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November 5, 2014

[liveblog] CV Harquail on generative business

I’m at a lunchtime talk by the Harvard Business School Digital Initiative (led by Colin Maclay) by CV Harquail. (I’m an advisor to the DigInit.) CV says she is a academic and am enthusiast of “something going on out there” that she calls “generative business.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

CV defines generativity as the ability to create things that didn’t exist before. Generativity as a term comes out of a few spaces. It’s used in the world of tech innovation and platforms. (See Jonathan Zittrain.) If you’re a systems thinker, you think about generativity as the source of emergence. But on other sides such as the positive organization studies group, which CV identifies with, or feminist organizing, generativity shows up differently. The phrase itself comes from Erik Erikson‘s theory of adult development; it’s the moment of “Holy crap! What am I leaving behind when I go?” CV is particularly interested in how organizations can have an effect outside of themselves, particularly on other businesses.

Generative business practices: how we can create opportunities for other businesses to grow, by tweaking what we do anyway? Maybe with a small change we can create some generativity.

She looks to the Internet bubble in 1999. We could see that the Net was giving rise to many new ways of being together, including B2B. What can we do with it beyond the usual? The network technology “enables a network mindset.” She points to four areas where this mindset manifests itself:


  • p2p: mutuality of effect and benefit


  • multi-type: polysemous exhange (more than one story in the exchange)


  • multi-directional: small bets gently made


  • interdependent: compounding effects


So, she asks, what is happening?

People are tweaking what they normally do in order to create opportunities for other people, throwing off extra value.

Why care? Because it creates an environment that is more resource-rich for everyone, including the generative firm. Also, it is a “leadership” opportunity for the generative company; it makes them influential in lots of different ways. “The more generative they are, the more influence they have on institutions around them.” They can guide new practices, promulgate their organizational values, and become beloved by those in their circle.

E.g., CV went to a Buffer meetup. A hundred people showed up because it was advertised on the Buffer Facebook page, and because people wanted to meet “the Buffer guys.”

CV doesn’t want to argue that your business should be generative in order to make more money because it diminishes the generative impulse. But it often does have that effect.

Generative practices come from:


  • Open Source.


  • hacker culture


  • DevOps mgmt


  • social business


  • inbound marketing


  • customer orientation


She notes that many of these practices come from people who are kind, generous, and loving…and their companies reflect that. (She notes that this is a Dale Carnegie idea.)

Generative practices with products include building products that help others, or that are generate when used. Also, consider enabling co-creating by opening up some APIs. [woohoo!]

Our basic model of a business model is that our company should extract the max value from our employees and customers. But we can create generative business models:


  • win win win structures


  • platforms (real and metaphoric) that encourage experimentation and creativity


  • “catalytic containers” and serendipity engines


  • barn-raising (E.g. Community Sourced Capital: a kickstarter within your community), matchmaking, upcycling (take stuff we throw away and turn it into value. E.g. Waze).


Generative practices in relationships: She points especially to cultivating the commons (or network citizenship). And social keiretsu: multiple companies creating a safe environment for someone to experiment.

Q: Do you see bad actors?

A: Yes. And I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.

Q: Is this a governance issue? How do the generative companies discipline bad actors?

Q: Elinor Ostrum‘s commons talk about how they are maintained. Often the biggest sanction is exclusion.

Q: [me] There are plenty of bad actors in what you say because these generative pockets are often carve-outs from nests of vipers.

Q: Are you making an assumption that generative business models open the business to everyone? Does generativity imply that sort of openness. E.g., curate models: you deal with the bad actors upfront by excluding them.

A: I don’t assume generativity implies open for all. Some generative organizations are extremely choosy about who they partner with.

Q: Is Anonymous a generative organization?

A: I’ll ask Gabriella Coleman. [laughter]

Q: Generativity need not be used positively.

Q: Why aren’t more businesses adopting this?

A: The bottom line is a fiction because we don’t think about externalities, which are just costs we’re ignoring.

CV looks at two examples: Etsy.com and Buffer.

Etsy is “the marketplace we make together.” They have an engineering blog called Code as Craft, and a Code as Craft initiative that employs generative learning practices: open workshops at which they invite their heroes, and livestreaming them. They have hacker schools, hackathons, an API developers program, GitHub open repositories, and each of the 150 engineers is expected to give two presentations a year outside their company.

Underneath this are Etsy’s engineering values and philosophies. They have a “learn to fail” culture, etc. [I’m not keeping up] Generosity of spirit is a “core Etsy Engineering principle.” It’s a whole bundle of practices related to learning.

Buffer has about 25 employees. With Buffer, you can highlight a line you like, and it gets put out into social media spread out over time. Buffer uses who it is and what it believes in to inform and inspire and influence other organizations. People underestimate the value of walking the walk. Buffer and Etsy are happy to amplify the good things that others do. Buffer is shifting to “gift-mindedness. They posted nine values at Slideshare. Other companies are picking up on those values.

Some of buffer’s practices for generative transpaarency:


  • open blog


  • engineering blog


  • monthly financial status report


  • public revenue dashboard


  • open salary (the formula and how much everyone makes)(Everyone had to agree.)


  • open equity


  • YouTube & Slideshare


  • Employee growth goals


  • Online book club


Q: Could AT&T adopt these values and reap the same kind of benefits?

A: No mattter how much they try, they have a PR legacy.

CV says that last year Buffer got hacked. A week alter they shared all the data about the effect on their company of the hacking. E.g., they lost 8% of their customers. (They recovered most of them.)

Q: [me] This seems like the company saying that they’re on our side. But it doesn’t seem particularly generative, unlike an open API.

A: It’s generative in the longer term.

Last Tuesday they announced they’re raising $3.5M…and they published their term sheet and why they’re doing it.

Q: Is transparency is always a good thing? E.g., there’s some thought that the lack of a private space keeps politicians from being able to compromise.

A: Don’t be transparent about anything that would kill your business. Or if there are people in the process uncomfortable with it, don’t do it. You could be transparent about being a crummy organization and I don’t know if that’s generative. (She mentions that at Buffer they all wear FitBits and share their sleep data.)

CV says that this sort of transparency is generative in that it tells other companies about new possibilities.

Q: Don Tapscott says that the increased transparency will force people to be more like Buffer.

Q: But this might be a selection effect: the company is attracting people who agree with its values, but the companies that don’t support these values therefore won’t be affected by what more open companies do.

Q: Buffer’s product is trust.

A: They’re selling a different way of running a startup, and they’re funding it with their Twitter scheduling tool. [Nice way of putting it!]

So, how does this create opportunities for people? People respond and tell Buffer how powerful it’s been for them. It may influence those people’s practice in the future.

Generative practices let us be more like the people we want to be. “People and companies blossom into these opportunities.”

Q: It sounds like Us vs. Them. If everyone does this, where will the selfish people work? [laughter] It’s nice to carve out a space for us nice people, but what about generativity can apply beyond the Us?

A: I will think about that. I’m trying to call attention to, and articulate, alternatives. I’m articulating ideas, and we together will discuss them and see what becomes of them. This is a generative conversation.

Q: Mob programming is a step beyond agile programming. When there’s an intractable problem, ten people spend a day working on it, with two screens. People say it’s the best way to tackle difficult problems.

Q: [karim lakhani] When you were describing Etsy, it sounded like Bell Labs. The ideal university is based on the same ideas. An hypothesis: Generativity won’t work commercially without subsidies.

A: Interesting. There are no completely generative organizations.

Q: [me] Gaming industry is hugely generative. Modders can sell their mods.

Q: [karim] But only because Steam allows them and takes their cut. [Me [unexpressed because I’d talked too much]: But it’s the game companies that are the example of generative entities here, not Steam as a platform.]

Q: Your examples all are about sharing information. It’s harder for humans to share physical goods that are in limited supply.

[Quite a generative discussion! CV walks the walk.]

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June 22, 2014

This Week in Law: Not all that legal

On Friday I was part of the This Week in Law vidcast, hosted by my it’s-been-too-long friend Denise Howell [twitter: dhowell], along with Nina Paley [twitter: gorgeous + righteous. You must see it. That is an order.) It was a non-lawyerly discussion, which I was relieved to find out not because I dislike lawyers but because I could not have participated except by intermittently interjecting, “I object! On the grounds of say what now?”

Anyway, I can’t remember everything we talked about, except I know there was stuff about the effficacy of online advertising, the emerging norms for privacy, Amazon’s weaponized drones, Google Real-Death Bumper Cars, and nude photos of Robert Scoble.

You can get the vidcast/audiocast here. It’s a 1:35 long, where the first digit represents HOURS.

 


A Nina sample:

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December 12, 2013

How to introduce a change in its user agreement

Reddit shows us how to introduce changes in a site’s user agreement. The agreement itself is admirably minimally jargony, but the discussion with the community is a model of honesty and respect.

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September 27, 2013

[2b2k] Popular Science incompetently manages its comments, gives up

Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”

Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.

Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.

You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.

If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.

[Tip o’ the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]

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September 4, 2013

Guess who lost the right to complain about Yelp reviews?

Yeah, I’m talking to you Scrub-a-dub.

ScrubADub offering 50% off if you like them on Facebook

Way to corrupt the system.

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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March 7, 2013

Are brands people, my friends?

The always thoughtful Terry Heaton [twitter:TerryHeaton] has posted a provocative thesis, which is expressed in the post’s title: “How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should).” Terry writes:

Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”

Terry cites two examples of this, both during the Superbowl power outage: Oreos tweeted a photo with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” and Audi tweeted something about bringing LEDs to the stadium (which may be an Audi reference that I don’t get). Brands, says Terry, need to play “by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical ‘driving’ of behavior.” This means not only tweeting humorously in real time, but being more menschlich: “New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in ‘kindness and empathy’ as a favored brand attribute among consumers.”

Terry gives five practical rules for these new persona-brands. These rules are ethical and sensible. But they also raise interesting issues. In particular, rule #3 says:

  • No selling whatsoever.

  • No calls to action not based in participation.

  • No gimmicks. None.

  • Nothing artificial or fake.

And #5 says “Be personal.”

But brands acting like people is artificial and fake, and how can you be personal when you’re not a person? So, on the one hand, I want to dismiss this idea. But on the other hand I want to hand it to Terry. The ability of a company to sally forth into social media is, I believe, giving rise to what Terry and Boyd are pointing to: a new type of entity that acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, is not a duck, and that fools no one into think it’s a duck.

Companies used to do something like this when they would personify their product and their brand: green giants, cookie elves, prepubescent dough balls. Some of these became figures of popular culture. But that’s not what Terry is pointing to. The Oreo tweet didn’t come from a cartoon character acting like a cookie. It came from Oreo, which is obviously not itself a particular cookie, and is also not the same as Nabisco or Kraft Foods Inc. You read the tweet understanding that it came from some marketing folks who are talking for the cookie and for the company. The closest entity I can think of is: the Oreo tweet came from the brand. Pure brand. No mediation through a character. Pure brand.

I’m guessing that part of the charm comes from our recognition that there are people behind the brand’s tweets. And we seem to like that. Those people seem to be like us. They have a sense of humor. They don’t have to run all their tweets through focus groups. Nor do they have to dress up in some stupid mascot costume or hire an actor to speak like a squeaky-voiced chipmunkâ?¢ or something.

Businesses have always had this problem. They are not people and thus seem phony and manipulative when they try to speak like people. But businesses do need to speak via social media, or, as we used to say in the Cluetrain days, join the conversation. Some have done so by empowering people from their marketing staff â?? usually young folks â?? to speak for them on Twitter and the Eff Book, often using their own names along with their corporate identification. That makes sense and it sometimes works. I expect it’ll continue. But I suspect we’ll see a growth in the construction of social brands that are like what the brand would be if it were a person, and that is understood as having real individuals behind it.

One could perfectly well bemoan this development. After all, it is phony down to its core. Brands aren’t people, and the people pretending to be a brand are terribly constrained in what they can say and do by the requirement that they advance the brand. These people-brands are not folks you’d become friends if only because they won’t shut up about Oreos and Audis. But, I’m assuming that by this time we’re smart enough to understand that a talking brand has a ventriloquist behind it.

Further, these social brands may erode the wall between the authentic and the inauthentic. Yay.That’s a wall that needs to come down anyway because the concept of authenticity makes even less sense now than it ever did. Our Web selves are constructed selves. If tweeting Oreos can help us recognize that, then they’ve done us a service, in addition to being quite delicious.

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January 28, 2013

Unstartling presentation

Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:

The four things are:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.

Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.

It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.

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December 2, 2012

For your convenience…

sign explaining that your shopping cart will lock its wheels if you try to take it too far

No it’s not.

From our local Shaw’s grocery store.

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August 2, 2012

Three vendors and/or products to love: Computer parts, music, electric toothbrush

I wanted to replace the smashed screen of a white MacBook, and found what seemed like a very good price from Wegener. The new screen arrived very quickly, and was exactly as described. But when I started to strip down the MacBook, I discovered I had ordered the wrong screen. It’s surprisingly easy to do.

So, I sent an email to Wegener and quickly got a reply, followed by a phone call. The support person said they are happy to send me the right screen, for which I have to pay a little more because it’s a more expensive part. They’re sending it even before I return the old one. So far, the experience has been terrific: Quick responses, friendly people, good return policy.

Then they told me that in the carton for the replacement part I’ll find a postage paid mailing label. I reminded them that the problem was entirely my fault, and thus there’s no reason for them to pay for shipping. Yikes, that’s some good customer service! (I went ahead and returned the first screen on my own dime.)

It’s amazing how powerful an experience it is to be treated like a human being by a business.


HumbleBundle is a fantastic way to sell indie games and music. You name your own price, you can divvy it up among the creators and among charities, and today I got a message that they’ve added more songs for free for anyone who purchased the most recent bundle.

Yo, Humbles, I already bought the product. You don’t have to entice me any more. On the other hand: You’ve made me love you even more, and you’ve helped some musicians spread their music just a little wider.


I thought it had been 6 months since my last dental check up. Since I now routinely multiply any past intervals by two, I figured, correctly, that it’s really been a year. Usually, the hygienist has to put on waders and go at me with a pickaxe and a trowel. This was the first time in my life that a dental hygienist has marveled at my teeth. Gums are strong. No tartar, except for a little around a couple of teeth. Some healing of a couple of “pockets.”

There’s been one major variable that I know of: I switched from a Braun electric toothbrush to a Philips SoniCare.Why? Because the Internet told me to. I believe that the correlation is not accidental (see what I did there?), but of course it is just one data point.

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