Three Mantras

Imagine an employee, consultant, or management guru making a presentation five years ago to Verizon’s senior executives on how that company should improve its customer service. And imagine that the plan presented relied heavily on an army of individuals, few if any of them Verizon employees, who would work from home and interact with customers via the Web. These individuals would not be vetted in advance about their knowledge or skill bases. They would work as much or as little as they wanted.  And they would work for free.

I have no doubt that the presenter would have been laughed out of the room.

Yet we learn from an April 25 article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times that this is exactly what’s happening at Verizon. The article profiles Texan retiree Justin McMurry, who spends up to 20 hours per week at the community forums section of the company’s website, “supplying answers online to customer questions about technical matters like how to set up an Internet home network or how to program a new high-definition television.”

He’s not the only person exhibiting this strange new form of corporate altruism; Verizon’s director of e-commerce says that Mr. McMurry and his fellow volunteer ‘super-users’ answer thousands of questions that would otherwise go unanswered (thus decreasing customer satisfaction) or take up an employee’s time (and thus cost Verizon). Discussions between customers and super-users also “provide customer ideas for improvements in hardware and software for the company’s fiber optic service, as well as a large, growing and searchable knowledge base online.”

I’ve seen and heard of enough similar examples that I believe this is a trend rather than a blip. Companies in many sectors are catching on to the fact that these user communities have a bizarrely high ratio of advantages to drawbacks, and are trying to learn how to successfully establish them and keep them thriving.

The article states that one way to do this is to give super-users —  the most prolific and helpful contributors to online communities — perks including access to exclusive parts of the site, special privileges, and advance information about new products. But Lohr’s piece makes clear that what super-users value most is public acknowledgment of their… superlativeness. This takes the form of ratings systems, often multidimensional, that reflect a users’ cumulative contributions, helpfulness, expertise, etc., as assessed by their peers.

These ratings apparently matter a great deal to people, even if they’re not directly tied to economic benefit (as eBay seller ratings are). To build and manage its customer support community Verizon turned to startup Lithium Technologies, which came out of an online gaming world where people interact constantly with each other and assiduously build their reputations over time.

Lithium’s founders believed that people would behave similarly even in staid corporate online communities. It appears they were right. As co-founder Lyle Fung says in the article about including ratings in community sites, “That alone is addictive… [super-users] are revered by their peers.”

Part of the reason I  advocate Enterprise 2.0 ratings for knowledge workers (see this 3-post sequence) is to harness this addiction —  to find the Justin McCurrys of the world, take as much as they’re willing to give, and give them something they value in exchange, namely a persistent and visible reputation as an expert / maven / mensch / all-around-good-person-to-have-around.

I fail to see the downside in doing this. It makes no difference if I approach the issue from a ethical, intellectual, or empirical perspective — I still see a positive development taking place. Capitalists and communitarians can make common cause (OK, I’ll stop with the alliteration now) on this one; whether you’re interested in  money or in increasing the amount of human contact in society experiments like Verizon’s are interesting and encouraging.

Because management academics have been studying open source software communities for a while now, I stopped being surprised a few years back when I heard about technically-oriented young men (nerds) around the world organizing themselves to write complex pieces of code. I got surprised this last semester, though, when one my students told the class that his socially well-adjusted sister gets together with her friends each week to have a couple glasses of wine and…  edit Wikipedia entries. And I got surprised again when I read about Verizon’s successful experiment to draw in 68 year old retirees and get them to answer customer service inquiries for free on behalf of a giant corporation.

In the face of all these surprises, it’s worth taking a bit of time to stop and look at how far things have progressed in just a few years. Self-organizing communities, built on top of emergent social software platforms, have become common.  These communities have low or no barriers to entry, and are non-credentialist —  they don’t care what your job title is, where you went to school, or how many letters you have after your name. People build status, reputation, and authority within them based on how much they do and how well they do it. These reputational attributes become very important to many (if not most) members. The best of these communities become hugely valuable resources for everyone who visits them —  super-users and lurkers alike —  as well as for the organizations that host them. In most of the examples I’m familiar with trolls and other types of value-destroying member are rare, and most participants show themselves to be people of good will.

As the hypothetical meeting that opened this post indicates, very few people were anticipating this flowering of digital community spirit; I know I wasn’t. And I still find that lots of decision makers within corporations are unaware of what’s going on, or unconvinced that it is real and will endure. I try to show them why I believe that it is and it will, and I suggest to them three mantras that I keep repeating to myself to drive the point home: expertise is emergent; reputation matters; altruism is real.