We are Smarter than Me

An Interview with Barry Libert, co-author of We Are Smarter than Me
By Vern Burkhardt
After only a decade and a half of being in existence, the “Internet Age” is being compared to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. With about one billion people “connected” and the numbers growing exponentially, businesses are harnessing the power and ideas of their online community of customers, employees and shareholders to make better decisions, improve services to their customers, and make bigger profits.

The rewards from crowdsourcing run from obtaining highly valuable new ideas to support for customer service and marketing, and even product development.

I had the opportunity to gain some interesting insights from Barry Libert, who co-authored [We Are Smarter than Me] with Jon Spector, together with thousands of contributors—an innovative approach to writing a book through collaboration and use of Web 2 tools. Barry Libert is CEO of [Mzinga].

1. Question: It is interesting that about a year ago Forrester Research found India ranked number one in the world in terms of proportion of companies planning to increase their expenditures for online mass collaboration, such as podcasts, wikis, blogs and social networking. In North America the proportion was 65 percent compared to India’s 80 percent. The rest of the Asia-Pacific region also ranked a bit ahead of North America. Do you think companies in North America and Europe need to wake up to the new business model and business opportunities made available through what is called “Web 2” in which innovators freely share data?

Barry LibertBarry Libert:
Absolutely. The reason that the emerging markets are ripe for deployment of these new social technologies is that they fully understand that they must connect to the USA and Europe in a flat world to build their economies and help their people improve their personal and professional lives. It is only a matter of time until the developed countries (USA and Europe) understand that they are also part of a flat and connected world and their link to future prosperity is social interactions—both in business and at home!

2. Question: There are some amazing stories about leading edge approaches and practices of companies in [We are Smarter than Me]. Were the numerous examples of the companies profiled in the book contributed primarily by employees of those companies or by others who were aware of their case studies?

Barry Libert:
The response to our idea of a wiki book was overwhelming—we had over 4,000 active community participants contribute and vet ideas for the first “We Are Smarter” book. There were examples of both case studies being presented by employees of those companies, as well as case studies being presented by community members or consumers of specific products. The majority of case study examples arose as a result of discussions in the wearesmarter.org discussion forums.

3. Question: Do you agree with Don Tapscott’s comment in the Forward to [We are Smarter than Me] that “…collaboration and teamwork have become the business world’s biggest drivers of success”?

Barry Libert:
Absolutely. There is a paradigm shift taking place in the business world right now. Companies are finally recognizing the amazing potential for success with online communities. We have five rules that we believe make the difference between success and failure for companies working to engage their customers in a social networking property.

  1. Give up control. This is the toughest one for any company’s leadership because it goes against the “command and control” mentality.

  2. Everyone has a crowd. Start with your crowd that may be employees, customers, partners, investors, sponsors.

  3. Focus on more than technology. Technology is important but the real driver of community success is a good strategy, moderation, and business intelligence.

  4. Accept their wisdom. In order to gain the trust of your crowds you must trust them. If your users are taking the time to share their thoughts make sure you listen.

  5. Measure their and your performance as community contributors. A community without well thought out goals and constant moderation will not succeed. Be sure to identify what you hope to gain, and how you will measure this success.

4. Question: What were some of the lessons identified in the sections called “A Word from We” that surprised you or to which you thought businesses should pay particular attention?

Barry Libert:
There were many great points raised in the “Word From We” callouts in the book. Over and over again our contributors brought up the same fundamental principles of communities. Craig Newmark, Founder of Craigslist, reminded us that “If you are engaging your community online you have the ability to create that trust and then that loyalty, which has to be mutual.” This mutual trust is essential to a successful community. Without trust, and the connection that comes with that trust you will not have meaningful, productive interactions, irrespective of whether online or anywhere.

This goes along with another “Word From We” contributed by Denise Howell, a blogger, who advised “One of the main reasons that people get involved as a community participant for a company is because of the pain they experience with the product or the service. In the pain-solving process, the company learns so much about how to make their products.” If companies are brave enough to follow our #1 rule—give up control, and trust their communities they will get valuable feedback and ultimately innovation that they could not otherwise take advantage of.

5. Question: I have the same question related to the many suggestions in the sections called “What You can Do”. Are there a few that you think are especially useful for promoting collaboration and teamwork?

Barry Libert:
Get emotional. Successful communities are populated by users who care more than about making a dollar. People care about being rewarded, being recognized, and because they think they have something to add. Find your passionate consumers and engage them.

Honesty pays. When you open your business up to an online community of users you must be prepared to take the positive—open, honest communication from passionate users—with the negative—tough questions and poor reviews. This is the trade-off for gaining the trust and loyalty of your users, and it is worth it.

Make sure everyone benefits. What’s in it for me? It’s hard for many people to understand why so many users would offer their time for free, but time and time again it’s been proven that community members are happy to help you—often for free—if you create a situation that meets their needs and desires. An active, productive community will provide mutual benefits for both the users and the company itself.

6. Question: [IdeaConnection.com] provides an opportunity for businesses to connect with experts from all over the world to help them solve their business problems and generate creative ideas through collaboration made possible by specialized software. Do you see a role for this approach, which essentially helps businesses “choose their partner”?

Barry Libert:
Definitely—two good corporate examples are Dell’s ideastorm — and Eli Lilly’s innocentive. In both of these cases, major companies are using idea management applications to leverage the insights and wisdom of crowds to source and improve their product creation and innovation.

7. Question: SugarCRM, which offers open source customer relationship management software, seems to be an excellent example of a positive change from the traditional business model. The CRM community keeps updating the software to meet their needs and SugarCRM makes its money providing services related to the ever improving software version. Do you think this type of collaborative model will be sustainable in the long term?

Barry Libert:
Absolutely—look at Linux. First released over 15 years ago, the original Linux kernel has spawned an entire industry. The worldwide Linux user community supports dozens of Linux-focused websites, users groups, online communities, mailing lists and magazines. This is the perfect example of the community of people being so passionate about a product that an entire industry is raised and supported by people who care and want to contribute.

8. Question: I suspect that many businesses have not considered changing their websites to make it possible for customers to help each other with customer service issues, to market the businesses products, and even do product development through things like online service forums, discussion groups, rating systems, and blogs. Do you have any comments about the risks compared to the potential benefits of encouraging open dialogue among one’s customers?

Barry Libert:
This risk versus reward is clearly defined in our “What You Can Do—Honesty Pays”. As I discussed before, honesty with your community is a two way street. When you open your company’s business and products and services up to an online community of users and consumers you must be prepared to take the positive — open, honest communication from passionate users, increased innovation, increased loyalty, with the negative — tough questions and poor reviews. Customers are as passionate about what’s wrong as about what’s right, but getting to hear their honest feedback is invaluable. A user that takes the time to vent their frustrations is handing you the key to solving their problem, and increasing their brand loyalty. This is the trade-off for gaining the trust and loyalty of your users, and it’s worth it.

9. Question: Do you agree that many of the innovative and revolutionary “crowdsourcing” ideas we encounter are most applicable to young people, perhaps those under age 25?

Barry Libert:
The fundamental idea about crowdsourcing — and community — is applicable to any group of like-minded people that want to learn from each other. The ideas about crowdsourcing have been broadly and passionately embraced by the younger generations simply because they have been raised on the internet, and take its power for granted.

For example, I have seen my two sons, one is 18 the other 20, grow up using these technologies and I watch how it influences and infiltrates every part of their lives. For example, they no longer use email or land lines. I don’t think that my oldest son even has a land line phone in his college room. They use text messaging on their cell phones and communicate in text format via their individual ‘walls’ in their face book accounts. Further, they interact with their friends, keep track of their dates, friends and classroom assignments using all web 2.0 and social networking technologies. In short, it is the way they live, learn and socialize.

10. Question: It is interesting that although your case studies and recommendations for “crowdsourcing” are based on use of the Internet, you recommend that other venues such as digital telephones should not be discounted nor should gatherings and meetings of groups with special interests. Does this mean potential business opportunities exist whenever a community forms around an idea or an emotion?

Barry Libert:
Of course. Meaningful connections and interactions are forged and strengthened in a myriad of ways. A community is your way of finding peers, gaining support, finding out what others are doing, and sharing your ideas and problems with a group of people with the same concerns and thoughts as yourself. The power of online communities lies in the ability to find like-minded experts not just in your neighborhood, your company, or your city, but around the world. To ensure your success and the success of your group and your team you now have the power to look outside traditional community gatherings — mailing lists, tradeshows, panels — and find those people with your specific wants and needs.

11. Question: The CommonAngels approach, which is basically one of full exposure of all information to all involved, is an interesting example of how to avoid pitfalls in group decision making — such as the bandwagon effect, where a group or team tend to agree with an acknowledged expert in the group, or the effect where group members look for only “good news” and subsequently find evidence that their previous decision was the correct one. Could the CommonAngels approach be usefully applied to most decision making and problem solving groups? (Vern’s note: CommonAngels is a group of private investors who make collaborative decisions to invest their money in high-potential, early-stage information technology companies. Their process includes follow up visits to the start-up company to assess success and decide whether to invest additional funds.)

Barry Libert:
CommonAngels is a great example of truly vested community. Each member brings not only their personal and professional relationships, providing a strong, steady stream of deals and expertise — they bring their own money. Because each member’s own money is riding on the deals they are seriously and passionately involved in the process.

The open information, full exposure sharing certainly contributes to the success of the CommonAngels model, but as important is the level of trust and passion with which they each approach the success of the community, and ultimately their business. We recently interviewed James Geshwiler, Founder & Managing Director at CommonAngels for a podcast for the “We Show”, our weekly series of business best practices from community thought leaders. He gave some great insights as to how community is revolutionizing the angel investing process.

12. Question: You speculate that the nature of work will change so significantly that many businesses with salaried employees will disappear and be replaced by virtual communities composed of teams of specialists who will take on tasks for customers. How quickly do you think this change will occur, and do you think it will only apply to knowledge workers in the foreseeable future?

Barry Libert:
The change is already occurring. You only need to look to “We Are Smarter” for find examples of companies large and small harnessing the powers of their crowds. However, communities or social networks that use online collaboration tools take time to grow. As a result, employee shifts will occur over a one to two year period in the form of better and less expensive customer service, greater marketing reach, richer product innovation done using fewer employees, and larger share of wallet from deeply engaged customers.

The shift from many less skilled workers to fewer skilled teams will take time, but there is an expert on everything somewhere in the world. The power and reach of the Internet is making it increasingly easy to identify and tap these expert resources, and to connect them with their peers.

13. Question: At the beginning of We are Smarter than Me it states that people at Wharton, MIT, and Pearson Education think the outcome of the book is “far better” than if it had been authored by only one or a few individuals. In what way did the involvement of a large number of people make it a better book?

Barry Libert:
We were definitely surprised by the way the contributions from the community came back to us. We had anticipated that most of the submissions would come through the book wiki, when in fact the discussion forums, podcasts, related blog posts and in person comments were all substantial sources of content for the book. We had a much greater, and overwhelming really, response to our request for contributors. Over 4,000 people signed up to take part in the project. Without this wide array of contributors I am confident that the book would not be as engaging. The crowd truly was “smarter than me,” contributing ideas that may have been overlooked. The experience of working with so many people, collaboratively and online, not only helped prove our thesis, but made the finished product better than we could have imagined.

While writing a book using a wiki proved much harder than we thought, we had to learn how to build, nurture and edit the content of the community for all who want to benefit from their contributions, but the community made it all worth it. They didn’t all agree of course, but we are so proud of the work of all our contributors and the finished product.

14. Question: How many people were actually involved?

Barry Libert:
Over 4,000 people registered at the book’s wiki site — and set about tackling the big and small ideas of the book. Hundreds of forum posts, and wiki entries were ultimately parsed into chapters, and wrangled online by 12 dedicated community volunteers. In addition to actual community members and contributors, the project was influenced by hundreds of bloggers, podcasters, and conference attendees at the inaugural Community 2.0 Conference in Las Vegas. Dozens of team members at Mzinga, Pearson, Wharton, MIT and various PR and legal firms made “We Are Smarter” the successful project it turned out to be. When we started we had no idea the direction this book would take, and we are thrilled with the result.

15. Question: The next book, being written as “round two”, is using professional writers, and is being done in two phases — idea ranking and then writing. How is the project going so far?

Barry Libert:
Amazingly well. The site wearesmarter.org now has over 5,000 registered users, and we are actively collecting ideas for our next title “A Brave New We.”

We are currently in the idea ranking phase where we are collecting case studies in a new idea management tool on the site. This tool allows the community to rate and rank and comment on each idea. The winners will make the book.

We plan to finish the writing of the first draft by mid-February, and at that time we’ll move to the next phase — putting it up on the wiki for the community to edit.

What a project — to synthesize the ideas and input of more than 4,000 people and capture the essence in 141 pages! And to immediately begin to produce a second book using the power of crowdsourcing.

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