Monday, May 16, 2005

On Blogging at IBM

Fellow traveler, James Snell, points out IBM's newly published blogging guidelines and policies:

You can read them at length there, they seem fairly reasonable, even if couched in the obligatory corporate PR self-congratulatory bromides about "innovation-based companies". I wonder, are there any companies that claim to be anti-innovation?


IBM blogging policy and guidelines

Responsible Engagement in Innovation and Dialogue
  1. Know and follow IBM's Business Conduct Guidelines.
  2. Blogs, wikis and other forms of online discourse are individual interactions, not corporate communications. IBMers are personally responsible for their posts. Be mindful that what you write will be public for a long time -- protect your privacy. [snip]
Use your best judgment... Ultimately, however, you have sole responsibility for what you choose to post to your blog.

Don't forget your day job. You should make sure that blogging does not interfere with your job or commitments to customers.
The day job injunction is one about focus. When it comes to Freedom of Expression, companies know that they can't control what someone does on their own time and indeed that it can make the workplace a happier one if employees can pursue their muses. My own management chain have worried periodically about my focus. It hasn't been much use telling them that the Technology toli is actually my attempt to gain ideas that feed back into the day job or indeed that I've been blogging about Forms Glue of late. Or even that my education has been all about learning to handle balance and coping with daily insanity of which there is much in large bureacracies. Some just look at the blog and get scared by the veritable outpourings in this land. "How can he possibly write all this they must be asking?" Well I do have weekends, mornings and nights, right? At least I hope I do... Of late the 5am to 7am shift while drinking tea, reading the news and enjoying the early morning sun has been very productive and prolific. Thus at best they can only give a gentle reminder, day job doesn't even get a number in the guidelines.

The good news is that I have only pressed against the spirit of a couple of these guidelines. The one about "Clients, partners or suppliers should not be cited or obviously referenced without their approval" in particular.

And for these I would invoke the "Use your best judgement" plank as a justification.

I like to link. Like the hyphen, the hyperlink is promiscuous, sociable and an assertion of interest. Hyperlinking is the singular power of the web style; a link shares the googlejuice around and often shows that a human has made a judgment. The judgment is value neutral and doesn't imply anything other than interest (or sometimes dissent). The controversies over linking, deep-linking will continue to be fought until this is more widely understood. Links also get spammed but that's another story. A shout out to The Power of the Schwartz or to Sun & Sun (a frequent victim of The Ampersand Curse) is just that: a shout out. I certainly am not going to seek approval to link to these fine folks.

And as far as picking fights goes, it often isn't the wisest thing but sometimes it serves to clear the air (see On The Importance of Biting Satire for example). I've noted:
Sometimes you have to resort to the down and dirty column.

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound.
Less said on that however.

I would say a similar thing about the "Use a disclaimer" item. This is a weasely concession by overly freaked-out folks to keep lawyers employed. I do recognize that the things I cross-post at the official Inside Lotus blog should have a different tenor, coming as they do from company hosted facilities and presumably, in that respect, I am acting as the public face of Lotus. Thus I take a greater care with my words in the toli that surfaces on that forum.

On the other hand, I think it is obvious that an individual doesn't speak for a company.

In legal terms, and as the son of a lawyer, I can confidently say that a disclaimer adds no value or protection whatsoever. If someone objects to your blog post, website or email, and if they have deep pockets (say the Scientologists for example), they can, and will sue willy-nilly and tie you up in court, protestations of disclaimer notwithstanding. The wonder of the lawyer lobby is that it manages to keep risk aversion and litigation at such a high pitch in the cultural zeitgeist. It is true that oftentimes, the market will tar you with the brush of guilt by association; in economic terms therefore it is wise for companies to worry about such things. But a certain humanity is often lost by blandly avoiding controversy. There are many a company with Strange Bedfellows all over the world (whether it is in the pursuit of oil, gold or blood diamonds, paying bribes to people while later tarring said countries with the brush of corruption. It takes two to do the corruption tango.

combating corruption

If you really did believe (as for example many executives did in the apartheid era) that it was imperative to share in the fruits of the sweat and tears of others - sanctions be damned! like Reagan and Thatcher maintained) then one should indeed expect swift retribution from the marketplace if appropriately sensitized. I remember Barclays Bank paying a heavy price in the 1980s for such an attitude (and it is only 19 years later that they are emboldened to return to South Africa). I can think of many such examples and perhaps you could point me to your favourites e.g. watching a nice liberal mother explain to her 4 year old son why the Del Monte can of peaches from South Africa had to be put back on the shelf and the Waitrose brand peaches (without the colourful logo) substituted, circa 1988 in Brent Cross shopping centre in London.

Now employee blogging is much the same as employee use of any technology, be it phone, email or the web. Oftentimes, the use of said technology can be very productive and useful (in moderation) and indeed it can sometimes save lots of time and keep the employee focused on corporate business. If I'm able to arrange renewal of my license over the phone or the web during my lunch break, I presumably wouldn't have to take an afternoon off work to head to the DMV. I recently joked in passing about how I had to respond to an anonymous email from some department or other to justify maintaining my office phone since it had seen relatively little activity in this era of instant messaging and email. It is incidents like that that lead people to talk all too often about "faceless corporations". That legal fiction of personhood is frequently invoked by companies but often conveniently forgotten when the lights go out.

American society is deeply litigious and gets stuck on the notion of explicit adherance to the letter of the law as opposed to the European notion of staying within the spirit of the law and letting an experienced judiciary adjudicate when the boundaries are overstepped. This means that there is a vast industry of tax and accountancy lawyers who specialize in weaseling out of the letter of the law with new tax shelter products every year engaged in an arms race with the IRS.

In this vein I would suggest that if Lotus was Old Europe, that IBM is heartland America, a New World of slightly puritanical rectitude. Coming from a culture that is often reacting to the fights between these two elephants, I would say that each approach has its merits and that perhaps the grass should have some say in these things.

Sometimes of course, this excessive concern for litigation has benefits for society, for the greater good as it were. Cambridge sidewalks tend to get cleared fairly quickly when it snows since people who twist their ankles and fall in front of your house will get their 50 cents and more in legal revenge. In comparison, English and French sidewalks were treacherous in the winter time - it often felt like a tightrope or walking the plank (in my tradition of metaphorical excess). There is also huge innovation in the kinds of cups that are used for coffee to prevent litigation-induced scalding. I don't drink coffee but I am amazed at what I see people holding when they walk out of Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. It's Nuclear Star Wars leading to good old Teflon all over again.

The 401K account, which is about the only thing other than the plain providential, and literal, lottery, that Americans will have for retirement if Dubya and Cheney have their way with Social Security - what with their continued focused and highly selective war-mongering, and deficit spending like proverbial Palm Wine Drinkards, is just a case in point about this phenomenon. A lawyer took a look at the tax code, found a loophole and now every dinner table conversation is about the 401K. Following up on the same idea, it is plain fact that the Roth IRA is the most popular political and economic innovation of the past decade. Bless you Senator Roth, wherever you are, you citizen you.

Palm Wine Drinkards

On the other hand this is the same tendency that leads to much inhibition. The US has half of the world's supply of lawyers and the world's largest insurance industry and for good reason. I shouldn't even mention the reinsurance industry and the whole stack of derivative products founded on this litigious risk mitigation tendancy.

Playground swings are no longer as fun since manufacturers have shortened the rope to prevent high velocity and now parents will strap you in like a pilot. Where is the thrill of youthful daredevil inventiveness going, I ask? My cousin famously broke his arm as a child on our playground swing and he is much the better for it. He became a far more sensitive soul once he had to be confined to a cast and realized his limitations and the wisdom of the repeated warnings of his parents and entire family. Actually it was the traditional healers of his father's village of Taviefe in the Volta region of Ghana who set his arm in place, armed with their inimitable herbs and centuries-old experience. We turned to tradition as opposed to modernity. A great respect for tradition and confidence in his roots was fostered in this experiece. Certainly in family lore we all know better where we come from.


I can't imagine my Auntie Grace filing a lawsuit against the swing manufacturer, or her sister in whose backyard the great swing was to be found, or perhaps even her nephew, me, who was in attendance at the fateful fall and who didn't intervene. That however is the degenerate kind of thing that would happen, and does happen fairly frequently in the US where the ties of family and societal culture are sometimes loosened into anomie.

There are already far too many emails emanating from corporate accounts with noxious disclaimers, clogging up mailing lists everywhere and causing comprehension problems. They are a public nuisance and there is no reason to add further disclaimers to the mix.

As you might have guessed, I dissent on that front, my Blogger profile simply says "Oh, and I work at Lotus/IBM". The Girlfriend Fiancée says that that tag line is "a little unprofessional" but it wasn't chosen without care. This joint is an individual one, this is a someone's voice you are hearing, engaging and thinking aloud in public conversation.

I think that suffices. What do you think?

Update: My friend Justin adds some Mediocre Indian Cuisine to the advertising mix. Join me in welcoming another jaundiced Lotus/IBMer to the blogosphere. He started the blog before these newfangled stamp of approval thingimijigs were published and we are all the better for it.

There is another post lurking about where and how people at IBM blog, but that's another conversation for another early morning, right Tessa?

Soundtrack for this tale: Brooklyn Zoo by ODB

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, I know. I've had other thoughts ahead of it in the queue. It's coming.