Whuffie? As long as the dog fetches the bone.

Last month I met up with Tara Hunt at the Drake Hotel in Toronto.  Tara was in town for business for Intuit, had her friend’s wedding mixed in and the pending launch of her book.  It was nice that we had enough one on one time for a pint and some of that amazing food at the Drake.

Last week a signed copy of Tara’s new book, The Whuffie Factor, showed up in my mail box.  That is appreciated all the more because I know Tara probably had to personally buy and ship this copy.  I heard the whole story about how she and her publisher were having the Duncan Watts influencer sminfluencer debate about how to spread the word.

Tara Hunt is a case study on personal branding.  I should know because I have included her case in the course outline for the first year social media course at Humber’s new BA-PR program.  Through a combination of personal risk taking, hard work, experience, intuition and smarts Tara has arrived at the intersection of business, social media, social capital and community with a quality contribution.

The Whuffie Factor is not only a compilation of Tara’s own experience.  It pulls together hundreds of headline stories that we are seeing all around us about companies like Dell, Twitter, Threadless, Vonage, 37Signals, PayPerPost, Last.fm and brings them into focus with a critical eye, in terms that are designed for everyone.

A pint at the Drake

A pint at the Drake

From time to time I have found myself defending the “Whuffie” approach on Twitter and in blog comments.  The basic arguments that I have seen against the term “Whuffie” come from a couple of directions.  Firstly, there are more buttoned down business types who think that “Whuffie” is a term that won’t cut it in the boardroom.

I bet there are more Boardrooms within 100 km of Tara’s house that would be down with the Whuffie than there are stodgy ones.  Even the old boys will tune in when it comes to making Whuffie (unfortunately for all the wrong reasons).

Then there are the academics and intellectual “knowledge management” types who go to great lengths to carefully choose the words that they want to associate with.  In academic circles, I have come to understand that this is a fairly big concern.  I have noticed that even the term “social capital”, where there is an academic tradition to build upon, has been steered around by some for a variety of reasons.  I have virtually stopped following one google group where I respect the knowledge and experience of the members because it seems that more than half of the dialogue is an attack on this way of describing management or that way of describing a community.  Even the value of profit comes under attack.

I recognize that different words are useful for different applications.  I think that we are living through a time where we are still coming to understand our networks as the primary factor of production.  As common understanding evolves, meaning will build behind certain words.  Some will emerge as the dominant labels some won’t.

I also have made it clear that a “conversation” that is designed for everyone needs to be complimented with terms that are designed for investors and senior level managers.  As Tara points out in the book, “Who are metrics for then?  Investors.  Journalists.  Outsiders.  People who want a number to tell the whole story because they are not part of the community itself and it is really hard to explain the impact of a great community to an outsider.” (p. 237)

Personally, I think that the terms “Whuffie” and “Social Capital Value Add” each have memetic qualities because they both come from fertile idea habitats (to borrow a concept from the work of Chip Heath & Jonah Berger, see p. 20 of my ebook).  But that is another post.

I usually conclude my defense of “Whuffie” with a one liner, “It doesn’t matter what you call the dog, as long as it fetches the bone.”

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping put to rest ideological naval gazing in China with a simple phase:

“It doesn’t matter if a cat is white or yellow, as long as it can catch mice.”

There was no mistaking the common mission of the people of China while I lived there from 1995 to 2000.  In fact since 1979, China has averaged growth rates in the 10% neighborhood.  How much does it matter that most people think that he used the word “white” instead of “yellow”?

America has the opportunity to unleash a new era of healthy, sustainable growth from break throughs in productivity and innovation made possible by management methods designed for the network age.

During a period of phenomenal change, I think it is best not to take issue with words or symbols that may seem fleeting from deep in the silo of your particular area of expertise.

In a Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities.  In an expert’s mind there are few.

Whuffie is involved.  That is indisputable.  Let’s catch mice, dog.

How did this dog get in the boardroom?

A dog has been set loose in your boardroom to bark at you about how business management has changed since 2004.  The story of how it got there is a great little case study in how valuable ideas move from inception anywhere in the world to you in the networked age.

It started with a need and a Google search.

After slugging it out in the social media startup world for years, I was ready for a glass of wine.  So we packed up the family and headed to Paris.  I looked at my MBA program there as an opportunity to put to rest a nagging set of ideas about Web 2.0.  The way in which business value is created and defended has fundamentally changed, but most of the “conversation” about social media is not designed for investors and “C” level corporate management.  From an academic perspective, I was a relative amateur.

Enter a few Google searches …

I discovered a local conference on Social Networks.  Then found myself in a room of about 10 top social network theorists.  I was waaaaay out of my league, but fortunately I was able to connect with Olav Sorenson and Matt Jackson.

Olav took the time to direct my reading.  Google helped me discover additional key pieces.  Matt was encouraging and challenging.  When I finished the paper, I sent it to almost everyone whose work I had read during the formulation, looking for credible feedback.

I received encouraging notes back.  One from Al Ries, co-author of Positioning, which is a book most consider to be a marketing bible.  Top blogger Matt Ingram said the work was “valuable.”  Then Seth Godin, author of the world’s most popular marketing blog and the best selling business books over the last decade, suggested that I submit the idea to www.changethis.com, a Digg-like site for ideas that he co-founded (but no longer runs).

The editorial board at ChangeThis selected the proposal and that is when its fate moved from the hands of a few key “influentials” into the “wild.”

To be published by ChangeThis, the idea had to compete against about a dozen others and be voted to the top.  Social Capital Value Add did not become the 8th most demanded proposal in ChangeThis history because I am a famous author.  I asked my friends and colleagues to support it.  Social capital went to work.  Through a combination of support from close connections and blog entries from looser links,  the idea gets a blast to 20,000 people who care about this sort of thing as part of the 50th issue of ChangeThis (along with the great ideas of John Kotter, Seth Godin, Andrew Abela, Vince Poscente and Jonathan Baskin).

At some point along the way, the momentum has changed.  I started out trying to take this idea as far as I could.  Now I am trying to keep up with it for as long as I can.

My search has changed how information flows around me.  After months of trying to find information, information finds me through connections far and wide. Four people on three different continents alerted me to Mike Arrington’s related post.  I have wandered or been invited into online groups like Seth’s “Triiibes” where Adam Helweh and dozens of others have instantly offered their help just as quick as I can ask.

Paul Wilmott has invited me to write something to introduce SCVA in his small but influential magazine that serves the quantitative finance community and I have connected with the right folks at Dell and Procter & Gamble about reporting on how the principals in SCVA are showing up in their businesses.  I am not sure how these initiatives are going to work out yet, but they are encouraging.

UPDATE: In February 2009, SCVA was selected as a finalist among almost 400 “game changing” ideas from 48 countries in the WeMedia/Ashoka Power of Us: Reimagine Media co-petition.

Social Capital Value Add (SCVA) is an idea that started in the social media startup trenches and was connected by a Google search to experts and influentials.  Wrapped up in a Wizard of Oz metaphor and signaled by a nameless dog, SCVA is powered by the social capital of a few concerned groups and now it has made its way to you from a trusted source.  It is a management and valuation approach that has been developed as a framework to help companies understand and track the impact that communications technology is having on their ability to create and defend value.  Woof, woof.

UPDATE: The SCVA ChangeThis manifesto has been released:

http://www.changethis.com/50.05.SocialCapital