Three Mantras

by Andrew McAfee on April 29, 2009

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.

Richard Harbridge April 29, 2009 at 9:53 am

Complete agreement on this. Altruism is real and it's wonderful that new forms of charity (people freely giving time and effort towards something) is benefiting businesses directly and indirectly and beginning to really get the spotlight recognition it deserves.

Well written and easily understood your points.

Humberto Moreira April 29, 2009 at 10:15 am

I think this trend will have profound implications in the near future.

The mechanics of this “digital community spirit” are still somewhat mysterious. Some companies are able to pull it off, others struggle, and what I think is especially interesting about this realm is that it generally operates independent of direct monetary compensation (and attempts to inject actual dollar values into it tend to “ruin” it).

Clay Shirky has a nice term for the “fuel” for this trend – he calls it “social/cognitive surplus” and observes that it's partly a result of shifting from passive to interactive media.

The full effect of cognitive surplus can't be fully grasped yet – will Verizon have to compete with all the other brands that are competing for the Texan retiree's attention? Are there benefits to establishing these relationships early? Do they have bargaining power? Is there some conversion to old-school compensation systems?

It'll be very interesting to see how these issues unfold over the next few years.

Willi Schroll April 29, 2009 at 10:21 am

There is an intertia in the change of perspective – as always. My bet is that the so called (and hyped) “digital natives” will be a catalyst of corporate transformation. They are grownup with digital devices and the web, born after 1985, and have different perceptions and habits. And they live the “remix and mashup of values” – money, fame, appreciation – working the game, gaming the work … something like this.

Since I am born in the 60s I have seen a lot of hype around organizational learning and change. This time it might be real – because of these young folks.

So it is …. Time to transform your company into an academy

gautamkr April 29, 2009 at 10:23 am

Interesting article and BTW Happy Birthday

My PhD advisor has a series of articles on these incentives (recent includes Sloan management review Spring 2008 : nambisan et al). some of the reasons they participate include 1. the pragmatic experience (its ability to provide information), the sociability experience (how it promotes group discussion), the usability experience (defined by the quality of the human-computer interactions) and the hedonic experience (relating to mental stimulation and entertainment).

Previously, ignored by firms, It seems like hedonic kind of interactions and interactions seem to be taking a front seat.


Kathleen Gilroy April 29, 2009 at 11:32 am

This activity can also be explained by the rewards of social norms over market norms. I'm reading Predictably Irrational and Chapter 4 — The cost of social norms — has a lot to say about why people are happy to do things especially if they don't get paid for them.

Rick Ladd April 29, 2009 at 11:54 am

I have been preaching these mantras (though not always fully conscious of it) to my glacially innovative aerospace company for almost seven years now. That's how long we've had a “social” networking service in place, though we began by referring to it as an expert/expertise location system. I even suggested we offer to pay for (at the very least) high-speed internet service for any retiree who would make themselves available to answer questions through the service. So far, unfortunately, we are still struggling with adoption, though the trend continues upward ever so slowly.

One of the most difficult of these concepts to get across is that expertise is emergent. When first deployed subsequent to a reasonably successful pilot in 2002, we faced the issue of who should be “allowed” to list themselves in the system. I was able to successfully argue for allowing anyone, despite some fears that a janitor might hold himself out as a nuclear physicist. I pointed out there is no way to know beforehand who might have an answer to a question, especially since we have no idea of knowing what the questions will be.

We're still struggling, but your post makes it clearer than ever that we're headed down the right path. I'll make sure it gets seen by as many people as I can point to it. Thanks. BTW – It was your tweet about this blog that brought me here sooner rather than later (if at all). Another plus for the twitterverse!

Mark Cathcart April 29, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Isn’t this just another example of the longtail in action?

We know that really humans are social animals and that we all need to belong. While technology may in some ways be developing in directions which allow us to become more isolated, work at home, work unsocial hours, work remotely etc. ultimately we’ll all find a way that fits in with our own needs and style, which of course includes writing comments on blogs.

The phenomenon you describe may be new for non-tech businesses, but as long ago as 1978 I was participating in an online bulletin board called VMSHARE as a user of IBM’s then emergent Virtual Machine / 370 operating system. While a few IBM employees did participate and it formed a useful read-only communication vehicle for many otehr IBMers, the real value was the interaction and problem solving, communication of new ideas etc.

This has been repeated time and time again as technology has evolved, it’s only reasonable to now expect this type of informal support system to spread with lower access cost and a broader spectrum of topics that need supporting. People need people… Companies need people. What we need though as you quite rightly point out, is a way for businesses to understand and value the contributions of these longtail community social support systems.,

Yuri Alkin April 29, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Great post. These mantras are certainly true, and an emerging trend in the enterprise is to acknowledge and leverage them to address real business challenges. Not only they are applicable for externally facing business functions, but also can be very helpful when applied within corporations.

A good example is the shared development system we have built for internal use at Microsoft (CodeBox). Used by thousands engineers across the company it requires solid internal support service. We’ve been providing support through the internal IT helpdesk, but have been also investing into building a strong internal community around CodeBox. As that community has grown and matured, the same trend has emerged. More and more questions get answered through the community, which in turn makes newcomers and experts alike more engaged and involved.


Mark Cathcart April 29, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I think the interesting question on this topic is the hump and the continued support by these people. At what point do they move on and why?

Often people come together over a new phone, new device, new technology for a shared learning experience, at some stage though that stops being a challenge and many move on, although some stay and become the “long standing” community member. An important issue is how companies harness and retain these long standing community members and how to harvest the material and intelklectual property they and the community have created.

There is a very long way to go on this. Text mining tools have not begun to be useful in forums and the like, and I see very few organizations and companies offering ANY awards, let alone meaningful ones. They are currently jsut taking the communities for granted.

gengstrand May 1, 2009 at 11:16 pm

I caught this same story. I think that the initial reaction was a variation of Get Satisfaction that is under corporate control. Eventually, Verizon and others will see the collective intelligence aspects. Not only does part of your customer support work for free, but also part of product design and marketing. I went in to more detail on this at

Joe Cothrel May 7, 2009 at 8:42 am

That's a terrific take on an important trend, Andrew. Your hypothetical meeting is one we've had with hundreds of companies over the time I've been with Lithium — and it's an a-ha moment for companies every single time.

I appreciated your comments about knowledge workers too. Back in 2000 when Ruth Williams and I wrote about online communities for SMR, we used the term “discretionary energy” to describe the untapped potential that exists inside and outside every company, in customers and employees alike. You can't compel it — even from those who work for you — but you can claim it by providing a platform and environment that makes people want to contribute.

It's a fascinating topic for management science I think — in addition to being an incredibly fun and satisfying area of emerging management practice.

Beijing Tour June 3, 2009 at 8:09 am

Complete agreement on this.
Great post, what you said is really helpful to me. I can't agree with you anymore. I have been talking with my friend about, he though it is really interesting as well. Keep up with your good work, I would come back to you.

China Tour June 4, 2009 at 11:13 pm

I think the interesting question on this topic is the hump and the continued support by these people. At what point do they move on and why?

Traveller_Adventure June 18, 2009 at 3:14 pm

What a useful post here. Very informative for me..TQ friends…

graceglmcooke June 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Generation Jones, you may have missed what I was saying. I didn't say he was the first president from my generation, and I conceded that he is part of another. He is the first president OF my generation. He is the first president that represents us, and this is the first time that we have become hrsaccount politically active to elect a leader. He is my generations first president

hypotheekrentes December 13, 2009 at 9:20 am


I would like to use these three mantras in my life.


Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: