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Taking corporate openness to the next level

Some organizations are turning to social media formats to communicate with internal and external clients. But columnist Paul Gillin cautions that all this openness can leave you vulnerable to both positive and negative feedback.

Earlier this month, a Microsoft Web site carried the following commentary (text unedited): ''microsoft is evil, linux is the way of the future, not suprised microsoft will take advantage of the brilliant core technologies and overbloat it with their rubbish GUI and horrible direct x technologies.''

There were scores of comments like that on the new site, some 400 in a little more than a week. Most of them were from Linux enthusiasts who came to a new Microsoft open source blog at to savage Microsoft's products and strategies in the bluntest of terms.

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Few companies would invite such commentary, much less publish it. The fact that Microsoft did is a testament to a new kind of openness that's taking hold in corporations today, one that's based not on standards or source code but on information. The new openness presumes that you can no longer hide from controversy, criticism or missteps so you might as well acknowledge them and engage in a discussion.

Microsoft is a striking example of this new attitude. Three years ago, the company was coming back from bruising antitrust battles with government entities on two continents. Its bad-guy image made it a favorite whipping post in the press, and customers were increasingly admitting that they did business with Microsoft only because they had to.

Conventional wisdom says that a monopoly under siege should hunker down and say as little as possible. If you remember IBM in the 1980s, you know what I mean. IBM was so tight with information that I once debated for an hour with an IBM public relations person the definition of the word announce.

Microsoft did precisely the opposite. Rather than closing down, it told employees to go forth and engage with customers. It launched a blog site and encouraged employees to talk. It also hired Robert Scoble, a prominent blogger, and made him Microsoft's most visible face in the user community. In a profile last year, The Economist dubbed Scoble "Chief humanising officer." More than 2,000 Microsoft employees now blog, but there hasn't been a single case of the company suffering legal damage as a result.

Microsoft certainly isn't the only company to take openness to this level. Many high-tech firms support blogging and the practice is beginning to seep into the nontech world as well. Microsoft's actions are notable, though, because the company potentially had so much to lose. However, competitors and the government haven't exploited this most tempting of targets.

Not all companies are suited for this more open world, of course. Firms that have rigid hierarchies or work with a lot of legally sensitive information should tread carefully in the so-called ''social media'' area, which includes blogs, podcasts and other user-published content. Experts say that marketing speak and spin-doctoring can actually do more harm than good in the blogosphere.

But businesses that want to showcase the smarts and creativity of their employees should consider this new tool a way to expose underutilized talent in their organizations.

For IT managers, social media can be an opportunity to create new value for the organizations. Blogs are essentially personal publishing platforms and they require content management skills to operate effectively. Not only does publishing need to be easy, but organizations must also promote content through various syndication and search engine services to generate visibility. There are a host of procedural and policy considerations that go into ensuring that the organization isn't exposed to legal liability or public ridicule.

But the spoils are there if you can convince your management to be humble, resilient and receptive. You could be a marketing hero. Microsoft bloggers responded patiently and positively to the barbs posted on the Port25 forum the first week of April. Subsequent conversations became more positive and constructive. When you think of it, where else could Microsoft have gathered that much advice at that low a cost in such a short period of time?

Paul Gillin is an independent marketing consultant and founding editor in chief of TechTarget. His Web site is

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