department site, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was developed under a youthful foreign secretary, David Miliband.
But these are the exceptions. Where there is no driver from the top, we typically find a group of switched-on middle managers struggling to convince their managers. Upward education is needed. In a well-run company, it should exist.
The gullibility gap
If senior managers understand the issues, they will not fall into a troublesome trap. They meet a smooth-talking evangelist, become convinced that they need to get into the latest thing, and trigger activity that the poor middle managers have to implement as best they can. I saw it the late 1990s; I see it again now. A bit depressing.
To me the ideal is the manager who, well, manages. He or she is open to ideas, wants to know the pros and cons, makes a decision, then makes things happen. I was talking to one such the other day. He said ‘Two years ago we thought everything needed to be about conversation. But the more we thought about it the less we are sure’. Equally thoughtful managers in other companies have come to the opposite conclusion. But the important point is they have thought about it, rather than relying on a kneejerk pro or anti reaction. The middle way, the thoughtful way, is so much more productive.
This article first appeared in The Connected Business on FT.com
First published on 26 January, 2011