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I recently had the chance to have an informal video 

conversation with my good friend and e-learning guru Anders Gronstedt, CEO of The Gronstedt Group, about employee communication trends and opportunities. We cover a fair amount of ground on topics such as social media (inside the enterprise), staff training, employee engagement and emerging communication technology. One of the themes emerging from our conversation is that despite the hype and promise of social media, many companies are still hesitant to embrace new collaborative and social technology in the workplace. Please share your questions and comments.

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This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.

This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.

Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:

  • Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
  • Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
  • While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
  • Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.

Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.

A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.

This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas.  There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.

Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.

Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.

My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.

Every year, I pay close attention to Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends. Meeker, one-time analyst at Morgan Stanley and now partner at Kleiner Perkins, has become famous (some would say infamous) for her internet analysis and market projections. Her presentation and commentary is always worthwhile for any PR professional – particularly given the critical and growing impact of the Web and technology on communications and advertising.

Once again, my reaction to Meeker’s analysis is focused not so much on her conclusions, which are cogent and important, but in the apparent gap between technology trends and the state of corporate communications. Allowing the caveat that my perspective is totally subjective and anecdotal (based on recent first-hand experience with perhaps twenty organizations largely based in North America) I see some notable gaps.

Let me start with a snapshot of relevant trends from Meeker’s presentation:

  • Globalization – More than 80% of users of the world’s top internet properties (including Facebook and Google) live outside the United States. In 3 years, China added more internet users than exist in the U.S.
  • The Web is social – Social networkers around the world now outnumber internet users.
  • Mobility – Mobile technology (led by 3G Smartphones and the unprecedented adoption of tablets) continues to grow at historic rates. Mobile search and access to social networks is growing rapidly. Mary suggests the mega-trend of the 21st   Century is the empowerment of people via mobile, connected devices.
  • Digital content – User interfaces and digital content is moving from text and icons to a new combination of sound/touch/video. Content is now accessed, moved and altered through a simple touch on the screen.
  • Content aggregation – Content is increasingly being packaged, and accessed, though sites that aggregate rather than create original content.

Now let’s compare each of these trends to what I typically see in my communication work:

  • Globalization – Most companies struggle with truly global communications, and rarely make a concerted effort to ensure their content is representative and relevant across their international locations. Call it the HQ syndrome. Many don’t bother to address the most obvious challenge of foreign language in their corporate outreach; English is the default language, even in organizations with a majority of staff outside North America.
  • The Web is social – Despite the tremendous growth and opportunity of social technology, many organizations still hesitate to introduce even the most basic social platforms (such as internal blogs) despite the fact most intranet platforms now come with built-in social capabilities. Even fewer encourage and train their staff to be online ambassadors or interact with customers. Some organizations have yet to introduce employee Web policies.
  • Mobility – Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, only a hand-full of companies I’ve worked for/with use company-supplied or personal devices for communication purposes, and that is often limited to text digests. Even organizations with many remote staff and/or manufacturing environments where workers don’t have access to computers, mobile outreach is limited. Many companies still ban use of iPhones or other Smartphones that aren’t officially supplied.
  • Digital content – Text pushed out via email is still king in corporate communications, with a surprising paucity of original video content, and even less packaged audio (though I’ve seen…or heard…some innovative programs that leverage podcasting and DVDs to train or inform staff.) The ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, which can now feature interesting visuals and compelling design, are often limited to busy, generic text. Photos are becoming more common, but there is rarely a proactive program designed to help create and share original photography. In terms of interfaces, I’ve yet to see an intranet (or many external websites) that’s anything close to the iconic, visualized interface used by many technology providers.
  • Content aggregation – Too many companies still believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come come mantra, limiting their online presence to official corporate sites with dubious prospects. (The obvious exception is companies that market and sell online.) Most content on corporate sites is usually produced by the organization, and often self-serving. On the internal side the same trend applies, but with even less access to external content or feeds. Usually, a fairly rigid hierarchy of approved authors prevents staff from being active content contributors.

Even allowing for aversion to risk and cultural differences across workplaces, I’m surprised our profession appears so out of step with emerging trends. From personal experience, I know it’s difficult to go against corporate inertia, but we risk losing our credibility and relevance if we don’t counsel our clients/leaders to consider these trends and look for opportunities to innovate and improve.

During the tremendous growth of social media in recent years, most of the commentary has focused on the potential benefits and positive impact of the new technology – whether it be enhancing connections with customers, acting as a new & enhanced marketing channel or facilitating real-time networking. In recent weeks, however, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations and client engagements that raised a provocative question: does all this emphasis on social collaboration, crowd-sourcing and broad engagement  – supported by increasingly cheap and slick technology – actually hamper efficiency? More specifically, have we gone too far on the side of consultation and consensus, with the result of slowing down decision-making and execution? (This is different than the popular criticism of social media as a colossal waste of time with no clear business benefits.)

My friend Jeff Hunt of PulsePoint Group, for example, recently argued in this post that too much emphasis on collaboration – without clear rules of engagement – can stifle innovation. In a similar vein, a recent client worried that introducing new internal networking platforms would encourage staff to indulge in aimless discussion and prevent objective, quick decisions. The question of efficiency almost seems contradictory, given the immediacy and ubiquity of social media platforms…where developments are measured in minutes rather than days.

From my perspective, the answer to this rhetorical question is…yes: Collaboration and conversation can slow decision-making and hamper execution if you don’t support your social media efforts with streamlined processes and clear guidelines. If you want to introduce new crowd-sourcing tools – either with customers or employees – introduce a streamlined process to evaluate entries and decide which ideas get implemented. If you want major decisions to be reached through dialogue and consensus, set clear time and participation limits and confirm who makes the final call. If you have something to communicate that doesn’t require widespread participation and rumination, try meeting in small groups or – gasp – make a phone call. Collaboration and conversation will by its nature be somewhat messy and unpredictable, but it can and should be directed and managed by simple, clear rules.

Most importantly, perhaps, leaders should recognize that not all decisions should be left to group-think or need to be curated by teams. Getting input on a new shoe design or naming an intranet are not in the same category as planning a time-sensitive product launch or making organization changes that require surgical, timely decisions. In other words, pick your spots. Know when to listen, to invite comment, to encourage ideas, to foster debate…and when to just act.

This discussion is yet another illustration that social media is neither a panacea for business salvation nor a productivity-destroying albatross. New technology provides incredible capabilities to foster virtual, multi-media conversation and collaboration with a global audience. But it doesn’t replace the need for focused, deliberate management and robust planning to ensure things get done right and on time.

Last week I took my kids to see the Blue Man Group show – almost 13 years after seeing the innovative program during it’s original run in Chicago. Beyond noticing the updates in technology and content – there are several new segments that feature iPhones and digital messages – what struck me are the valuable lessons BMG has for professional communicators; think of it as a theatrical metaphor for highly original, memorable and impactful communication.

At its source BMG is about human communication – almost all of it non-verbal. The program features a dizzying range of multi-media sketches mixing mime, comedy, improv theatre, drumming, props and digital imagery. All the frenetic, often hilarious sketches relate to telling a story, and entertaining the audience. And it’s all done with very little “formal” communication.

Here are a few useful tips from the performance:

  • Start conversations – Right from the beginning, when a scrolling text line gradually engages the audience in a fun back-and-forth dialogue, the performance goes well beyond the one-way “push” performance you’d expect with a show of this nature.
  • Assume intelligence – Everything about the program (from the subtle mime movements to the smart comedic moments) suggests BMG take for granted their audience will get the joke. This is not a show that dumbs-down or shoot for the typical or obvious – despite the fact there are plenty of kids in the audience.  It’s a good reminder that worrying too much about “talking down” to an audience can be counterproductive if it strips any nuance, wit and creativity from the communication.
  • Let the audience join/be the performance – Like in many shows, the BMG group team use several members of the audience in some of their sketches. It also uses mobile cameras to focus on the audience at regular interludes…breaking down the proverbial fourth wall. The show also makes good use of informal crowd-sourcing, using audience input or reactions to influence the performance.
  • Use your body – It’s no surprise that the BMG team use physical tricks and props in their performance – including the famous drumming on paint cans sequence – but it’s a good reminder that more formal presentations could benefit from better use of movement and stage presence.
  • Use music to help set mood and emphasis – It often surprises me how little corporate communication professionals use music in their presentations and deliverables.  Music is central to the BMG experience – ranging from basic drumming to background music – and is a major factor in the overall experience.
  • Tackle the elephants – Too much corporate output is compromised because it tries to dance around contentious issues or latent questions among the audience. BMG boosts the relevance and impact of the show by going straight for the hidden elephants – such as celebrating the arrival of latecomers in a hilarious paparazzi-style announcement, or proactively addressing likely audience questions at the outset of the show.
  • Go for a laugh – This show confirmed for me (again) that smart, timely humor can be a universal language that crosses age, background and culture. And most importantly, humor helps keep the attention of the audience and increases the chances participants will remember anything.  Too many communicators frown on humor and argue it can dilute and distort a serious message. That may be true – in some cases – but the reality is that material that is serious and dull can be much more effective if presented in a more engaging format.
  • Improvise – One of the great things about BMG is that it leaves plenty of room for surprises and improvisation. I really noticed this during the audience participation segments, where it appeared there was little structure or script to guide the volunteers…to positive effect.
  • Make the event an experience – BMG is famous for the explosive ending where the audience is showered with toilet paper streams, confetti and giant balloons. Though this may sound like a silly exercise, this celebration is invariably a highlight of the program. At the Austin show I saw audience members spent almost 15 minutes “playing” after the formal end of the show.

Clearly, not all the tactics and tricks used by BMG are appropriate for more formal corporate communications. On the other hand, too many professionals adhere to outdated, unfounded rules about what constitutes effective communications – particularly in an era where YouTube parodies, virtual games and Twitter updates dominate the landscape. Blue Man Group shows communication can take many forms. It’s time we take a fresh look at the tool kit and focus on what works best, not what is accepted practice.

The recent uproar surrounding the introduction – and then demise – of Gap’s new logo has sparked vibrant discussion on the merits and risks of crowd-sourcing…or more specifically listening to customers and critics.

A few weeks ago, Gap introduced a new logo on their Facebook page with nary a peep of warning or consultation. The initial reaction among observers was swift and fairly uniform – harsh criticism. The Gap folks tried to address the situation with a belated invitation for consumer input – call it reactive crowd-sourcing – which only fanned the flames of critics and confused observers. Think of it as bad buzz. Subsequent updates by Gap positioned the new logo as a broader brand update, and provided more background on the rationale and strategy. But in a fascinating twist, a survey several days after the initial buzz confirmed that few consumers were aware of the new brand or related online polemic. Gap ultimately announced they heard the feedback and scrapped the new logo design; it appears they have learned their lesson and will tread carefully in future brand changes. (For another example of a rebranding effort gone wrong – witness the debacle by Tropicana, which surprised consumers with a new packaging look that was harshly criticized – and eventually scrapped.)

There are several lessons communication and marketing pros can take from this story:

  • If you are truly committed to listen to online consumers or fans – have a crowd-sourcing plan and a system to back it up. Confirm how you will gather feedback and what you will do with it before opening the doors to input and ideas. Define rules of the game to manage expectations and legal/copyright issues. Most important, be prepared to respond and take action based on what you hear.
  • Make listening and monitoring of relevant sites a constant activity rather than an ad-hoc, reactive event. That will provide solid context for dissecting the scope and potential impact of any feedback.
  • Consider getting input before you make any changes to products or brands. That makes the process more credible and relevant for consumers.
  • Know who/where your fans and customers are…and make sure you are always listening to them. There was interesting debate around the Gap issue about whether the logo uproar was truly a broad, grass-roots reaction from fans and customers or just a brush fire from a small but vocal group of malcontents in the design community.
  • Have a brand strategy – and stick to it. Yes…consumers own the brand, since their perceptions are ultimately the reality and determine brand equity. And many passionate fans feel they have personal ownership of favored products or brands. But no brand can survive without careful management by inside folks who are trying to blend identity, marketing, products and PR to drive the business.

I’ve heard a few executives and peers whisper that the Gap episode provides further evidence that social media is risky and perhaps even counterproductive. I disagree. The problem here wasn’t with social media – though listening and dialogue has exploded with the advent of new technology – but with faulty strategy and planning. The famous Coke Classic fiasco happened years ago without the prominent presence of Facebook or blogs. The issue now is that criticism can spread much wider and faster than years ago…which puts more onus on active monitoring, smart planning and ongoing dialogue with customers. An excellent article in AdAge focusing on social media “screw-ups” (which goes beyond crowd-sourcing) suggests that such missteps are inevitable – despite increasing efforts by companies to listen and learn – due to the rapid pace of evolution in communication technology.

On a final note, I enjoyed this video post by my friend Paul Walker at the PulsePoint Group on crowd-sourcing projects that worked well…and why they did. It reminds us of the potential benefits of crowd-sourcing – including consumer/employee engagement, lower cost, innovation and speed-to-market – which to my mind greatly outweigh the risks. Check it out.

According to a recent report – aptly named the Intranet 2.0 Global Study – the use of social tools on corporate intranets has boomed…sort of. The findings suggest most global organizations have at least one social tool on their intranet (in the majority of cases a blog platform), but a fully integrated “social intranet” – with a range of tools that are widely available and prominently featured – is still quite rare. (Thanks to my friends at Prescient Digital in Toronto for their post on the study.)

This finding is consistent with my professional experience in recent years. Even as social media use (and hype) explodes, companies are still reluctant to leverage their intranet to full advantage as a social media hub. In theory, it should be relatively easy to leverage existing intranet platforms – many of which come with built-in social tools and/or options. Some CMS platforms are like social media swiss army knives – with a full array of 2.0 bells and whistles. But most intranets are big, expensive systems and many companies seem unwilling to invest in adjustments or new technology. Changes in strategy and technology are often laborious. The alternative, for some companies, is to leverage the plethora of available cloud options – which can satisfy virtually every social media need, ranging from the basics (micro blogging, staff profiles) to the more esoteric (crowd-sourcing.) Just today, I read about the upgraded Chatter platform – which seems to provide a robust enterprise social media toolkit.

Each of these approaches has obvious benefits – and some challenges – but neither seems to have much traction inside most companies. Why not? Well, I would suggest the inherent risk-aversion of IT departments is still a big factor, as are cultural inertia, lack of leadership support and funding considerations.

Other studies – including this Engagement Survey by the IABC – suggest the issue goes beyond the intranet, and reflects a broader ambivalence about using social media within the enterprise. In the 2010 IABC report, the intranet was the second most popular communication channel after email – almost ubiquitous across the corporate world. But only 12% of the same respondents said they used social media tools (on the intranet or otherwise.) Digging a little deeper, the findings suggest a limited use of specific tools:

  • Discussion boards – 32%
  • Internal social networks – 30%
  • Wikis – 26%
  • Yammer – 10 %

[I’m not listing blogs since there was no obvious break-down of internal vs. external use.]

Perhaps the most telling statistic in the whole survey – over 60% of top executives are not participating in any internal social media tools. Until that changes, change will be slow to come – no matter what technology solution is being considered.

The past couple of weeks has been pretty much business as usual in the exciting world of communication technology: product innovations (e.g. Google’s cool new instant search function or Apple’s new iPod line); new applications with huge potential (e.g. alliance of Chatter with Seesmic social platforms); competitive jockeying pushing companies to building a better “mousetrap” (e.g. Google joining foursquare and others in the location game). Outside corporate firewalls, it’s a fascinating cycle of restless creativity, new technology, cutthroat competition and strategic soul-searching…with huge benefits for consumers and businesses eager to leverage the new technology. It’s easier (and more exciting) than ever for individuals – and even networks of peers or colleagues – to stay informed, communicate, share ideas or advice, be productive…or just be entertained.

The contrast between this fertile, dynamic environment and life behind corporate firewalls is striking – and the gap may be getting bigger. While it’s true that some companies (particularly smaller organizations or the usual suspects in the technology field) are forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to technology, which translates into integrated social media programs that seek to bridge the potential divide between external and internal programs, based on my personal experience most are operating in a world closer to 1984 than 2010. (I’m going on personal experience and anecdotal data here…It’s tough to find updated stats that differentiate social media within the Enterprise from external activities, but this report is useful context.) When I was at Dell, for example, they intentionally leveraged their external platforms (notably Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm crowd-sourcing) with their PR and customer service systems within the organization, ensuring that the feedback and issues raised in the blogosphere were incorporated and addressed within the organization. The bridge between external and internal was wide open, so to speak.

Most of what I’ve seen, alas, is far from this ideal. Forget trying to find companies that use location-based applications within the firewall, for example, which would seem to offer huge potential to make internal communication more local and relevant. Many companies are still working on (or thinking about) basic networking tools or blogging platforms – likely still engaged in discussions about risk vs. reward. And in terms of technology devices, I can count on one hand companies that use smart phones or advanced portable devices (like the iPad or netbooks) with their staff – at least beyond senior executives – which seriously hampers their ability to leverage the advancements in mobility, wireless ubiquity and delivery of rich content. For most organizations, the intranet is their trojan horse for communication technology inside the firewall – for better or for worse. (Check out this blog post for another perspective on Enterprise 2.0 progress.) Some are able to introduce and use pretty advanced tools through new CMS platforms (the latest version of SharePoint has enough features to fulfill most basic networking and collaboration needs), but dramatic changes typically occur when companies get plug-and-play enterprise platforms that introduce new capabilities – such as Jive, Yammer or BrightIdea. And even with companies dabbling in pretty advanced technology, the odds are high that their internal efforts are lagging behind their marketing or PR activities (and tools) and/or not fully aligned.

The reasons for this reluctance and hesitation have been well covered – resources, legal risk, culture, inertia, ignorance – and there is merit to some of these explanations. And I would never advocate just jumping in head first…introducing technology for its own sake, without a robust strategy and business imperative. But the greater risk to organizations is that their archaic internal communication programs become so detached from external progress than they become totally irrelevant. And it won’t be just the younger workers – raised in an ecosystem on information on demand and advanced social media – who will get disillusioned and disinterested. It’s time for internal communication leaders and professional to start with a blank slate to (with apologies to Robin Williams) seize the day and utilize the incredible technological power inherent in the new devices and programs.

One of the most exciting benefits of the Web – and the dominant mantras of innovation and information-sharing – is discovering new sites or tools that reinvent and improve prevailing models. Take TED as an example. I first came upon this cutting-edge conference of global experts – sort of a more laid-back, eclectic version of the Davos Economic Forum – through persistent recommendations via Facebook and Twitter. Then this month I read this article in Fast Company – which argues TED may be a new model for higher-learning. And most of the online chatter I’ve seen on TED has been positive – such as this conference update and this post.

So what’s the big deal? TED is a non-profit group that puts on two annual conferences focusing on a wide range of topics ranging across technology, environment and design (hence the acronym) and posts all the content for anybody to review, download, comment and share at their leisure. No risk of long-winded puffery here – presentations are limited to 18 minutes. And the topics are esoteric and provocative enough to have something to interest most interested observers. The quality and originality of the presentations is consistently good.

Of course, there’s nothing new about sharing speeches or cool presentations online – something sites like Slideshare and even the ultra-serious folks at Davos have done for a while. But TED pushed the transparency and inclusiveness to another level, and some of their videos have racked millions of views. As per their tag line: riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world. And what makes TED special goes beyond their transparency:

  • TED makes a huge effort to be truly global and translate all presentations – often relying on thousands of volunteers to transcribe the text into other languages
  • TED celebrates curiosity and learning – and diversity of opinion – without getting dragged into tiresome polemics or academic debates
  • The 700+ video posts on TED are totally in sync with the growing focus on video content as entertainment and information (or both at once)
  • Observers are encouraged to sustain conversation and even collaborate on issues raised by the TED presentations – think of it as networking turning into action
  • TED is allowing local fans and speakers to license the TED brand to organize their own conferences – though there are checks to ensure the quality remains high

Through this process, the TED folks have shown that giving away the store does not preclude having a sustainable business model.  There are some who question how organizers can retain their unique brand equity – and cool factor – while being open and decentralized (witness the recent snafu about Sarah Silverman’s risqué and not-so-funny presentation) but whatever happens TED is another example of the intellectual vitality and economic potential of online networks.