Book Review: “Empowerment”. Are you a hero?

by Gil Yehuda on October 8, 2010

in Enterprise 2.0

I finished reading Empowered last week and I share the following book review with you.  I posted an edited version of this review on Amazon.

I first want to disclose some information which may color my review.   I received the book for free in return for a commitment to the authors to publish a review on Amazon.  They asked 100 people to post reviews on Amazon on the very day of its release.  But there was a shipping snag causing a delay in getting the books out.  I actually got two copies — and per the author’s suggestion I’m going to give one away.  Although I’m going to recommend that you buy this book, I did not.

Another disclosure:  I worked with both authors at Forrester Research two years ago.  My desk was next to Ted Schadler’s and we worked on some projects together.  Ted is one of the most impressive industry analysts I have ever met — perhaps the best analyst in the company.  He is truly a master of his craft — incredibly bright, articulate, and insightful.  He know which questions evoke the most careful understanding of a situation, and how to decipher answers in a way that adds value.  He’s also a kind person.  I interacted with Josh Bernoff too.  He is also brilliant, kind, and ridiculously talented.  But the company was organized in a way that made it very difficult to work with other analysts, especially if they were in other groups.  So I did not get to work with Josh as much as I wished.  [Personal note:  This was detrimental to my success there, as I discovered that Josh and his brilliant team (which included Jeremiah Owyang) would get so much work in the social business space they had to turn some of it away, while my team (and our associated sales team) was starving for some of that same work just to make our quotas.  When Josh and I discovered the disconnect, he did try to help fix the situation, but it was too late.  Moreover, Forrester’s internal accounting processes posed barriers.   My final interactions with Forrester left a surprisingly bitter taste.  But with no bitterness to the authors;   Josh who tried to help me, and Ted who was a fantastic teammate and mentor.]

So, as I started to read the book  I realized that I have very high expectations of these guys.  They would not slap together a bunch of words lifted from other people’s blogs posts in order to make some publisher’s deadline and cash-in on book sales.  This was going to be critical, data-based, and value-infused.  In fact, Josh himself is a “HERO” for convincing Forrester to support his book-authoring aspirations in the first place.  I knew this was going to be top notch.  Therefore, to get 5 stars from me, the book had to be more than perfect. Otherwise, I thought, why review it?

The book is a sequel to Groundswell that Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff wrote three years ago.  But it takes a different perspective.  I assume  you read Groundswell.  If not, I suggest you do.  It’s an important guide to understanding the way business is changing in the age of the social internet. Empowered takes the perspective of assertive (rogue) employee who steps up to the challenges posed by organizational realities (a.k.a. nonsense), and does the “right thing” for the company and/or the customer.  Bernoff and Schadler call these people Highly Empowered Resourceful Operatives — HEROs.  The message is: you need HEROs.  So let’s talk about how the book tells this story, and what it might mean to you.

The book starts with the bold assertion that you need HEROs in your company to fix the flaws in the way you interact, ignore, or infuriate your customers.  Moreover, you need to support your HEROs, even if this means breaking a few processes here and there.  This assertion is then supported by a series of wonderful stories about the impact that influential customers and heroic employees have on huge multi-billion $ companies.  You’ll recognize the brand names throughout the book (such as Maytag and BestBuy), and you may already know some of the stories.  You may also recognize the gracious mention of many vendors in the Social CRM and Enterprise 2.0 space.  The big take-away in the first section is the clarification of the 4  technology drivers that amplify changes affecting marketing, customer support, and corporate technology.  These are:

  • mobile computing,
  • pervasive video,
  • cloud computing, and
  • social technologies.

The analysis is on-target and crisp; highlighting the issues and implications of each.  Note:  At this point the careful reader might ask if the assertion “You need HEROs” is truly supported by the stories.  I’d suggest another question is “who is the ‘you’ that the authors are talking about?”  So let’s read on and see.

The next section addresses some of the projects that HEROs create and provides a worksheet for how to predictively evaluate the value of the effort.  This section is full of great stories from Zappos, ETrade, Intuit, UPS, Ford, Microsoft, and a few other familiar brands. Unfortunately the authors do not show how they would apply the worksheet inputs to any of the cases — they only refer to the output.  So you get a worksheet that seems reasonable and helpful, but I’m not sure it had been battle-tested.  But, you can help battle-test the worksheet by using it.  And you can find it here.

The section continues with more well-written stories of companies that allowed HERO-ic individuals to do the “right” thing in the face of corporate challenges.  There is also a decent amount of supportive data that Forrester collected to add quantifiable scope to their assertions.  You’ll probably recognize the “United Breaks Guitars” story.   Each story add a slightly different angle to the main point of the book – that being:  Corporations get in their own way of great service, great marketing, and great employee engagement, but new tools and behaviors, along with a HERO-empowering mindset can help fix this.

The final section focuses on the impact that HEROs have on the organization.  And thankfully the authors address the fact that not all change is going to go over well.  The reality is that HEROs  make mistakes.  But the authors argue (effectively) that mitigating the extent and negative impact of the mistakes is usually pretty achievable, and the benefits usually outweigh the risks.  The authors take a clear stand, even though they disclose that companies will struggle taking their advice.  They did not present the anti-case studies of failed HEROs or of employees who get themselves fired by trying to be HEROs ‘cuz they read about it in a hot business book.  As with most HERO epics, the story has a hopeful ending.

As I closed the book I felt this was a great read, well written and worthwhile.  The stories carried the message.  Forrester’s data supported the message.  And the practical advice throughout provided tangible value to the message.  But for some strange reason, I could not give it 5 stars.  Perhaps because I have over-inflated expectations based on my familiarity with the authors and the topic.  Sorry if that’s unfair.

Here’s where it fell short for me.  My expectation was that the authors would take a sharper edge at the social media Pollyanna syndrome where we get so dazzled by Social Media that we forget to challenge it.  The fact that someone might have a few thousand twitter followers, is alone, not enough to say that a few thousand people actually read tweets from that person.  Many twitter follower are non-people, or are people who don’t read your tweets. The fact that someone you admire really hates some brand and blogs about it might make for fun reading — but to what extent does that really impact sales or stock price?  I believe 100% approval usually mean “boring”.  You probably want to have a least 5% of the people in the world upset with you — otherwise you are not doing enough.  So I expected to see the hard data demonstrating the extent Maytag (or United, etc.)  suffered from some negative blogs.  Maybe it actually benefited from this book mention?  Maybe sales are really impacted by the impression we have of the salesperson in the store, not the articulate blogger who had a some random bad experience.  So I expected more data, and more critical perspective on the proof-points.  It was present, I wanted more.

I also hoped to see a very clear articulation of the three areas that the book covered — 1. brand impression 2. customer service, and 3. employee collaboration.  These all benefit from HEROs, but the cases are very different, and I hoped the authors would delineate these in a very crisp manner.  Again, it was present, but I wanted more.

I also hoped that they would make very clear to whom they target their message.  Let me take a stab:  these authors typically speak to, and about, $1B+ companies.  So if you are the CMO in such a company — this book is your task list.  There are many such companies: banks, airlines, tech-giants, utilities, media properties, big-box retailers, and others.  But let’s say you are the CMO of a small business that runs a chain of auto-repair shops?  or you run a dry cleaner? How does the HERO message work for you?  Do you have a brand that could be impacted by a blogger?  Do people think that the best way to get your attention is to tweet?  Maybe, but we’d all understand that the details in the approach would differ substantially.

I’n my opinion, the HERO message might not be the best message to send to many businesses.  I came across the following blog post “No More Heroes” (not a reference to this book) from the CEO of WL Gore.  I remember interviewing someone at WL Gore for a paper I wrote for Forrester about their collaborative culture.  They are a very impressive company — and perhaps they have taken the next step beyond the HERO message.  Instead of the hero-worship that makes for such great entertainment — maybe we have to remember that there actually is no Superman out there.  We have to be the superman-hero fixing the world as we live in it.

We love reading about heroes, since they give us something to admire, and aspire to.  They represent what we value most.  But I wonder if the book would have been even better if the lasting message was how to make sure that HERO behavior becomes more viral and pervasive than hero stories.

To share an example.  I had a customer service issue with a recent Land’s End purchase. The customer service rep was simply fantastic.  And I thought — does Land’s End need a  HERO?  or does Land’s End simply empower their CSRs to make sure that customers are delighted?  And it then occurred to me that the HERO message is only a means to and end, but not an end itself.

I suspect that Bernoff and company will have to write the third book, highlighting the transformed companies where being an employee means being a HERO, and being a HERO means being rewarded by the company you were loyal to. Where stupid corporate processes and short-sighted bean-counters don’t get in the way of bigger picture success.  And I wonder if this book could have been written a few years ago.

This is a great book and I recommend it to anyone who leads organizations in the new business realities of a social, mobile, and cloud-based techno-verse.  On a personal note, I’m glad to see that Forrester implemented one of my ideas, as I see it made its way into this book.

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