Like most people who entered the corporate workforce in the last century, I came of business age with the "company newsletter", a compendium of all the news that the company wanted me to know, rarely useful in its own right but far more valuable as a rich source of parody. More often than not, its four-to-eight pages, text-heavy and be-logoed, were thrown into the garbage before they could do any real harm. Its cavalier disposal was in contrast to its no doubt tortuous production behind the scenes, as confirmed by my CoFounder at Social Media Today, Jerry Bowles, who was an editor of one of these tomes many years ago:
"My first corporate job back in the 1970s" Jerry told me, "was writing an internal newsletter for one of the then Big Eight accounting firms. I quickly learned that it was the most scrutinized publication the company did, at least by management, far more sensitive than the stuff they submitted to the SEC. A senior partner would spend an hour pouring over this Orwellian concoction, carefully penciling out anything that resembled an actual fact. Once I attached the wrong title to a junior manager who was doing some project and rather than admit that he had missed it, my official censor had the guy promoted so the title was right."
How many of us, naturally, delighted to the subversive versions of the Pravdas of what life was like behind our corporate wall? Rather than the official story, we could read the more witty and authentic version, created by some always nameless, unsung heroes buried deep in the bureaucracy. Was our glee derived simply from the bountiful humor, and the relief of a more accurate version of events, or was it also from the fact that the transgressional version was generated by corporate civilians, fellows in the trenches with us, some of them perhaps known to us personally, and not the tenders of the corporate Borg?
In our new, post Web 2.0 world, the corporate newsletter has gone the route of its parody, at least in the vast universe of the world's, most "ur" corporation, IBM, the company that invented the blue-suit standard and rules of behavior that became associated with rigid, hierarchical and uncreative "Corporate America."
The first hints of the "disintermediation" of corporate American newsletters came when the company hierarchies condoned, if not exactly welcomed, the publication of rogue newsletters like the famous example founded and edited by Robert Scoble when he was still employed at Microsoft (he joined the company in 2003 and left in 2005.). His employer came, eventually, to embrace his blog, especially when The Economist and other media proclaimed that Scoble's blog had done much to humanize the organization that had sought to trounce upstart Netscape, and had become known, particularly to Silicon Valley opinion makers, as "the colossus of Redmond."
Now IBM, the company that gave birth to Microsoft, the mother ship of corporate America, is not only condoning the rogue blogger, it is encouraging more like him. With the lightest of hands it is moderating a networked discussion by and for its vast network of 350,000 employees in a way that would be as seem as alien to Thomas Watson as the personal computer. Perhaps it is with the same sentiment that former President Lyndon Johnson expressed about Herbert Hoover, "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in." But among the many benefits of the company's new embrace of social media within its vast employee network, besides a bow to the inevitable, is a visceral understanding of the most significant technology advances since, yes, since Thomas Watson's invention.
I'm in the midst of writing about the specifics of IBM's use of social media, with the help of many people, including Luis Suarez and George Faulkner, two of our bloggers on Social Media Today. Stay tuned, and please keep me in mind with any thoughts or comments you may have....