The fragmented world

Everything influences a business – even though most think themselves in control. The way to act today is giving up on the control, and embrace the fluidity, the fragmented world.

(I wrote these words sometime in 2008)

Businesses once had the control: they would develop a product which they advertised, then waited for people to buy it. Besides the neccesary means of communication to make a sale, the businesses didn’t interact much with it’s surroundings. The economist Milton Friedman nailed this way of thinking with the words: “The business of business is business”, an expression of a business being a closed and independent entity.

In the previous 30 years, it’s however been discovered that many things influence the business, and that it may even influence it’s surroundings in return. Now the talk is of “The Corporate Citizen”, en expression of the business being a part of, and being responsible to, the surrounding society and that it therefore must behave ethically correct: Corporate Social Responsibility.

This pattern of thinking originates back in the 1960’s growing ideology of holism: that everything is connected. It began in the spiritual awakening in the western world, but spread into more tangible areas like politics and consumer behavior. This was the beginning of a long term trend towards less faith in authorities, which reflected in many different areas of the societies, and culminated in the ”fragmented world” as we know it today.

From the beginning of this change in paradigm, it certainly wasn’t all businesses that welcomed it: instead, an industry of consultants and writers began to advise the businesses to direct and control the slowly increasing loss of authority and the accompanying criticism. Companies understood that many factors could influence them, and they invented concepts such as “image” in order to control it. Thus they ran against the wind and fought the change, by hiring spokespersons and Public Relations directors to handle communications and image, but most of all to erect a breakwater against the criticism of outsiders. Businesss realized that boundaries disappeared, but reacted by reerecting them. Even today we have not seen the climax of this peculiar contradiction in business communication.

1) Businesses today are keenly aware that there is little distinction between itself, it’s customers, it’s employees, the surrounding society and many other factors. They use concepts such as Autocommunication, Integrated Communication, Corporate Social Responsibility, or ethical accounting  they’re all expressions of this holism. From Milton Friedman’s “The Business of Business is Business”, the “business” of a company today is almost everything. Therefore there’s been an enormous increase in the amount of communication which the business must relate to, both that from it’s surroundings but also that which it transmits. (and emits)

2) Businesses struggle to control their image (and with how to do it), their products and the amounts of communication. The term “fragmented communication” is used about a business that is unable to coordinate it’s communication, mostly outwardly. The ideal is controlling employees and departments so only the information which the management has greenlighted, gets out. The problem is however that control is practically impossible  the technology is too advanced and the respect for authorities is too low.

So an increase in the amount of communication has happened  and since the businesses desire to control and direct communication, there is so much more to monitor and control. The desire to control an increasing amount of information, results in the need to become “omnicommunicative”: watch and communicate about almost everything. The more omnicommunicative a business becomes, the more there is to monitor and control  and a negative spiral has begun.

3) There’s also been a dramatic increase in the amount of criticism of and animosity towards businesses. As mentioned above, the mix of the technological democratization and a lower faith in authorities, has made it prevalent to manipulate with a company’s products, or scrutinize it’s communications and internal conditions. More important  the perpetrators and critics could be employees, customers, competitors or complete outsiders.

They will investigate the company and it’s products, spread stories and find secrets which the company would rather not have published. A bit will be false rumors, but most will be the accounts of frustrated customers about bad service and products or publishing of confidential notes conveyed by employees. The newest official statements will be compared to earlier ones, the personal lives of key officials will be googled, press announcements will be commented out of proportion, rumors will arise out of thin air and for a short moment be regarded as truth.

There’s so much of this criticism, that control is impossible, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about “fragmented communication” (nor “integrated”) any longer. We have to talk about the “fragmented world” or society, which is the new condition that everyone must work within: a uncontrollable world where everyone that has an opinion of the company, also is a part of it. Attempts to direct and influence this fragmented world, for instance through PR-people, will fare badly – one can not control a fundamentally uncontrollable world  at least not without losing ethical capital. The internet contains plenty of examples of businesses that has attempted to edit, direct, correct and manipulate the communication that concerns them. The consequences has only been negative attention and a reduction of their ethical capital in the eyes of their customers and other parties. By trying to protect their reputation, they’ve hurt it.

Living in chaos
The point is that every mistake the business commits, and every injustice that random interested parties claim or believe to have been committed, will be published. Therefore the business can not wait for the criticism to arise and grow, but it must seek out the criticism, in order to answer and deal with it before it grows too big. This is not meant to suppress or manipulate the criticism, but to recognize “just” criticism, explain the business’ dispositions and choices, kill false rumors and generally engage in a dialogue. A new job title could be “information detective”, who’d assist Your business in surveying it’s surroundings: who mentions it, how and where? The dualistic advantage of being close to the criticism is that you’re also close to the ideas.

Give employees free reign in satisfying customers: it will always be cheaper to offer extraordinary service or reship a product too many. An angry customer is a dangerous opponent: the media loves a good story and the internet never forgets. When problems are spotted in the horizon, quickly inform as many interested parties as possible. Safety measures rather annoys your customers than actually prevent piracy: it’s also proven that great sales are not made by copy protections, but from the product being great.

The result of such a behavior will be a better image, deeper contact to customers, interests and the business’ surrounding world, which is vital to running a business the next many years.

Pirate copying will be an condition of existence that can not be avoided either  the clever business will even draw lessons from the pirates or at least accept them as a permanent existence. In it’s essence, piracy means that products and public relations materials will be copied and/or used in other ways then the business had intended. In one end of the scale it means that a logo or product photos is used by third parties, for example for presentations, ads or on webshops  and often distorted to bad quality or with inappropriate colors. If anything good can be said of this, it would be that the “perpetrators” do it to celebrate your business or to facilitate sales of your products. In the other end of the scale, it means that the (copy-) protection of technological or software products is bypassed, and that they perhaps are then modified to the benefit of the consumer.

Modification of physical objects soon becomes, with the advent of the 3D-printer, so accessible that unhappy or curious consumers will disassemble the business’ products, copy the parts and build a modified version. First they’ll be based on plastics but later also of metal and wood, and all sorts of mechanical or static objects could be altered: the user will simply either insert the object in, or download a schematics to, a copy machine which then produces a physical copy. Already the internet contains many guides to “do it yourself in your VERY own way” of adjusting or using products in alternative ways  for example Ikeafurniture.

Releasing and copying equals publicity and for small producers it may be the only way ahead: movie producer  Eric Wilkinson’s “Man From  Earth”’t have many chances before it was copied, uploaded to the internet and mentioned on the piratenews service ReleaseLog  which regularly links to obscure movies that mainstream media won’t touch. Instantly the buzz exploded across the net: it got good remarks from those that downloaded it, and  Wilkinson  even wrote a thank you note to ReleaseLog who naturally published it as a form of legitimizing piracy. But the method of free releasing has already been used in music: big names such as Prince, Nine Inch Nails and  Radiohead can naturally best afford to release free albums, and do so as political or societal statements. But also small artists can to a degree live from distributing parts of their music for free.

The computer world has “mods” that can be implemented in the game and thus give it added or new functionality such as new rules or looks. Computer games such as  The Sims, Spore, or Little Big Planet which contains various tools for creative expression and/ or content creation, find that a group of customers doesn’t even play the game itself but rather produce content for it. Others find that the less linear the game is, and the more free choices it offers, the better the customers like it.

Bottom line is that the function of the original product which the consumer didn’t like, she can now change by implementing a “mod” or following instructions made by other consumers. The business has thus, without further investment, has an unhappy customer turned to a happy one. The more creativity and freedom the product offers, the greater value it’ll have  because customers owning the product can procuce more content for the product.

 Michael Yon is the best PRworker of the American army, despite his presence is unwanted by some, and the fact that he’s not even in the military! US army has for years used “embedded reporters” to achieve a better image: the philosophy is that the closer the journalist is to the action and to the soldiers, the better coverage and sympathy will he convey. Unfortunately the army is not happy with the reports of most journalists, and most journalists aren’t happy with the Iraq/Afghanistan war or the military itself  a really bad match. That’s why the former special forces soldier and now selfmade journalist Michael Yon is the best asset the army could desire: He’s always at the very front line, and has great sympathy for the soldiers and civilians and enjoy their respect. He utilizes his knowledge of the army to get “under the skin” of everyone, and for describing the action  and people involved in it  which is valuable when one needs to find out what’s really going on. Among other things, Yon could see how, long before most others could, the center of the war would change from Iraq to Afghanistan. And the army doesn’t even pay him to do all this  his readers do.

Neil Gershenfeld is behind FabLabs, which brings semiadvanced tools to local communities and let people experiment and build.  At  TED06 he told about kids that made better solutions than scientists: how his term “Technologyofone” or “Personal Fabrication: products for a market of oneperson” is not only 1) en extreme way utilization of creativity, 2) an effective form of aid, but also 3) a new way of producing good, and to view a product life cycle.


Note – this article was written in 2008 – the links are probably still working, but newer and better examples have risen their heads. Feel free to mention a few if You find them.