"Markets are conversations," announced the famous New Economy screed The Cluetrain Manifesto, published in 2000. The manifesto's theme is that the Internet allows many more such conversations -- but that they are only valuable if they are conducted in an authentic human voice. "In just a few more years," the mani-festo warns, "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."
Many dot-com nostrums are best forgotten, but the idea that honest, unfiltered conversation between companies and customers might actually be good for business lives on -- and, in fact, is being embraced by dozens of large firms, from Microsoft to Maytag. To the degree that open conversation does happen, it's happening largely through weblogs, or blogs. In their first incarnation in the late 1990s, blogs were mainly personal online diaries, repositories of their authors' daily experiences, passions, and frustrations. But over the past year or two, a new kind of web-log has emerged: the employee blog. Maintained on company servers and open to the public, these blogs are used by many high-tech workers for debate, free association, and collecting input about projects.
Most companies are still cautious when it comes to communicating with mainstream media outlets; employees are seldom allowed to speak with journalists without media-relations chaperones. But blogs have emerged as an exception, with more and more companies concluding that the public-relations benefits outweigh the risks. One of those companies is Sun Microsystems, which promotes employee blogging more aggressively than any other technology firm. "Sun's employees are our most passionate evangelists," says Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer and the author of a company blog read by tens of thousands of visitors every month. "From where I sit, the more our investors and customers know about us, the better."
Sun's Simon Phipps, whose job title is chief technology evangelist, says that researchers and developers can swap more ideas, build better software, and meet customers' needs faster if they are active in online communities, where blogs play the dual role of soap- and suggestion-box. "In a world where you must speak with an authentic voice," says Phipps, "the obvious way is to let the people you most trust -- your employees -- speak directly to the -people you most want to appeal to -- your customers." According to Phipps and Schwartz, not only do Sun's blogs show customers that the company is paying attention to their concerns, but they have also become a major channel for communicating with programmers outside the company who write crucial third-party applications that run on Sun's hardware and operating systems.
More than 1,000 of Sun's 32,000 employees blog about their work (most at blogs.sun.com). Schwartz uses his blog to share his unvarnished thoughts about, among other things, Sun's competitors. A January entry, for example, blasted IBM for its reluctance to make software that will run on Sun's latest operating system, Solaris 10, on Intel-compatible hardware platforms. At the other end of the corporate ladder, plenty of rank-and-file programmers air more mundane problems, such as product delays, and invite readers to submit bug reports or suggestions for new features in Sun software.
Companies with top-down management cultures and controls on the flow of information probably aren't ready for the era of employee blogging. Nor is their reluctance likely to hurt them, if they have a locked-in base of customers; don't expect to see employees at Lockheed-Martin blogging about their progress on the latest stealth technology, for example. But consumer-oriented companies that abjure the blogosphere are missing out on opportunities to generate buzz, monitor customer concerns, and -- perhaps most importantly -- show their human side. As Schwartz puts it, "Any company that feels threatened by blogs probably feels threatened by the Internet."