Thursday, July 30, 2009

High-Tech Worker, Low-Tech Company - Round Two

A few weeks ago, I posted about a couple of the technology-challenged folks I encountered as a high-tech worker employed at a low-tech company. At the time, I mentioned that I had many more stories to tell, and I have received quite a few requests to post the next set of tawdry low-tech tales. So, here ya go! Once again I will make the same disclaimer that I made in part 1:

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for part deux:

Spam is the bane of the 'net. It is like the weeds that grow in your garden and in the cracks in your sidewalks and driveways - you can pull it, chop it or spray it and you may be able to control it for today - but it will always be back. There is one flavor of spam that has been around since the very early days of the internet - the fake notifications that tell of "secret" coupons or deals from well known national brands. Many large brands have been targets - including many restaurants, retailers, automakers, electronics companies, etc for anything from free cars (Honda) to free beer (Miller). You've probably all seen some of these, right? Did you ever think any of them were real? Granted, there are occasionally genuine offers that are similar - like this one - but come on, it's just spam, right?

Well, some people apparently take them just a bit more seriously...

One particular Chief Executive Officer was forwarded a well known spam that promised that our company would send a $50 coupon to anyone who forwarded the spam email to them. One of the store franchise owners had apparently been sent this email and wanted to know what the corporate office was going to do to stop it. This CEO immediately tasked the IT department to "stop these emails from being sent." Huh? It's spam! This CEO was dead serious - they thought there was some way for us to intercept and stop these emails from being sent - not just from our company servers, but from every mail server on the internet!

Our explanation that this is not how the internet works, and that there is no central control center we can call to have these emails stopped was met with the classic "you clearly misunderstood my last order - try again" look from the CEO. The head of the IT department eventually had to meet with the CEO and explain that this was not something we or anyone else could control, and that the vast majority of people in the world understand that these types of emails are just annoying fakes. A letter was then drafted and sent to all the restaurant owners, and a notice was placed on the company web site declaring these emails to be fake. I am willing to bet the CEO *still* believes we are just incompetent and there must be some way for those emails to be stopped. True story!

Anti-Social Networking
Internet discussion forums are a great way for people with a common interest to socialize, share knowledge and engage in healthy debate and disagreements. Forums are not new - they are as old as the internet. Many companies are using private discussion forums as a way to share information between employees, or with customers and/or vendor partners. Unmoderated public forums can get extremely unruly - but there are many moderated forums that manage to discuss very contentious issues and remain civil. Most private forums are much easier to manage - because (in theory) the members are all there for the same reason.

And then there is the forum that was built at our company...

The communications department wanted a discussion forum added to our private company portal. The users of this portal included corporate employees, the franchisees and the franchisee's employees. The public had no access to this portal or the discussion forum. Sounds fairly easy, right? There are dozens of free internet forum software packages available, and some of them are used in very, very active public forums. But, a private forum actually has a few unique requirements that are not an issue in public forums. The first is that we didn't want the forum users to have to login to the forum after they had already logged-in to the company portal. Since several of the best portals now support directory services like LDAP or AD, that wasn't a big problem and was easily solved.

However, the communications department and the marketing and legal departments apparently had a completely different view of how a discussion forum is used than I did. They were extremely paranoid that someone might post something that was not favorable to the company. I explained that could be controlled by having moderators police the forums and delete or edit any offensive posts. But that wasn't deemed good enough.

They decided that corporate employees could read the forum, but could not post. That would prevent a corporate employee from saying something that might be construed as putting the company at risk. It didn't matter that the corporate employees talked and emailed to these same folks every day - the forum was deemed "different". All questions asked by the franchisees and their employees would need to be posted by the forum admin who was also a communications department employee. If the forum admin did not know the answer to a question, then they would contact the relevant department, obtain an answer, and then post the forum response.

The brain trust also decided that the forum would ONLY be used for the franchisees and employees to post "Best Demonstrated Practices". If they knew about something that worked, they were asked to post a story explaining it so that the other franchisees could benefit. There was no Q&A forum, no general discussion forum - there were ONLY forums for them to post their tips & tricks.

Can you guess what happened?

Well, since corporate employees couldn't post to the forum, they typically visited the forum once, then left and never came back. Why should they? What fun is a forum unless you can participate? I suppose reading the posts from the franchisees could be interesting, but that leads to the second problem...

The franchisees weren't posting either. It seems that they weren't all that eager to share their "tips & tricks" with each other. They wanted to communicate with each other, and many of them did through email, but there was no way they wanted to post where corporate could see and know who was posting. In addition, since there was really no forum for them to post questions or just have general chit-chat with each other, the entire "social" aspect of the discussion forum was completely missing.

The result? Six months after launch, there had been a total of 6 posts to the entire forum - and that includes the post from the forum admin saying "thank you for your post" to the one guy who actually posted ONE "best demonstrated practice", and also the post from a franchisee who complained that the free item he had received from a franchisee conference had arrived broken. In short, it was a complete failure. The forum software itself worked great - posting was easy and simple. But the many weeks of effort to install, configure and modify the forum software were completely wasted by the desire to have complete control over how people engage in social interaction - completely missing the entire point of web-based discussions. True Story!

Well, there you go - two more examples from my files. Both of these stories share a common trait - the desire to control the uncontrollable. In the first story, the CEO needed to discover that it really isn't possible to control the breadth and speed of worldwide email communications. It shows a complete lack of understanding for how the internet has changed the dissemination of information - which is really, really scary when you consider this was the leader of a $2+ Billion company. The second story is also about control - the desire to control how people communicate with one another, and not recognizing that when you attempt that level of control, people will simply find a different way to communicate in order to bypass the oppresive controls. Don't worry - I have many more stories coming to future posts!

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