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Web Denial

Most companies moving their businesses onto the Web are in denial. Andtheir Web sites -- internal and external -- show it.

The Web is a threat to traditional business and marketing. The Web is,after all, the largest unmanaged network in history. In fact, it would neverhave been created had it been managed. Imagine if the government or aprivate company had tried to build it. Jeez, Boston's "Big Dig" highway(well, lowway) system is going to handle one-trillionth the traffic and is adecade late and billions of dollars over budget. And it's just aboutguaranteed that when it's done, this being Boston, the signs will be allwrong.

In fact, it's peculiar how much of our economic system is based on thefact that to get anywhere you have to drive. For example, mega-malls aremore convenient than towns because you only have to drive to one place. Andif you buy yourself a primo spot off a main road, you can sit back and watchthe traffic roll into your parking lot. Not on the Web, of course. Thephysical location of the Web sites don't count because all spots areequidistant on the Web. And, more important, it's as easy to get informationfrom other consumers as it is to get it from the merchants andmanufacturers. In fact, it's often easier since the merchants andmanufacturers don't like talking about most of what matters to us, such asunbiased reliability stats, ratings of their customer service, and the fulltruth about the features they do choose to discuss.

Exactly the same thing is happening inside of organizations. We'vediscovered that other employees are the best source of information, thatmanagement is often unreliable and that the company newsletter is full of,um, baloney. While the power to hire, fire, set salaries and hand outcommemorative pens with the company name stamped on them remains in thetraditional hands, the power to effectively address customer needs is now inthe hands of employees who actually care about what the company is doing.

The typical response has been to build external sites that try to buy usoff with pretty pictures, and internal sites that try to contain informationby filtering and funneling it. This isn't a conscious effort by business.Rather, it's a result of genuine misunderstanding and a whole heapinghelping of denial. By putting up the lame intranet and the glossy Internetsite, the company convinces itself that it's "a player on the Web," thatit's "making effective use of the Web channel," that it's "got a handle onthis whole e-comm dot-com thang." The real danger sign? When the companystarts putting "e-" randomly in front of words in their mission statement.

The hardest barrier to overcome is recognizing that the users of yoursite are the ones who are in control. They're not there to hear about whatinterests you. They're there to read about -- and talk about -- whatinterests them. Gerber (www.gerber.com), for example, used to knowthis. They had a site that didn't even have their highly-branded baby foodjar on it; instead it featured a splotch of what looked like creamedspinach, and lots of information about caring for babies -- which is whattheir users care about. Now it's been "improved" so that the home page showsthe branded Gerber baby a couple of times. You can still drill down to babyinformation, but when you click, for example, on the prominent link toinformation about breast feeding, a PDF brochure downloads, complete withGerber brand breast pumps and other milky paraphernalia featuredprominently. We're back in a world that Gerber is trying to control ratherthan a world shaped by our own interests. The Gerber site is halfway there.Too bad they lost their courage. Or maybe they consulted their demographicstudies -- the last refuge of the marketing scoundrel.

Likewise, many intranets proudly allow "some" creativity and even somegriping, and many KM systems proudly allow some "unvetted ideas." But solong as they view themselves as protecting people from themselves, they aremaking sure that they are not where the real action is going to be.Companies with such intranets and KM systems are in denial about the amountof ferment already brewing on the Undernet, the unofficial network of webbyusers.

You can't live in denial forever. Over the next 18 months, we'll seecompanies radically change their "web strategies," surrendering the pretenseof control to the workers and markets who have already figured out how toignore the official web sites and intranets. The cracks in the wall arealready apparent.

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David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

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