Metaphors for Business

Doc Searles has a short and pithy interview at Creative Commons. In it he reiterates a theme from The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Well, as we pointed out in Cluetrain, business is thick with the language of shipping. We have something we call “content” that we “load” into a “channel” and “address” for “delivery” to a “consumer” or an “end user.” Even a category as human-oriented as customer support talks about “delivering” services…

That said, the businesses that are most afflicted with pipe-mindedness are the ones that are quickest to call everything “content.” It’s amazing to me that I used to be a writer, and now I’m a “content provider.” Entertainment and publishing are the biggest offenders here, at least in the sense that they see the Net entirely as a plumbing system. The whole notion of a “commons” is anathema to the plumbing construct.

This was the problem with all these dot-com acronyms with a 2 in the middle – B2B, B2C and so on. “To” was the wrong preposition. As Christine Boehlke put it to me once, the correct middle letter should have been W, because in a real marketplace we do business with people not to them. Does anybody ever shake hands and say “Nice doing business to you!”? Because the Net is more fundamentally a place than a pipe, we do business with each other there, not just to each other. Critical difference.

All of this is so true. I know I’ve had plenty of conversations about the delivery of service, and relatively few about the collaboration end of services.

In regards to creativity - the recent obsession of my blog - I know already that metaphors are crucially important.

From the very beginning of my studies of creativity I’ve been rebelling against what I perceive to be the common metaphor of the lone creator, the romantic genius or artist writing brilliant poetry in a Parisian garret. These people have existed in the past and exist today, but they are the tip of the innovation iceberg. Everyday work requires creativity, business demands invention for its new products. So what metaphor do we use to describe this non-romantic creativity.

The quote by Doc Searles reminded me that there is a danger in using business metaphors to describe creativity. Business reifies abstractions even faster than the romantic ideals I’ve challenged. It wants to make everything into a product that can be exchanged with others. The problem is the product metaphor. An idea behaves in ways that cannot be encompassed in the language of products or competition. Ideas need the freedom of a public sphere and the protection of laws like the First Amendment.

What frustrates me about contemporary politics is the automatic assumption that property guarantees efficiency and fairness; that property is automatically the best system to deal with any human endeavor. On Bruce Schneier’s Counter-Pane there were some recent comments (Oct and Nov 2002) about the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. A few of the reactions to proposals for legistation were recitals of the knee-jerk idea that private property will incent people to respect computer security more than regulation. The real need is for a balance of both regulation and privatisation.

Somewhere we need to find a metaphor for the mix between private and public, center and periphery, romantic and practical. Eclecticism is the best term I’ve been able to find but it has yet to find a major audience (which it may never do since for most it means using a dictionary). Developments in biology and complexity studies may eventually be useful. The Tipping Point and other books popularize the idea of sensitivity to initial conditions. I read about all this stuff in Glieck’s Chaos in the mid-1980s. When will the tipping point come for these metaphors, when will the butterfly effect be used and understood by business. Technology adds to the mess by making the interactions even faster. Fasten your seat belts, dears, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.