Crowdsourcing and the Ox

Posted on March 2, 2012 by Comments Off

TED Talks are always quite phenomenal — almost always an intellectual, creative and visual delight. The speakers inevitably bring humor, insight and wisdom.

In this case, TED speaker Lior Zoref not only brought wisdom, he brought CROWD wisdom. And he brought an ox as well. More on that in a moment.

This is NOT the ox. It is a stand-in for the ox brought on stage.

It turns out that when Zoref, self-proclaimed crowdsourcing advocate, attended TEDx in Tel Aviv last year, he shared his dream to be a speaker at TED.  And then set about to achieve that dream. He used social networks to gather crowd wisdom. In short, he gathered crowd wisdom to “write” his speech. The result: phenomenal. A highly creative speech within a speech.

I’ve always been a huge believer in the power of collective thinking, rejecting the idea that any one person truly owns the solution. And with clients we are increasingly bringing the power of the crowd to help tell their stories and strengthen their connection to communities.

 Zoref’s reference to one of my favorite John Lennon lyrics describes perfectly the impact of this kind of thinking:

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

And about the ox. Turns out that more than 500 TEDsters, when they use their smartphones to share their collective understanding of an ox’s weight in real time, really CAN guess an ox’s weight. Within about 3 pounds in fact.  Now that’s crowd wisdom.


Naked Truth in India

Posted on November 20, 2011 by Comments Off

On the heels of World Economic Forum here in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to lead a roundtable discussion of about a dozen CEO and marketing executives, hosted by our Waggener Edstrom Mumbai team.  It was a robust dialogue, where we explored and debated recent shifts in the Indian media communications landscape, particularly in the wake of the growing influence of social media platforms.

Of course there is great motivation for this given some of these important statistics:

  • In 2010, just 5.4% of people in India used the web, but eMarketer estimates that percentage will more than triple by 2015, when an anticipated 222 million residents will be online.
  • The number of mobile phone subscriptions in India passed 750 million in 2010, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). eMarketer, which benchmarks its own estimates against Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) figures, anticipates that total mobile subscriptions will hit 900 million in 2012, when 60% of the population will own at least one phone.

We have a more connected India via the web and mobility, which are increasingly interchangeable reference points.  And we’re seeing rapid adoption of new channels in the region as noted in Nielsen Company research:

  • Social Media in India is growing at 100 percent and is likely to touch 45 million users by 2012
  • More than 50 percent of social media users perceive brands that have a social media presence as being “innovative”
  • Indians spend more time on social media than they do checking personal email
  • Over the next six months 45,000 online Indians intend to join social networking sites each day

A more connected populace who are more engaged with each other and the rest of the world via social media channels than ever before.  Is it any wonder that there is so much excitement and optimism about the promise India holds?  But it is not without some very interesting challenges and questions, as some recent research by Black Box (that WE sponsored) indicates:

  • The Indian communications landscape is undergoing real change.  For example three in four activist consumers believe that comments made via social media are more effective in eliciting a response from companies than traditional methods.
  • Digital communications are increasingly seen as highly effective with nearly all companies surveyed saying they believe their digital communications spending will increase in the next 12 months.  And yet…
  • There remains a question as to if these same companies are truly ready for the new opportunities and challenges that can arise from the newest channels of integrated influence. And while most agree that they are more vulnerable to consumer backlashes because of social media, 60% claim they are prepared for such contingencies and can cope with the potential impact.  Assuming all 60% of those companies are right, then that is still a significant percentage that are not prepared.

While one executive at the round table said he viewed social media primarily as a tool to manage crisis situations, other participants clearly spoke to the potential of a truly integrated communications approach.  Here are a few excerpts from the round table:

  • “It’s all about impact. It’s what matters most”
  • “Indian companies are ready to use integrated communications to their advantage”
  • “First the megaphone was in the hands of a dozen people. Now the megaphone is in the hands of billions.”
  • “Everyone is a media company. That is my epiphany”
  • “Social media has the capability to measure quantifiable results better than any other channel”

At the end of the roundtable, I asked the participants to share just one word that summed up their view of social media in India, and this is what they said:

  • Positive
  • Terrifying
  • Progress
  • Learning
  • Future
  • Authentic
  • Honesty
  • Mind changing
  • Next big wave
  • Game changing

And my favorite:  NAKED TRUTH.

India is in the midst of a communications renaissance —a time of tremendous innovation, change and potential.

Since I was the host of the roundtable, I was the one who summarized: “Communications is the foundation for a better world, and social media is another powerful way to engage with one another.  When we are good communicators we are able to achieve understanding across borders and boundaries, which ultimately will result in a more transparent, global, unified world.”


What If You’re Not a Rocket Scientist?

Posted on July 19, 2011 by 1 Comment

This past week I had the privilege to attend TED Global 2011 and speak at TED University about the role of communication in igniting not just innovation but, more importantly, the impact resulting from the innovation on those who need it most.

All speakers (both at TED U and on the main stage) brought incredible passion and insight to their talks, and as a communicator it is so exciting to see several commonalities that reinforce why I am convinced that communications — compelling and transparent storytelling — can play a role in adopting world-changing innovation.

  • We are living in a world of arguably unprecedented change.  How far-fetched did the idea that the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and now (possibly) Libya would all change hands via revolutions driven by their own people sound a year ago? Let alone two, three or more years ago? Or that 140 characters would equate to the new “press conference” for celebrities and a smoking gun for scandalous politicians? Great change means complexity and questions, but also huge opportunity.  If, as a communicator, being able to help play a pivotal role in simplifying the complex, getting answers to hard questions and realizing the promise of what change can bring doesn’t excite you, then I don’t
    know what would. This leads me to my second takeaway.
  • Despite the enormous change environment, great stories are still struggling to get out. There is a great deal of innovation in the world, and while we know we are making progress, are we really using the innovation as powerfully as we can to solve the huge world problems? Is it getting to the people and places that require it? Is it that the ideas or innovations are not relevant? Is the right delivery system not in place? Or is it that the right story is not being told to the right audience? It is all of these, and the one I am most qualified to comment on is: Stories of innovation must be told.

How does telling a good story aid in the adoption of innovation? That’s something I hit on in my TED U talk: 1) Your story must have an impact — what will it do, and how will it change the world in a large and significant way or even a small and compelling
manner?  2) As always, know who your audience is and why they will care about your story. 3) Simplify and retell. I realize the
dangers of oversimplifying the complex. But not everyone is a rocket scientist (I am not), and yet many are interested in rockets.  So the way more people will learn about rockets is if those who are rocket scientists — share. 4) And lastly, the greatest minds in history have revisited their efforts — revised them and retold. The Mona Lisa has at least two previous versions under the one we know today after all.

One of my favorite talks at TED Global was given by Mark Pagel. He showed us that language is the most fundamental building block for innovation because it is the tool for us to truly collaborate. And when we collaborate, we spend less time reinventing the wheel and instead leap more quickly ahead because we are sharing ideas, discarding those that do not yield a good result and coalescing on a way forward.  We have massive problems in the world right now, and we have more promise of addressing these if we are working together. At the heart of this progress lies true collaboration, made possible by open and robust communications.

Simplifying the Complex

Posted on July 12, 2011 by 1 Comment

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the TED University session at TEDGlobal 2011. My topic was Wildfire Stories and, more specifically, how to take impactful innovations that can (at times) be complicated due to the science and technology required to bring them to life and to simplify the story around them so their impact can be understood in a manner that helps get the story told — and more importantly heard.

During the presentations, audience members had the opportunity to engage by speaking out about a big trend that TED attendees should be thinking about – comments were just thrown out from the audience floor. One comment shared from a gentleman from NASA was very relevant to my talk on storytelling: “The danger of over-simplifying complex ideas” was a trend he was worried about.

I intend to find that TEDster to hear more about his concern; I agree 100 percent that we cannot afford to trivialize complex challenges and issues so knee-jerk decisions and actions are taken because this can sometimes drive greater issues than those they were intended to solve.

But I’d also share the following:

  • Even as a kid, I loved science. I entered science fairs every year (my favorite was making my own paper from a wooden block out of my toy box) and grew up in a household where understanding the complex was expected. My dad used to quiz me on names of obscure rocks and minerals.
  •  I believe my upbringing and becoming so intrigued by the wonder of science and technology were driving forces behind my founding the agency that bears my (and my business partner’s) name today. I wanted to be able to bring together the curiosity of the innovator who asked the question of “Why?” — or, as is often a better question, “Why not?” — when developing a breakthrough innovation and marry that with the passion for TELLING that story in a way that removes barriers to adoption and IMPACT. 
  • As I mentioned in my talk, the reason this is SO important is because an invention doesn’t equate to being an innovation — and an innovation has no impact until it gets into the hands of the people who can most benefit from it.

One of our core values at WE is curiosity. Sometimes we probably have embraced this to nearly a fault when we constantly ask “Why, why, why?” But by asking those questions in partnership with our clients and listening to the answers, we can demystify the complex — that is what enables us to take the amazingly innovative, and sometimes equally complex, and make it a story that can truly change the way we live. That’s exciting stuff — and is the reason I still love the work I do today as much as I did over 25 years ago.

A Lonely Petri Dish

Posted on June 1, 2011 by 1 Comment

Is the word innovation overused or even abused? This has been debated numerous times and it is the question with which I began my remarks to the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China (AmCham-China) recently. We cannot become jaded with the term innovation, but we do need to turn our attention more to the IMPACT OF INNOVATION.

I remember all too well the earlier days of the PR industry when press tours, press releases, white papers and press conferences were among the chief ways of communicating innovation. I also remember countless times we spoke with great engineers, scientists or inventors, working to convince them that the right way to communicate had little to do with features, and everything to do with benefits to users, the ultimate consumers of new products or ideas.

We have improved in communicating the benefits of innovation. The industry has advanced in how it presents innovation to the world, and most significantly we are increasing the integration of multiple forms of communications — all with the goal of telling the story of IMPACT, not just INNOVATION. Otherwise a scientific advancement might simply stay in a lonely petri dish.

Years ago I remember telling one engineer that the incredible speed improvement he had gained in his product was indeed amazing to ME, but we were going to have to elaborate on the outcome of positive impact for the customers. It’s fair to say that for the most part the communications industry has matured well beyond this basic concept, but I still think we need to focus further on who benefits — and WHY — especially in the case of an evolving set of technologies like mobile computing that is moving into all corners of the earth.

Multinational companies are continuously increasing or decreasing their investment in R&D around the world, and before going to China I looked into the stats of what many of the multinationals were investing in China. My fellow AmCham panelists were Helen Chui, SVP and GM of Public Affairs, HP China, and Bill Valentino, VP of CSR, Bayer China, two companies which, along with Microsoft (our client), Cisco and Intel, make significant R&D investments in China. The Chinese government has laid out ambitious plans for putting its stake in the ground for innovation in healthcare, biotechnology, alternative energies and high-tech machinery.

The topic of how to move from awareness to adoption of technology and science advancements was a good one for this AmCham group. We enjoyed an engaged discussion around how communications can help play a transformative role, which adds to my optimism about the future of our industry. Many communications firms have established themselves in China, and we have a great deal of opportunity YET to be seized to expand and advance our industry in this vitally important market.

My view is that the most exciting opportunity is to effectively engage, measure and analyze our work to show the greatest ROI and drive integrated influence. We have a vast opportunity that is virtually untapped.

AmCham Panel

I love my job – Reason #3

Posted on March 11, 2011 by 1 Comment

Because every time I turn around one (or a team) of my colleagues are inventing something so cool.

The Girl Effect in Tech

Posted on February 24, 2011 by 3 Comments

Recently I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, talking to young girls about their ambitions, educations and lives. Every single one of them faced an uphill struggle to become educated, but the good news is that all but one had been able to convince their families that the whole family would be better off if the girls were allowed to go to school. This is also true of women in Konso and Derashe in southern Ethiopia: When they are able to receive an education, they marry later, produce incomes as entrepreneurs and are much stronger participants in their communities.

 Last month I was in Israel/Palestine West Bank meeting with a startup IT company, and a young woman was leading the presentation. She was outstanding — whip-smart technically, articulate and in command. Afterward at dinner I asked her what her parents thought of her ambition and being a co-founder of a startup. She told me, “My Dad supports me and is so happy for me to be starting in business, he wants me to fly. But none of my uncles agree, and my family doesn’t really want to talk to me … so I just … don’t go home.”

The next day I visited a technical university where I met with a large group of students, half men and half women. But the women are not even allowed to live on their own, so if they go to university they have to find a relative to take them into their house, or live in a communal setting with other women – and even then they are probably not allowed to live freely. So it is not easy for them to pursue a technical field, let alone become entrepreneurs who start their own businesses.

Contrast that with my own daughter, who this weekend was working on organic chemistry problems such as oxidizing alcohols. Like all kids, she has changed her dream job choice a few times, but has always been aiming for a career in science or technology. Around the dinner table we often discuss metabolic cycles of the body (such as Krebs), or trigonometry, or the time when she “taught” biology to other 9th graders at a school outside of Accra, Ghana, on a high school program. This is not some declaration of coolness about our family; this is to point out that it is 100 percent natural in our home for us to encourage our daughter to excel in a scientific or technical field.

I realize that I was lucky, too, to have a father who is a geologist and who supported me in every science fair I ever entered. Who read everything I ever wrote and was quite challenging to me — and who was the first to lend me $7,000 (U.S.) to start The Waggener Group (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide now), which I conceived as a firm that would tackle communicating technology and scientific innovation to the world. This is NOT to say I pursued a tech field, but I DID launch out as an entrepreneur precisely because I never dreamed I could not.

Girls must be encouraged to pursue technical fields, and they must be encouraged to become entrepreneurs. Take a look at this Lemelson-MIT survey that just came out. I love its conclusions. My favorite is that young women have the qualities needed for becoming inventors. This means we need to get more of them pursuing careers in science and technology fields.

But the hard part isn’t in recognizing the problem, but in determining what we as individuals and as an industry can do to help encourage more involvement by girls in tech and entrepreneurialism. I’ll share more of my thoughts on this in future blogs.

I love my job – Reason #1

Posted on February 10, 2011 by 1 Comment

I love my job because …

Portland Town Hall Feb 2011

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take a lunch break with employees in our Portland office. Every time I meet with them I learn a lot and laugh a lot. I love the way our people think and how they are able to link what is going on in the world to the work they are doing with clients. I also am impressed with the passion they have for their work — and how they show pride when they do well and are the first to step up and say what could be improved, if they think they could do better. And it’s amazing how they place a huge value on making sure people know what they can count on — and then deliver.

Even though I never got a Baja Fresh fish taco, if I ever had a mission that I felt was extremely important and wanted very much to have people join me on that mission, I would ask these guys. Oh, wait — I already have asked, and they said yes.

You Can’t Use a Cell Phone if You Can’t Read Numbers

Posted on January 31, 2011 by 3 Comments

Why do I get so bummed out when I can’t get a connection on either my phone or laptop?  Is this self-importance — everyone needs to hear from me now?  Is it anxiety that whatever I am thinking or experiencing at that moment will be LOST FOREVER to other people?  My Alaska Airlines flight to New York proclaimed in-flight Wi-Fi, which oddly made me jubilant getting on the plane, even with an earache. When it didn’t pan out after trying with three devices, I sort of got bummed out. Hey, I’m not the only one here: I remember a colleague of mine tweeting from another Alaska Airlines flight saying how thrilled she was to be tweeting from 35,000 feet.  By the way, did you know that Emirates lets you use your phone in the air, too?

There are times when connectivity truly betters lives although being connected on a plane may not be one.  I’ve just been in Ethiopia visiting @MercyCorps about projects I am involved in and spent a few days meeting with Tsigie Haile, the director of WISE, in Addis Ababa.  She talked of the differences cell phones have made for many of the women she is helping to start their own businesses marketing products from grains and spices to eucalyptus poles used for scaffolding and vegetables from small garden patches. 

Many people have written very well about the growing use of cell phones in impoverished countries: Nick Kristof on payment systems in Haiti, Bill Gates on application for healthcare, and I have seen it myself through my work with Mercy Corps.  This innovative and productive usage continues to multiply exponentially — the number of mobile subscriptions in the world passed 5 billion in 2010, with a 76 percent penetration rate globally, and the developing world has a disproportionate number, up from 53 percent of all subscriptions to 73 percent at the end of 2010 (according to the International Telecommunication Union).  There is real reason for us to be optimistic about the increase in social impact as well. 

One of the biggest obstacles in cell phone adoption is illiteracy.  If you can’t read the numbers, you can’t dial the phone.  And if you are using the phone for checking prices, you have to be able to read.  So for some of our programs in southern Ethiopia, we first must teach people to read. 

In addition to the livelihood and health aspects of this trend, there is an emerging social benefit for people of all ages who are now able to connect more.  Facebook is not at all prevalent yet in poor rural areas, as very few people have computers.  The computers they do have are old, and the Internet availability is not as ubiquitous. 

Last year when I was in Ethiopia, I spent time with Rebecca G. who at the time did not have Facebook, but six months ago she friended me.  I saw her again on this trip, and she told me that when she got Facebook it was the coolest thing in the world.  She made a list of people and started searching for them, including me.  She reads my Facebook for “news and knowledge” (her words) and she commented that she especially loves it when I link my tweets to Facebook (which I do about 10 percent of the time) because she gets news and ideas of what to read and follow.  We talked about what Facebook means to her.  It is a Big Deal — for instance, she has a friend who writes/sings beautiful music, and now it can be shared on Facebook.  (For the record, I very much enjoyed his music.)

I was visiting a school one woman had started with a loan from WISE.  I had been very impressed with the school on my last visit to Addis and wanted to see the school’s continued progress.  I wasn’t disappointed:  the school is flourishing, and there are now 140 students ages 3–12.  I saw many of the same children — their faces now a year older, but the smiles indelibly the same. They all had prepared songs for me, and then we talked about their favorite subjects — which, by the way, for the second graders is environmental science.

As I was leaving a young teacher walked out with me and said shyly, but with total certainty, “I’ll friend you on Facebook, and you’ll accept, right?”

She’s right; I will.

Unfettered Optimist

Posted on January 11, 2011 by 8 Comments

My New Year’s resolution is to Connect More. On a professional level this means not letting the size of Waggener Edstrom get in the way of truly connecting with our people around the world. First off, this implies an even greater logging of air miles because Face to Face is a key goal. By spending time in our offices around the world, as well as places where we don’t (yet) have an official presence, it enables me to share our vision for the future of communications most directly and effectively and, even more importantly, to hear from the variety of personalities, cultures and perspectives that you simply cannot fully appreciate if you remain stuck behind a desk.  In short, it helps make me a better CEO by providing a real, in-person means to learn, clarify, invent and unite with WE employees so they can do their best work with a clear understanding of what their efforts are building towards. Second, it implies a mastery of every tech tool that helps connect people from videoconferencing to the full range of social media. Last year I upped my use of Twitter; this year I’m starting my blog, which will reflect what I truly am, an Unfettered Optimist.

Unfettered: In September, I started a deliberate experiment as a full-time mobile worker and gave up my permanent office. The pictures of family and world travels, years’ worth of memorabilia and my comfy purple chair are all safely stored. By habit, when I go into my old space I stride quickly into the same location and promptly disturb the new tenants, who happen to be colleagues in our Social Innovation Practice. Because we are about to reinvent our Seattle-area office space AND expansion has put a real premium on space, my experiment is pragmatically well-timed.

At WE, we continue to build out our company globally. It is not easy, as any CEO will tell you, and while we are making good progress, there is much more we need to do. This global expansion combined with several new initiatives on top of the changing influence model and the growth in digital communications all add up to an age of continued evolution — no, transformation — for Waggener Edstrom.

All around me, inside our industry and broadly within business, governments and the social sectors, transformations are also occurring. I firmly believe that the key to successful transformation of any kind is Communications — that is, creating authentic, transparent, two-way engagement with colleagues, communities, even competitors, and of course friends and family. And there is simply NO WAY to do this by staying in one place; thus I am Unfettered.

Optimist: My dad says I can find inspiration under every rock; and over 100 people, both solicited and unsolicited used optimist to describe me. I just am. Specific to this time, though: I have never been more excited about the possibilities we all have to truly address world problems, with measurable success. People have never collectively been more focused. Everywhere you turn there is Social Innovation: innovation being applied to huge, intractable world problems in global health, global development and sustainability. Innovation in so many forms; innovative high-tech and low-tech products; new ideas; unconventional approaches; and innovative partnerships between groups that NEVER would have partnered before.

Most notably, individuals are stepping up and inventing what THEY can do, because everyone can make a difference. Last year, during the introduction of Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, I had dinner with Nick and he said certainly there is a role for those who have the resources to take innovation to SCALE, but another huge force in Social Innovation will be simply what individuals step up to do. I love that the stories of those individuals are being told with more frequency, by Nick and journalists, by organizations, and by the individuals themselves.

Five years ago if I had remarked that we are all connected, people might possibly have whispered how somewhat disconnected from business this concept of Global Interconnection might be. Nobody denies anymore that we are all interconnected and the big problems are Everyone’s Problems. So twice a month I will use my travels, and the time I get to spend with innovators, to share my own Unfettered Optimism, knowing full well that I must also remain rooted in realism.

And please take a look at my new blog’s archives; we have moved my previous posts on WE’s various blogs over here as well.

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