Wherever you are working, the smartest people are somewhere else

Avenue A | Razorfish (my employer) held it’s first-annual technical summit in Austin today.  With this event, we invite clients from around the country to spend a day with us and get our perspective on the current state and future direction of Internet and digital media technology.

The keynote speaker was Tim Bray, who is the Director of Web Technologies at Sun Microsystems.  His speech was entitled: Understanding, Deploying, and Integrating Web 2.0.  He had several interesting comments regarding “Web 2.0 and the culture of contribution“.  He provided a great quote by one of Sun’s founders.  (Who’s name I unfortunately don’t recall.)  The quote is:

Wherever you are working, all the smartest people are somewhere else.

The point he was making is that companies should harness the power and influence of communities on the Internet, rather than try to compete with them.  He highlighted Sun’s employee blogging policy.  On blogs.sun.com, you’ll see:

Welcome to Blogs.sun.com! This space is accessible to any Sun employee to write about anything.

That is a pretty darn open policy.  Many companies are still struggling with the idea that relinquishing control of communication is a good idea.  Microsoft has a similar policy with blogs.msdn.com.  Microsoft and Sun each have thousands of employees blogging and are thus having very active and intimate dialogs with their customers. 

Apple, on the other hand, maintains a death-grip on any sort of non-sanctioned communication.  I find that quite ironic, as the common perception is that Apple is a very customer-centric organization, while Sun and Microsoft are technology-centric.  Apple is a great company and certainly has a marketing leg-up on Microsoft right now.  Even Microsoft employees can’t help but laugh at the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads.   But I expect the close relationship Microsoft is cultivating with its customers through this informal communication channel will become a strategic advantage over time.  The quote above might appropriately be rephrased as “Don’t think you’re smarter than your customers“. 

Apple and other companies may invest heavily in focus groups to understand customer needs and behavior.  In doing so, they may feel appropriately connected with their customers.  But the quote still rings true.  Whichever customers you engage through focus groups, the most important or influential customers are likely somewhere else.  I think the point is you should leverage all available channels to understand and build relationships with your customers.  There may very well be unpleasant communication trends or threads of discussion in employee blogs.  But if they are isolated to a few, they will be lost in the crowd.  If they are not isolated, they are likely highlighting legitimate problems or opportunities that should be addressed.  That information is extremely valuable.  It is much better to hear both customer and employee complaints or pain-points and address them, than to pretend they don’t exist.  Both will give you their trust and loyalty if they see that you’re listening and acting on their feedback.