Leaf Nodes

Ray Ozzie reacts to Don Park’s comment that “A CEO is not likely to know about about, let alone subscribe to, a lowly QA engineer’s blog.” Ray is basically arguing that CXOs do want to know what is going on all the way down to the leaf nodes of their organizations, and many of them will use whatever available means to build the clearest possible picture. In a general sense, I agree with Ray.Not all officers crave contact with the edge, but the best ones do. I could hold up countlessexamples of SteveB or Orlando Ayaladropping in on customer meetings, or just last week BillG e-mailing Ashley Feniello about the MS Go Club, but the point here isn’t really to form a cult of personality around how “accessible” or “clueful” certain executives are. I think Ray hit the nail on the head by pointing out that CXOs have to stay involved and close to the game, or else they’ll quickly lose grip on what’s happening. It is simple common sense to me.

Which brings me to my main point of contention with Ray’s post. I can agree with him that it’s unwise to underestimate the level of interest that the CEOs have for their leaf nodes, but I am very skeptical about the degree to which blogs will be able to help here. The basic problem is this: as soon as people get the impression that their CEO is looking to blogs for insights, people will start trying to influence their CEO via their blogs. In other words, the authenticity disappears and the motives of those blogging becomes a bit more suspect. Ray is obviously smart enough that he can take these factors into account when reviewing employee blogs, but my point is that the blog itself is just one way of finding out about leaf nodes, and not necessarily the best one — especially when the leaf nodes are on to the game.

Now, some might argue that I’m being too pessimistic here, since after all “having the CEO read your blog is no different than having the CEO listen in on a customer support call, and nobody doctors their phone calls ‘just in case’ the CEO is listening”. There is a difference, though, in that things like customer support calls, bug triage meetings, and even voluntary participation in support newsgroupsallhave clear objectives: help a customer with a specific problem, prioritize the bugs, etc. Blogging, on the other hand, is agnostic to the motives of whoever is using the blog. The motives of those who blog are diverse and defy easy classification. Just as you can hire a PR firm to alert your customers of valuable new information or a product recall, you can also hire a PR firm to convince your boss that you deserve a promotion (true story). And blogging is nothing if not about personal publishing for a global audience.

. . .

And, as a leaf node, I definitely have mixed feelings about evenimmediate peers reading my blog, let alone managers. When I started blogging a few years ago, I hoped that one day many MSFT employees would be blogging. The theory (to my ENFP mind)was that people would have a better opinion of MSFT if they could see that MSFT is not a monolithic evil juggernaut,but instead is a collection of normal people who all have their own individual personalities, opinions, and so on. And for some employees who were feeling unfairly respresented by sensationalized press and software politicians with agendas, I think it helps morale to know that they can connect directly with others on a personal level and be appreciated for who they really are. All of this, of course, may be simple vanity — but the point is that I always imagined these MSFT bloggers using blogs as a way to connect on a personal level across the corporate border.

Now, you can safely assume that people outside your workplace read your blog because they are interested in getting to know more about you; more about how your workplace operates; whether or not your group would be a good place to apply for a job, and so on. But your co-workers and immediate managers already know this stuff — you work with them every day after all. Sure there are lots of good reasons for immediate colleagues and managersto read your blog, but there are good reasons for you to be nervous about it, too– especially if they don’t have or plan to have a blog themselves. I’veended up with a teamwho are either cool about it or uninterested, as have others; but not everyone is so lucky, even at MSFT. One could argue that CEO-level support for blogging would help eliminate the “luck factor” and make sure that everyone in a company felt free to blog. But as I explain below, I think the cure would be worse than the disease in this case.

You see,even if you keep your blogging very personal, like chatting with your neighbors, that’s not necessarily the way that a risk-averse large organization will look at it. Is HR reading your blog because they are interested in you as a person, or because they are about to add an”official blogging policy” to the company handbook? Is marketing reading your blog because they like what you have to say, or because they see blogs as a general threat to their control over your company’s image and want to shut down the blogs? Within any large organization, there are countless turf boundaries and political motivations that are completely at odds with the spirit of blogging. Large organizations are risk-averse, and to the extent that blogs are still fairly new and not well-understood, they represent risk. This is just the way large organizations work, and the smart blogger is respectful of this.

As long asyourcompany views your blogging as “you chatting with your neighbors on your personal time”, you poselittle risk. But the more thatco-workers, CEOs, and so on are on-record as being cool with blogs, the more that blogs take on the timbre of being “official”. The more “official” that blogs are, the more perceived risk the company takes on by allowing you to blog. And neither you nor your CEO is really keen to make things more complicated than they need to be. And this is why, IMO, you see most companies and employees today still dancing around the issue ofemployee blogs and seemingly settling on a “don’t ask, don’t tell, and please for the love of God don’t do anything stupid” policy.

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