controlling information

The New New Internet

Last week I was at the TNNI conference. It’s a medium sized conference – about 700 people, but there were some very powerful things going on. People were there to discuss how the internet gives companies the opportunity and the challenge of relinquishing control of information. Information can be shared more easily, companies can collaborate internally more easily, and can engage in far more meaningful dialog with their customers. Seems all good – but there were some pretty interesting issues – legal, technical and bureaucratic – raised as well.

Most folks at the conference were trying to figure out how to make “web 2.0” help them collaborate more easily within the organization, hopefully freeing them from the IT police, and/or trying to figure out how and why a blog or user forum could help them improve their relationships with their users.

There are some great collaboration (or just sharing, really) tools available now that can get you up and running in a trice. (I’ll write about my favorite of the moment, wikispaces, another time) A wiki – and I quote from a conference speaker – gets everyone on the same page – literally. No more wondering if you have the latest version of whatever. Regardless if you prefer inline editing or formal docs, this is an easy and effective way to distribute them and maintain consistency over any size of team.

Collaboration is more than just sharing, of course. Its sharing, communicating, keeping a high level of information awareness (do you know if the team across the hall is solving your problem? or causing it?!?), and my favorite rant – reuse. (Once you’ve done the thinking, capture it, and reuse it. This is harder, and I think there’s some interesting thinking, and even more opportunity here.).

People brought up some really interesting issues on the marketing side. On the one hand, people are afraid of being left behind by not having blogs and user forums. On the other hand, people are not comfortable with loosing control of information. There are some darn good reasons for this.

Companies are concerned that people will say unflattering things. But negative comments can be a great opportunity. Any company can present a pretty face, but the real quality of a company comes out when it deals with bad news – mistakes or misperceptions – that are reported by the customer or the press. In the past, negative comments were passed person to person, and were distanced from the company. But now you can give people the opportunity to say it to you, and to respond. Admitting and fixing mistakes and misperceptions – and most importantly, demonstrating that you care about what people say, can make you a hero.

I got a much deeper look at some of the deeper challenges some companies face from the new participatory web. A woman from a pharmaceutical company told the room how people come to them looking for information, and that she very much wants to give it to them. But, it is illegal to discuss the details of medical cases and for non-doctors to dispense medical advice in such a forum. She’s concerned that her very knowledgeable and active user base will cross the line on the forums – divulging to much and offering too much information.

This is a real challenge. She can moderate the forum, and gently remind people of why those laws exist and point them toward places where their questions and knowledge are more appropriate. However, she can’t do it 24/7. There’s a lack of clarity about how liable her company is for this information, and some of those laws may need updating.

This is a huge challenge for the government as well. Security, privacy and liability are tough questions, and the issues and boundaries haven’t been tested. People don’t want to break the law. Or get fired.

What’s clear is that we’ve moved from an age of control to an age of emergence. Where companies need to be more in touch with their users and more responsive to what they hear than ever before. The new participatory tools of the internet are not just about social networking and blogging, but are changing the way people think about business and government. The new challenges they present are equally interesting.

There were some cool companies showing their wares, too. KickApps gives any company the tools to create their own social networks and forums. Jeremy Epstein was there from Microsoft. To say he’s excited about getting Microsoft into the game here would be an understatement. I wouldn’t be surprised if his enthusiasm and the people he attracts with it didn’t make a real difference in Redmond.

In short, the conference made it really clear that we’ve only just begun.