Mary Jo Foley reports on a Bill Gates speech to 100 top CEOs. Gates’ point: that blogging, RSS and other collaborative technologies that expose companies directly to their customers bring real productivity benefits.
Gates understands something that Steve Jobs shows no evidence of seeing: that with blogging and RSS, companies can communicate directly to their customers in ways through their employees without losing any competitive advantage. Where Microsoft is positively encouraging its employees to talk to customers via blogs – and to listen to them through the comments – it appears to remain a fireable offence to even identify yourself as an Apple employee in a public forum.
Some posters have previously mentioned that this is for secrecy reasons: Apple doesn’t want its employees talking about their work in public, as it might lead people to guess what future products it’s coming out with. But Apple has NEVER had a problem with people talking in a public forum about their work: they had a problem with leaks to the press, which weren’t done in a public space. It’s obvious to anyone with a brain that you shouldn’t blog about unannounced future products. That applies even to me: I don’t mention anything that I’m working on for a magazine, as I know that editors often like to keep quiet what they’re up to. It’s no big deal for someone to decide that something is something they shouldn’t be talking about: as long, of course, as you believe that your employees are smart.
The fact that Microsoft appears to have worked out that blogging is a great way of communicating with customers while Apple bans it is fairly typical of the differing corporate cultures, which – ironically enough – are the mirror images of their public image. Everyone I’ve known from Microsoft has consistently talked about the level of autonomy that individual business units and employees get. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can do what you like (and there are still drones a-plenty in there) but it does mean that not every message has to be filtered through the top. Apple, on the other hand, is a top-down organisation in terms of its marketing: I’ve heard (although I’ve never been able to confirm this) that Jobs approves every press release. I’ve known marketing managers who had to get the final pricing of the product they were supposed to be preparing marketing plans for from the Apple Online Store, because no one in Cupertino would trust them with the information before the release of the product. And I’ve known senior marketing people who have been deliberately given false information by Cupertino, in order to check if they were “loyal” or not (ironically, they didn’t tell any journalists about the information, but they sure as hell told them how angry they felt about being deceived like that).
I once heard a quote from Steve Jobs which sums this up: “Apple speaks with one voice – mine”. So, Steve, if that’s the case – and you’re going to prevent your employees from speaking and listening to your customers – isn’t it time you started blogging yourself?