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What kind of people do you like to associate with: those who are distant and dour or those who are accessible and engaging?

My associate Jeff Sabatini, after familiarizing himself with the Cluetrain website (www.cluetrain.com), determined that of all of the people in the auto industry he knows, Richard Parry-Jones, group vice president of Vehicle Development at Ford, would be most appreciative of what the creators of the site say in their “95 Theses” about markets, conversations, and people.

Sabatini doesn’t know Parry-Jones personally. He knows of him and respects what he knows. So Sabatini set about to e-mail to Parry-Jones with the Cluetrain URL. But he couldn’t locate Parry-Jones’ e-mail address on the Ford website. So he sent it to someone in the Ford PR department with a request that it be forwarded.

The reason for my relating this story is because it exactly represents a major problem spelled out on the Cluetrain website, as well as in a book that has grown out of that site, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger (Perseus Books; 190 pp.; $23.00): How do companies communicate?

Companies do not exist independently from their people. Without people, companies are nothing more than a bunch of vacant buildings, miscellaneous equipment, and legal paperwork. One of the things that the authors put their fingers on (or actually pound with clenched fists born out of frustration) is that Companies (as in quasi-existent entities that we know as GM, Ford, DCX, etc.) tend to talk in voices that are not natural as much as they are carefully crafted, artificial, superficial, and distant. What’s more, this communication tends to be, in effect, a broadcast message with no feedback loop.

Once upon a time, as the authors point out so frequently that it edges on monotony, our ancestors actually had the opportunity to converse with the people from whom they were buying goods. Nowadays, Companies talk at us, not with us. And as Rick Levine writes:

We seem to know, intuitively, when something spoken, written, or recorded is sincere and honest—when it comes from another person’s heart, rather than being a synthesis of corporatespeak filtered by myriad iterations of editing, trimming, and targeting. There’s an inherent pomposity in much of what passes for corporate communication today. Missing are the voice, humor, and simple sense of worth and honesty that characterize person-to-person conversation.

We survived Y2K, but that’s not the biggest challenge we face. The need for honest speech, to ordinary people, hasn’t gone away . . . An organization, as presented via the Web, must have a human voice, must stand for something, mean something, want to meet people, and show they’re trying to understand those people.

The Cluetrain group—Levine is web architect for Sun Microsystems’ Java Software group; Locke a consultant who had worked for companies including IBM and MCI; Searls senior editor for Linux Journal and a marketing consultant; Weinberger a marketing consultant—have crafted theses that are predicated on what is happening on the ‘net and spell out why they believe Companies must give way to companies (i.e., organizations of individuals). Some of the notable entries:

15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.

21. Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.

22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.

23. Companies attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.

25. Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.

What kind of people do you like to associate with: those who are distant and dour or those who are accessible and engaging? The same holds for companies.

The real role of management at all levels is, as Locke puts it, “building a company that stands for something worthwhile, so that you can’t wait to unleash every single one of your voices into the wilds of the new global conversation.” Whether these voices are of employees or customers, ideally they are ones that are direct, immediate, authentic.

Rick Levine writes: “’Customer loyalty’ is not a commodity a company owns. Where it exists at all—and the cases in which it does are rare—loyalty to a company is based on respect. And that respect is based on how the company has conducted itself in conversations with the market. Not conversing, participating, is not an option. If we don’t engage people inside and outside our organization in conversation, someone else will. Start talking.”

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