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: The Power of Conversation"> The Power of Conversation

At Sun, no official direction from above has been required to inspire dozens of internal blogs. The company does offer blogging software and a directory page, but not everyone who blogs at Sun uses those resources. "People are just doing it for themselves," says Bray. "There is an Open Text implementation that we use for policy and legal work, but collaborative design groups are using wikis on their own, because they get lots of function with low complexity. It's like pens and paper—you don't have to tell people what they can do with it."

Sun's Schwartz writes his public-facing weblog with conversation in mind. One day he might muse on the state of open-source software, or post a letter asking IBM Chief Executive Sam Palmisano to change his user lock-in policies. "We believe this kind of communication creates community, and that a solid community around a company is not a threat—it's an ideal," he says. Many Sun blogs are open to public readers and their comments, making it one of the world's more permeable corporations. "Companies that view blogging as a threat are the same ones who view e-mail and cell phones as threats," says Schwartz, who draws about 200,000 readers per month.

"There's an immediacy of interaction you can get with your audience through blogging that's hard to get any other way, except by face-to-face communication," he says. "There's no other way any individual, never mind someone who's running a company as large as Sun, could speak face-to-face with that large an audience on a regular basis."

By enabling comments on its blogs, Sun can get a look at what mix of customers, partners, developers and employees is frequenting its sites, and respond to them. Customers who used to interact only with their salesperson can now communicate with members of the product team. "This is a fantastically effective listening device," says Bray. "Customers are coming to us directly as bloggers. People see us do something wrong or stupid, or missing a chance, and they tell us. We get dozens of comments a week that can help us, and they go to the right people—how else is a smart guy in Cleveland going to find the relevant person at a computer company with 30,000 employees?"

Recently Bray and another Sun blogger, Simon Phipps, were able to satisfy user requests to include certain functions in an operating system release. U.S. intelligence agencies that are Sun customers are themselves using blogs extensively, says Bray, and they go directly to Sun bloggers to "apply specific pressure for features they want."

"It's a morale booster in the company, and I believe it helps our position in the market," says Bray. "The balance of risk to reward tilts overwhelmingly to reward. When we have done well, we've had a community around us. We thought we'd fallen down on that in the wake of the bubble, and we see the blogs as a way to interact with the tech people in the back room, not just analysts and CIOs."

Sun used to have a policy that no public statements could be made by employees without legal and public-relations approval. That changed with the advent of blogging. The company did write a policy that makes it clear that workers cannot discuss things such as patents, litigation and trade secrets, and employees are encouraged to spell correctly, make liberal use of hyperlinks to other blogs and Web sites, and write what they know (see "Rules for the Unruly"). "The existing rules of any company apply to blogs, too," says Bray, who boils it down to a couple of simple concepts: "One, exercise good judgment and follow the rules. Two, if you don't, we have the right to fire your ass." He is sanguine about the possibilities. "I'm certain someone is going to do something really wrong and get fired or litigated—someone probably does that once a quarter here, so we have provided another avenue by which screwups can happen."

David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a coauthor of the marketing book The Cluetrain Manifesto, says public-facing blogs with voices that sound recognizably human will kill the "pompous and inhuman" tone used in much corporate-speak. But companies that blog are still bound by legal and regulatory constraints, and some observers aren't convinced that the looser language inherent in blogs will allow them to say much more than they do today. "I see a limited utility to many corporate blogs," says John Robb, a consultant and early proponent of knowledge-management weblogs. "The information posted will be so heavily edited with an eye to the SEC, lawyers, PR and marketing. The CEO can't just say what he thinks, and the charismatic CEO will be quickly reined in. I'd be as likely to read a Bill Gates weblog as I would his book."

This article was originally published on 04-05-2005
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