August 10, 2004

The Cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual

By Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, & David Weinberger.

I read the 2000 edition and it's still as relevant as ever. (Thanks, Shel, for the book recommendation). This is a witty and flippant book that takes a dig at Big Business. It makes sense in many ways.
cover provides a decent review. Better yet, check out the book from your library or read the online version at

I’ve included my favourite quotes from the book in this blog (in colour & bold). The page numbers refer to the book edition that I’m holding. Hyperlinks are to the online book chapters.

There’s a new conversation between and among your market and your workers. It’s making them smarter and it’s enabling them to discover their human voices. You have two choices. You can continue to lock yourself behind facile corporate words and happytalk brochures. Or you can join the conversation. (p. ixi - Foreword)

What if the real attraction of the Internet is not its cutting-edge bells and whistles, its jazzy interface or any of the advanced technology that underlies its pipes and wires? What if the attraction is an atavistic throwback to the prehistoric human fascination with telling tales? (p. xxi – Introduction)

I buy the argument that the Internet is popular because it allows each individual (read that again – A PERSON, me, you) to have a presence. To rediscover our voice again. The authors make a convincing case (to me at least) that markets of today are all about relationship-building. Customers don’t just want buy a product. They want a voice; to be heard; especially if the product or service falls below their expectations.

Singapore’s best example of how this is happening is probably the Yahoo! Ministry of Complaints. Companies can continue to ignore the complaints (justified or otherwise) posted there at their peril. I mean, no matter how objective I am, I’d probably think that there’s some truth to the complaint about XYZ outlet (or GASP! No! The Library!)

The implication for PR and marketing communications: Join the conversations. Recent example – Microsoft's Channel 9, as I learnt from Shel’s blog The Changing Face of Microsoft. Regardless of whether we love or hate Microsoft, the point is when King Kong jumps, you’d want to see where it lands. Here's another example of how the Web (or blog) is used to engage the customer in conversations - see Robert Scoble's blog.

The concern by organisations (particularly government agencies like NLB) can be summed up by this line in Chapter 4 (p. 107) – But what about the risk? Suppose a “lowly clerk” speaks for the company in public and says something wrong? Something actionable? Something confidential, or sensitive?

The authors’ response: It’s going to happen. It’s already happening. And it’s always happened. The mail clerk describes the corporate strategy to the stranger next to him on the bus, then provide a critique.

It’s true that it's already happening. How many of us can truly say we do not say anything about our work (positive or negative) to our family or friends? And then they would talk to more people. Heaven forbid, that friend of yours could end up talking to a Singapore Cabbie, who might talk to an overseas visitor on the way to the Airport!

Let me stick to what I know more – Libraries (which isn't a lot, BTW). I'm of the view that as technology makes things a whole lot easier for the individual consumer to obtain information without the librarian as the human intermediary, it’s the human Voice (not necessarily Touch) that will make the difference between the individual choosing Borders over a trip to the public library.

See Chapter 5 (p. 123): Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is a conversation—literally. And “knowledge workers” are simply those whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

Most librarians I know are very passionate people. We can take heart that:
To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human—acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together. (p. 123)

That sounds like what relationship-building is about. I can imagine a future where NLB's Customer Service courses for library staff would not just be limited to the finer art of face-to-face dealings with irate customers. It would also teach staff how to 'insert' themselves into a conversation, knowing how NOT TO BE AFRAID in saying that “Oops, I got that wrong but don’t worry Angry_Angel_481, I’ll quickly get back to you on that.”

The official structure becomes less relevant. The most valuable employee is the one who, in response to a question, doesn’t give a concrete answer in a booming voice but says, “You should talk to Larry… Oh, and there’s a mailing list on this topic I ran into a couple of weeks ago…” (p. 129)

The above statement could be a little hard to accept -- it seems that we're asking librarians to “dumb-down” their answers. We librarians pride ourselves in giving correct and complete answers in the shortest time possible. The above example suggests a lowering of our standards and professionalism.

But I could argue otherwise.

The world has changed. Information is even more readily available to customers than before. The “answers” that librarians pride themselves in giving are readily accessible by any child. Heck, librarians even prefer Google—I’m not saying Google is the answer to everything, but who are we kidding? Google (or it’s next reincarnation or successor) is treated as the default search engine, even for librarians for a simple fact that it works adequately. I didn’t say it’s the best, but users don’t necessarily need the BEST. They can survive with adequacy.

Basically I’m making a case that the typical information-seeker don’t think that they need Librarians anymore. And what they think, counts. But here’s what I see as a paradox — the Web enables individual consumers to be independent. However, the less reliant they are on human contact, the more they actually will crave for it.

That being said, the presence that librarians project can no longer be the “Thou knoweth more than you-eth” attitude. To connect with our average information-customer, we need to show them that we’re as human as they are; as fallible, and there’s nothing to be fear from us.

I don’t see NLB scrambling to adopt the Cluetrain Manifesto. I’m even hesitant to go all out and say all employees are now allowed to comment on the organisation’s behalf. It’s tricky. I think we have to reach a halfway point. Not all employees should go and give the "official" voice. We should instead establish an organizational culture that each employee is given enough information to be able to know what is the right thing to say (not necessarily the official line).

The urge to manage is deep in our culture. It ultimately is defeated by the fact of human fallibility (p. 152)

To paraphrase a line from p. 153: The organisation doesn’t have to be always right. It means being more human, and therefore less threatening.

Just when I’m all gushy over the book, I get a slap in the face (figuratively speaking) in Chapter 7 (p. 181): Will Cluetrain be the next big thing? Not if we can help it… Let’s not start another frickin’ club. The only decent thing to do with CLUETRAIN is to bury the sucker now while there’s still time, before it begins to smell of management philosophy.

And there we have it -- the inherent dilemma of any good idea: Once institutionalized, it tends to sink. This book provided lots of food for thought.
(Related blog - Differentiating the Public Service Librarian - 24 Sept 04)

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