Supernova ’05: “Perspective: Jonathan Schwartz”

06/22/2005

Since yesterday morning I’ve been hanging around at Supernova and I’ve been taking some fairly intensive notes, but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to write any of it up. Over the next hour or so, I hope to put up some of my reactions from the last day and a half of the conference. I’m a little unclear as yet whether I’ll be posting the full notes that I’ve been making for each part of the conference. I guess we’ll see. They’re not always of the most enormous value.

For people who don’t know, the core idea behind Supernova and the concept of the conference i decentralisation and the effects of network. I guess the metaphor is of the aftermath of the exploded centre, where top-down governance and control gives up its power (by choice or by force) to the new many-to-many network where power and agency operates at the edges. The conference takes that fundamental concept and looks at its application across a whole range of different subject areas – from social software and personal publishing, search, telecoms, gaming, business, media as well as around meta-areas like how individuals deal with this radically different vision of the world. I think by necessity this creates a kind of weirdly diverse conference that attracts radically different types of people whose relationship to each other isn’t always easy. So you’ve got the business people, the alpha geeks, the legislators, the military, the policy people and the academics talking about things from very different angles. Which means that any individual part of the audience is likely to be frustrated at some points, bored at other points and insanely fascinated for the rest of the time.

I’m going to start with a brief bit of coverage of a discussion between Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems and Kevin Werbach of Supernova. The two major areas of this discussion were really about about whether or not Web 2.0 was a reality (the answers to which were relatively anodyne) and a much more interesting discussion about future business communication with weblogs.

I kind of take my life in my hands a bit every time I go off on a discussion about weblogs after six years of writing this site, but sometimes it really does seem that there genuinely still more that can still be said around the edges. Here are a few really telling quotes (probably mistranscribed) from Schwartz that I noted down during his piece:

I’ve learned a lot of things. If you think about what a leader does, you’re fundamentally a communicator. You have to be able to communicate to the marketplace to the people who report to you – there is no efficient way of doing that than using the network – using the internet. If you want to be a leader, I can’t see you surviving without a blog. It’s like being a leader without having e-mail or a mobile phone. You still find them very occasionally, but it’s moving away. It’s very rare.

Authenticity is absolutely paramount. Getting poeple to write your blogs is ridiculous. It’s like hiring people to read your e-mail. You might be able to get away with it, but it’s kind of like pushing a rock up a hill…

When I first heard Schwartz talking in these directions, I genuinely didn’t know what I thought about it. In my experience weblogs inside organisations don’t tend to be terribly interesting or useful and only a limited number of people participate with them. I was going ready to treat his comments with a similar scepticism (particularly given some of his earlier comments about authentication and the future of the web which were pretty banal), but he blew my suspions out of the water with some of his later comments. When challenged about whether he was only talking about communicating with the company internally or doing it in full view of the public, he said something really interesting.

For a start, he said that in the near future he wanted to start doing all his communications via his weblog. Then he moved on to addressing this internal / external dichotomy. He mentioned a particular case where particularly good employees had their names and photos put up on an intranet celebrating their achievements. Instead of this he suggested that it should be done completely in public. He said that some people had suggested that this might mean that the staff concerned would just be poached by other companies but he responded that good people would always be open for poaching. And here’s the interesting bit – he said he had no interest in an internal weblog, that he wants it to be completely transparent and that while he was aware that this approach and celebrating his employees achievements in public might to his competitors knowing what he was doing, it also meant that their employees could see it too – and they can then use that to decide if he’s a more attractive leader with better policies and a vetter vision of the future.

This is a view of the world that I really like – it doesn’t limit your ability to have particular specific projects operating under the radar, but it’s an acceptance that large-scale strategy and communications about your company as a whole is never secret. And rather than treating that as a weakness or as a problem, it turns and faces it directly. It let’s people see the way you run your company and encourages people to question and interrogate it – creating a virtuous circle of improvement and self-awareness inside organisations that raises the whole level of the debate. For everything else you might say about Sun, this is a noble idealistic and inspiring aspiration. Very cool.

[You can read my very rough notes on this interview as it happened here.]