Conversation in New Economy

Let’s Talk
by Sanjay Trehan (12 December 2000)

It’s amazing that in the complex web of computerese and in the meandering lanes of technology, how often we forget that our very raison d’etre is the human being- with flesh and bones, with livewire emotions and razor sharp intelligence, with gifts and failings, all very real. It is this human being that we need to constantly address, not just a miniscule deconstruct of target audience. This being has real concerns, gets tickled by the same stimuli as you and I, is keen to get some real answers and is up to his neck with corporate doublespeak. This human animal, be it in the urban jungle or in cyber village, is keen to reach out and get touched in the process. It’s in this reach lies the most significant contribution of the Internet.

How I got on to the Net
When I got on to the net, the thing that attracted me most was the ease with which I was able to connect to other human beings from different parts of the world. It also reaffirmed my belief that people worldwide are similar and, given an opportunity, are open to having a kinship with other peoples. The felicity with which I made friends and shared the most intimate secrets with absolute strangers was something unusual, yet it came naturally. Despite the skeptics, it was as if I met several fellow travellers going to the same destination, and surely the journey itself became a reward. That was the power of the Internet. The spell it cast was way beyond technology. It helped me forge relationships. And once these relationships crystallised, we all grew. As people, as individuals, as markets of one. We shared almost everything that was there to share, we criticised, we mocked, we laughed, we read, we even wept together. At a subliminal level, what was happening was mind blowing. We were getting empowered by our exchanges, we were getting better informed, we were not easily surprised, and we were growing in confidence.

We were together, we were one. Like Socrates, we were not Athenian or Greek, but citizens of the world. We were being reborn, recreated in our new role as the citizens of a wired world.

Noisy Society
At the bedrock of our world was the art and science of conversation. We were a terribly noisy society, we were terribly nosy too, but behind our apparent madness was emerging a method that was working to bind us like weed growing under the cracks of cement. It was a bonding that the traditional world would find difficult to understand but, though conceived in the virtual world, it was for real.

Even without the esoteric and the philosophical, don’t you think that we are but creatures of conversations, we are what we speak, even, in some way, more than what we think. Because what we communicate externally acts as a mirror to our persona. But hey, is this piece about the philosophy or tautology of conversation or is it about human relationships that grow like creepers in the surreal world of cyberia? Or is it about how the Internet acts as a fertile ground for not only bringing people closer but initiating unprecedented efficiencies in the way business is conducted?

As you will find out, it’s about a little bit of both, for given to ruminations, I do tend to slip into the realm of the unexplored.

New Gospel
Sometime back I read The Cluetrain Manifesto and the book left an indelible imprint in the recesses of my mindzone. The book makes a simple but cogent point. Like an irreversible truth, it suggests: “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter-and getting smarter faster than most companies.

More about that later. First, a part of its 95 Theses, the new gospel for the connected economy. Savour the first 10:
1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

Lemme not get carried away and take your indulgence for granted. The point is that we all need to re-connect and speak in a language that’s shorn of technicality, hype, doublespeak and even downright patronizing. Because in the wired economy the customer is empowered and calling the shots, and even before you would realize, he would be having the last laugh. If you have time for just one clue this year, this is the one that’s a must...listen to what people of earth are saying: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings- and our reach exceeds your grasp.

Markets as Conversations
If you are a corporate, you gotta find, my friend, new ways to deal with this animated conversation. And you gotta do it fast. This is what the veteran of a firm now free-falling out of the Fortune 500 says: “The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery." Pity, ain’t it? Do take a look at www.cluetrain.com, or better still beg, borrow, or steal-- though I would prefer buy-- the book written by the quartet of Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searles and David Weinberger, for me, the messiahs of the new economy. Gary A. Bolles, host of ZDTV’s Working the Web hits the proverbial nail on the head when he says: “Like ‘I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more,’ Cluetrain's clarion call - ‘Markets are conversations’ - will be shouted from the rooftops and worn on t-shirts by Generation Z…”
Enough of digression, lemme pick the threads again.

Re-inventing Arthur Andersen
Even stuffy accountants, leave alone corporates, are changing. Take a look at one of the Big Five, Arthur Andersen’s website at www.arthurandersen.com and you would be in for a surprise.

No more hiding behind jargon, no more the cloak of cold-blooded professionalism, no more attempts to mystify even the obvious and the predictable, but a warm and sincere attempt to connect, to compete, live and grow. The homepage opens with a flash demo. “Bonjour, hello...welcome to the New Economy”, finally exhorting you to begin a conversation with the pithy: “let’s talk.” No prizes for guessing where did the inspiration for the headline for this piece come from. There is this wiry, black, balding man, and not a blonde bombshell in a grey business suit, sitting on a sofa upholstered in the new economy colour of orange trying to establish eye contact with you.

That’s the new face of Arthur Andersen and that’s the kinda face that’s warm and approachable. Though I must say that it would take sometime to filter down to the hoi polloi of AA. The accent is on interactivity throughout. “Are you solving problems? Or creating them?” the site asks and goes on to suggest that the “the best answers start with the right questions. Let’s talk.” The demystification of AA is a welcome thing and a great leap forward from the days of being a stodgy audit and accounting firm. Click on Contact Us on the site and underneath the email box, which is search driven for the right category, appears this: “Your mail will be directed to the people who can best respond to your inquiry. Thanks for dropping by!” I repeat “Thanks for dropping by”! AA, you’ve come a long way, baby!

Unassuming Chat
The latest communication revolution seems to be heralded by a small and unassuming application of messaging, the most underestimated of all software. Welcome to the world of Instant Messaging. Log on to rediff.com chat or my favourite yahoo! chat ( I am a yahoo! loyalist, so can’t help bringing it in), and if you are into 3-D avatars, cheeta chat, and you would appreciate that from thrill-seeking teens to thrifty executives on an instant gratification trip, IM is the latest mode of communication that brings immense benefits in terms of cost, time and convenience, to both home users and corporates.

More than Chatter
Admittedly, Instant Messaging started as free client-side software for idle chatter. But in the economy of conversation, it is turning into a serious business tool. Between Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL IM systems, at any given time, there are more instant messages shooting across the Internet than e-mail messages, according to Forrester Research. What is remarkable is that corporates that were initially wary, now together with e-business and enterprise vendors, are pushing to improve standards for securing and managing IM applications.

All this is not without a good reason. In December 1999, Forrester polled 50 Fortune 1000 companies about the products they use to keep in touch. More than 36 percent said they were using IM products; that number is expected to rise to 46 percent by the end of 2000.

Ross Bagully, CEO of Tribal Voice, another IM enthusiast, says "Instant messaging is no longer about boy meets girl or a couple of teenagers talking about homework…this is clearly the next edge on personal communications."

Business Tool
This personal communication is increasingly seeping into our professional lives, as in the connected economy, the office as a place of work is no longer sacrosanct. Executives find it easier to open the little window at the top right of the screen and catch up with a colleague in another city, an option that’s getting increasingly preferred to starting a mail trail that has the distinct disadvantage of downtime between response and resolution. Also, it is easier to receive a new message alert through a flashing icon on your desktop than dialing a five-digit code to access voice mail from the telephone. Add to this, the fact that now, leading instant messaging applications support voice transmission, and the proposition becomes even more attractive!
Chat, and now webcam chat, has indeed simplified the user experience. It allows users to communicate with their solution provider or helper in real time, allowing them to fix a problem as and when it happens.

It’s example time, I guess. When I was the Chief Operating Officer with India’s largest e-tailing portal, Jaldi.com, I did use chat effectively to communicate with my PR company, Text 100. They were always on call and it was much more simple and cost effective than talking on the land line that was at the perpetual mercy of erratic Gurgaon Telephones or mobile, and it helped not only cut downtime but brought in new efficiencies in our business. Surprisingly, it was Text 100’s young account executive, Garima, who ventured to open this medium of communication with me and it worked wonders. Thankfully, the young are not loaded with excess baggage and are responding to the call of the Cluetrain. Now at Razorfinish.com, we are using IM tools to be in regular touch with our offices in New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Goa, Chennai and Ahmedabad. I need not go into how cost effective and efficient it is! Remember somebody said the best things in life are simple.

Call Me
I am coming to the end of my long chat with you about conversation as a potent new tool in the new economy, and I hope it’s been worth your while to talk with me. However, no conversation is a one way process and I look forward to your comments on this piece. As ever, dear reader, you are the lodestar that guides me when I am groping for answers in the twilight zone.
Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them, and companies that won’t talk to their customers in an open and honest manner, and would insist on stale, moth-ridden PR bull-shitting, will fall by the wayside and people won’t even stop to take a second look. Such is the ruthlessness of change.

And all ye people of earth, as the Cluetrain anthem so eloquently says “the sky is open to the stars. Clouds roll over us night and day. Oceans rise and fall. Whatever you may have heard, this is our world, our place to be. Whatever you've been told, our flags fly free. Our heart goes on forever. People of Earth, remember.”
More power to the Internet. And thank you WWW for helping us rediscover our voice.
If you have something to say, dear reader, we gotta talk, remember.

(The author is with India’s first reverse auction portal for travel, Razorfinish.com and doubles up as an Internet columnist. Talk to him at sanjay@razorfinish.com for a stimulating conversation.)