April 28th, 2012


the sky tumbling down

As I have no doubt mentioned previously, until my recent job search, I had never been given to reading “business books”. Over the past several years, however, I have read quite a number (due in large part to my writing The Job Stalker blog over on Chicago Now), so one would think that I would be past “old biases” towards the genre … still, I had approached Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, a bit hesitantly as it was from Forrester Research, and published through Harvard Business Press … I mean, how boring a read was I setting myself up for? Well, I'm happy to report that it's quite an engaging book, and while it has its moments of going into more details than I felt I needed to know, it never drags itself into an “MBAs Only!” zone.

I suppose to start off, you're wondering, “Uh, what's this groundswell thing, anyway?” … I had the same question, although it didn't start bugging me until I was several chapters into the book. Here's their definition:

A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.
Yes, I think that's pretty vague, but I guess they were going for a broadly inclusive frame to include a varied range of particulars. On its surface, this echoes Napster and the demise of the entertainment industry, but that's the “blunt instrument” manifestation of the concept, and the dynamics of this “groundswell” weaves its way through more subtle channels as well, manifesting as blogs, forums, ratings, reviews, wikis, and the “live” channels such at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, among others.

Structurally, Groundswell is in three sections: “Understanding the Groundswell”, “Tapping the Groundswell”, and “The Groundswell Transforms” … with most of the heavy lifting done in the middle section which looks at strategies for, listening to, talking with, energizing, helping, and embracing the groundswell. In each of these (well, all throughout the book, actually) there are specific cases discussed, frequently companies that Forrester was working with, but also others who had made public mistakes or successes. One of the latter was Unilever's Dove skin-care brand, which had, in 2006, a video released to YouTube that went viral … and ended up driving more than twice the traffic to their website than their 2006 SuperBowl commercial did. Cost of placement of the video: zero; cost of placement of the ad: $2.5 million! That's obviously an impressive “ROI” for working with the dynamics of the groundswell.

While this is interesting, accessible, and even entertainingly written, it's at base a book for the business reader, and it helps to keep that in mind. Here's what seems to be the basic call to action:

      You're about to fundamentally change how your company relates to its customers. This will require not only fortitude on your part but difficult negotiations with other people throughout your company. We've identified some mistakes you may make, and you'll probably find a few we haven't thought of. At this point you might ask yourself, “Why should I bother?”
      Here's why.
      You cannot ignore this trend. You cannot sit this one out. Unless you are retiring in the next six months, it's too late to quit and let somebody else handle it. The groundswell trend is unstoppable, and your customers are there. You may go a little slower or a little faster, but you have to move forward. There is no going back.
      We will leave you with this: there is no one “right way” to engage with the groundswell.
      While there are plenty of wrong ways to join the groundswell – not listening, for example, or trying to fool people – there are also many effective strategies. Each company must adopt the tactics that are right for its customers and its way of doing business and adapt as the technologies change. Copying others doesn't work because your company, your customers, and your goals are not the same as anybody else's.
      So it's time to engage with the groundswell. Your company will be better for it.
The book is robust in delivering its message, with numerous examples that run the gamut from extremely specific to broad-strokes overviews, leaving the reader with the impression that they've been toured through an entire tapestry of how these technologies are impacting businesses.

I do have one fairly substantial gripe, however. The notes point to a place on the Forrester website for a LOT of supporting material (and additional resources) with the address groundswell.forrester.com/site#-# … but they've apparently changed the directory structure, and this ends up at a “server not found” page. Since the forrester.com domain is certainly still active, having all the links in the book be bad is almost unforgivable … and not only are the links not working, there's no trace (that I could find) on the forrester.com site. Now, I have a copy of the 2008 hardcover edition, and there is an “Expanded and Revised Edition” paperback that came out in 2011, which I assume has updated links (I would hope), but it's a big “slap in the face” to anybody who is reading the original version that there's not even a page on their site that the links from this would go to that would explain that the info was someplace else. I tried to get an answer from them via Twitter today on this issue, but have not heard back … there may be something out there, but it certainly isn't easy to find (and I went looking for anything that would provide those links, even through archive.org's “wayback machine”)!

Anyway, I found Groundswell a very engaging and informative read, and would recommend it to anybody with a business interest in the new communications technologies (with the caveats above). As noted, there are two versions of this kicking around out there, the 2008 hardcover (which is what I have), and an updated paperback. There are “like new” copies of the hardcover available through the new/used vendors for as little as 14¢, but, given the abandonment of the supporting materials by Forrester, I'd probably have to recommend getting the paperback. I very much enjoyed the “groundswell experience” until I tried checking out the links … and really feel “cheated” that I was unable to follow up on that information, and find it somewhat inexplicable that, in the obvious case of the directory structure having no good reason to be gone, there shouldn't have been the absence that there is of those!

Visit the BTRIPP home page!