Democratized Insight

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

One of the few segments of the IT industry that has stubbornly resisted the efficiencies of Moore’s Law is research. The services provided by big analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester Research are a $3 billion industry that still conducts business pretty much the same way it did 20 years ago. High-priced analysts using the phone and the speaking circuit to tap into what’s on the minds of their IT management customers. Clients pay five- and six-figure annual fees to tap into their insight. A few prominent opinion-leaders affect the path of billions of dollars in IT investment.

Now David Vellante is disrupting that model. His is the kind of Web 2.0 project that just might cause the big players to re-evaluate their value propositions. That could be very good for customers.

Vellante knows the research business. For years he ran the largest division of International Data Corp., a market intelligence firm whose opinions can  make or break companies. Vellante left IDC a few years ago to start Barometrix, an advisory firm focused on IT investment optimization. That team started Wikibon as an experiment nearly two years ago.

Wikibon uses Web 2.0 technology to turn the IT research model on its head. Its collaborative wiki engine makes it easy for a vast community of practitioners to share expertise and experience. It turns out that when you roll up all that information, you have a resource that helps people make the kinds of decisions that used to involve expensive analysts. And it’s all free.

Research Goes Open Source

Call it open source advice.  The first Wikibon community is centered on data storage, and more than 3,000 people have joined.  A core group of 30 to 40 independent consultants and experts use the site to share their advice with the broader community. Before Wikibon, they had no way to reach that audience of storage specialists. Now they give away advice in hopes of winning consulting business. Members get the benefit of their years of experience for free.

The bottoms-up model is incredibly cost-efficient. Wikibon has just three employees. Quality control is outsourced to the members, who have contributed some 20,000 articles and edits to the archive. This democratized approach “hasn’t been as much of a limitation as I expected,” Vellante told me.

And the value of the information is evidenced by the time members spend on the site. “It’s Facebook-like,” Vellante says.  “We’re getting 20 to 30 page views per visitor.”

Wikibon has now grown to the point that the team is beginning to carve the library into subsections; one new area focuses on data protection and another on storage networks.  The small company hopes to monetize its business through value-added programs, such as a new service that helps vendors qualify for energy rebate programs.

Wikibon epitomizes the innovative power of Web 2.0. In the traditional model, insight was communicated from the top down because that was the only affordable way to do it.  With thousands of experts now able to assemble an advisory resource of their own, the opportunity exists to flip that model.  “It feels disruptive,” Vellante says.

Communities like Wikibon won’t put Gartner out of business, but they provide an affordable alternative that will pressure the market leaders to innovate.  That’s the kind of disruption that we can all feel good about.

Coaxing Web 2.0 Into the Enterprise

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

McKinsey has a new report on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0 technologies, and the findings should give pause to IT organizations planning to roll these tools out to their internal customers.

Overall, these technologies — which include wikis, blogs and social networks — are making steady progress into the organizations represented by the nearly 2,000 respondents to the survey.  What’s striking is the disparity between those companies that have made a commitment and those that are still skeptical. The companies that have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid report that it’s changing the very nature of their businesses and that they plan to expand their commitment this year.

Among early adopters, tools are being used to develop new products collaboratively, reinvent internal communications and transform the process of communicating with customers.  Only 8% of the executives who describe themselves as satisfied Web 2.0 users say the tools haven’t changed their organizations, compared to 46% of the self-described dissatisfied users.

However, the survey has a disquieting finding for IT organizations. Those companies that showed the least satisfaction with Web 2.0 tended to be the ones in which IT drove the initiative.  Companies that report the overall highest satisfaction with the tools and technologies are those in which IT plays NO role in selection and deployment. Conversely, those with the highest dissatisfaction levels are also the most likely to let IT lead the charge (see chart).

Why does this sad state of affairs exist?  I suspect it has much to do with internal culture and the ways in which the technology’s value proposition is defined for the ultimate users.

Taken at face value, the data suggests that IT is best left out of the Web 2.0 equation, but in my experience, technology groups play a vital role. One of the beauties of these new technologies is that they’re so simple and adaptable. Social networks, for example, can be used for anything from technical support to corporate knowledge management while wikis can perform at the project level or across an entire company. I’ve worked with several companies to implement Web 2.0 technologies, and the successful ones always go about it the same way.  A small number of enthusiastic users are given tools and the means to use them and then their creativity is allowed to filter through the organization.  IT plants the seed and then gives its customers the means to make the garden grow.

This process is invariably supported by managers who trust their people to do the right thing and who support experimentation and risk.  Conversely, I’ve never seen Web 2.0 succeed in companies that mandated it from the top or pushed it through the IT group.  Web 2.0 technology only works when people want to use it. Technology that enhances collaboration must necessarily be driven from the bottom up.

I cringe when I hear questions like this: “We want to start a corporate blog. What should we do with it?” If the technology doesn’t match a perceived need, no one is going to use it.

The best way to manage Web 2.0 adoption is to find those business side sponsors who have the curiosity to experiment and give them the means for discovery. The McKinsey report demonstrates that they quickly figure out their own uses for the tools, and their enthusiasm becomes contagious. It’s fulfilling enough to plant the seed and nurture the flower as it takes root and grows.

How Web 2.0 Tools Help in the Hiring Process

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

The arrival of the Web 2.0-style publishing and networking tools gives managers more options than ever to find, screen and hire the right people. Here are some ideas for using online tools to improve the recruitment process. Disclaimer: always stay within the law and the ethical guidelines of your firm. Using online aids to make discriminatory employment decisions can land you in hot water.

Finding candidates

Most job descriptions and recruitment ads are dry and boring, so why not start a personal blog or get a slot in your company blog to tell your story? Write enthusiastically about the opportunities in your group and make sure you register your blog with search engines like Technorati and IceRocket so you’ll turn up in search results. You can find a great list of social media search engines on Robin Good’s site.

I’ve never used professional networking services like Linked In or VisiblePath for recruiting, but I know people who swear by them. These sites enable people to find each other through mutual acquaintances. There are hundreds of other social networking sites organized around special interests. has a good list. Become involved in a professional online network and post your opportunities there.

If you’re looking for young employees, consider hanging out a shingle on MySpace or Facebook. These services are incredibly popular with the under-25 set, nearly 70% of whom have created an online profile somewhere, according to one recent survey. If you think you’re too old for MySpace, think again. More than half of MySpace visitors are over 35. You’ll need a college e-mail address to get on Facebook.

You can also search social media for candidates. Technorati, IceRocket, Google Blog Search and Feedster are popular blog search engines. Look for people who are talking about your industry or company. You can find a longer list of blog search engines here.


If you have a lot of resumes to sort through, consider asking candidates to answer some questions online. Services like Pre-valuate ask focused questions that can help filter out candidates who lack the knowledge you need.

You can also create your own survey form at one of the hundreds of sites that provide free or paid online surveys., and are some popular options. Be sure to ask more than just technical questions. Have candidates write about their experiences and attitudes so you can get an idea of whether they’d be a good fit for your organization.

It’s a no-brainer to Google a prospective employee’s name and nearly three quarters of employers already do, according to ExecuNet, a Norwalk, Conn.-based job search and recruiting network. The firm also reports that 35% of recruiters who do online searches have deep-sixed a candidate because of something they found online.

Always query the employee’s name in quotes to get a better match and don’t forget to try searching with middle initials and nicknames (Edward, Ed, Ted). There’s more to the world than Google, though.’s revamped search engine is a powerful alternative to Google and includes blog search. Amazon’s A9 is also worth a try. These engines may find something Google overlooked or interpret your query differently enough to yield you a better result.

Blog search engines will show you what a candidate has been writing about lately and they can yield some interesting insights. The Boston Globe wrote of one woman who lost a job opportunity after she blogged that the job didn’t interest her all that much. A review of her server logs revealed that the employer had seen the post.

People leave a lot of digital footprints these days and searches can turn up after-hours activities or past indiscretions that may make you think twice about a candidate. While you should always give people the benefit of the doubt, it doesn’t hurt to be armed with information. At the very least, ask for an explanation for whatever you found. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the problems that online archives can create for candidates. If it’s online, it’s fair game.

Zoominfo is an intriguing new service that assembles a kind of ad hoc resume of people you search for using information on the Web. You can also find people with common interests or at other companies (a great resource for informal reference checks). You can also dig into hard-to-find public records with paid services like Peoplefinder. It may be well worth the $20 to $40 fee to check out the finalist for a job.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. Share your own tools and tips by commenting below.

Making It or Breaking It with Customer Service

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

On June 13, Vincent Ferrari decided he no longer needed his $14.95-per-month account with a major online service provider. Ferrari had heard stories about the company’s notoriously poor customer service, so on a hunch, he wired his phone to record the conversation.

What he got is a marketer’s nightmare. After waiting 15 minutes on hold, Ferrari finally spoke to a customer service rep who spent the next five minutes insisting that he shouldn’t cancel the account. Despite Ferrari’s repeated requests to “Cancel…the…account,” the agent wouldn’t give up. The exchange reached the height of absurdity when the rep asked to speak to Ferrari’s father. Ferrari is 30.

There was a time when a story like this would have been shared and laughed over with a few friends. But this is the age of the blog and Ferrari did what any self-respecting blogger does these days. He posted the recording.

The response was overwhelming. More than 1,000 readers weighed in with comments, many lamenting their own customer service horror stories with the vendor. Ferrari was interviewed on the Today show. Google news lists 32 news accounts of the incident. The recording was downloaded more than 65,000 times from YouTube. Demand was so high that Ferrari’s blog server crashed. You can read his story here.

The conventional wisdom that a dissatisfied customer tells 10 people about a bad experience is outdated. Today, they tell millions. Social media is unforgiving in this way. Consider the poor vendor in this situation. One negative exchange with a customer resulted in a firestorm of bad publicity that was wholly out of proportion to the offense. Ferrari had a juicy story to tell and the media loves a juicy story.

For many businesses, customer service is a neglected afterthought. Squeezed to cut costs, businesses are increasingly marginalizing the customer experience by inserting automated phone systems and ponderous Web interfaces between themselves and their clients. Or they’re outsourcing the whole thing overseas. The result is that customers are becoming more and more disenfranchised. And they’re going to sites like The Consumerist to vent their frustration.

I set out today to write about innovative customer service, but in researching the topic, I discovered so much rancor about the state of customer service that I changed course. It seems to me that in the outsourced, cost-controlled, Webified and automated business world, innovative customer service is increasingly about going back to basics. It’s about providing your customers with a speedy, hassle-free exchange with a pleasant human being who genuinely appreciates the customer’s business.

Think of the businesses you patronize that give you good customer service. What do they do right? Chances are they make a positive customer experience part of their value system. Whether it’s an efficient web design, a helpful e-mail newsletter service, a pleasant telephone support staff or a cheerful hello at the checkout counter, they show you that they appreciate you as a person, not just an account number.

So innovative customer service these days isn’t about innovation so much as it’s about core values. Getting back to basics. Sweating the details. How important is a happy customer to you? How dangerous is an unhappy one?

Let’s close with a positive anecdote. The other day, my regular Federal Express delivery guy rang my doorbell just to tell me that it was starting to rain and he had noticed the top was down on my convertible. He didn’t have tell me that; I’m sure he had plenty of deliveries to make. But he took literally one minute out of his day to help a steady customer. I will remember that small courtesy for a long time and will tell other people about it. In fact, I just did!

What are businesses doing to make you a happy customer? Share your stories in the comments below.