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Jim Whitehurst: 20th century companies already hiring 21st century employees


Last night, Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst gave a talk to a group made up of mostly students and faculty at the NC State School of Engineering. Nice writeup of it in the student newspaper here. His ideas were very timely for me; just the other day, I wrote a post with some tips for companies with 20th century cultures trying to make the move into the 21st century.

Your future employee sez: I'm going to need a bit more collaoration and meritocracy up in here!

Your future employee sez: I'm going to need a bit more collaboration and meritocracy up in here! (photo by D Sharon Pruitt)

Jim Whitehurst is in a rather unique position¬† because he has managed both an icon of the 20th century corporation (Delta Airlines) and what we’d like to think is a good example of the 21st century corporation here at Red Hat.

Because of his experiences, Jim is able to clearly see and articulate the differences between the old model of corporate culture, based on classic Sloan-esque management principles, and the emerging model, based in many ways on the power of participation broadly (and in our case, the open source way specifically).

One very simple point Jim made that really struck me: Companies with 20th century business models need to realize that they are already hiring 21st century employees.

People coming out of school today have grown up in an age where the ability to participate and share broadly is all they’ve known. These folks have grown up with email accounts, the Internet, Facebook, and all of the other trappings of a connected world.

So when they graduate from school and take jobs working in old-style corporate cultures, where progressive principles like transparency, collaboration, and meritocracy lose out to the old world of control, power, and hierarchy, what happens?

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Trying to change a 20th century corporate culture? Where should you start?


alllostfortuneWhen I talk about the culture that we’ve built at Red Hat over the years around the principles of the open source way, one of the most popular questions I get is something along these lines.

That’s great and all, Chris. But Red Hat built its culture from scratch. My company culture has been the same for over 50 years. Can you change a deeply entrenched 20th century culture?

It’s a great question. Clearly there is a big advantage to being able to organically build a corporate culture from scratch. But, with support from the top levels of management, it is not impossible to change an entrenched culture, too.

Where do you start? Here are three tips:

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The difference between collaboration and clobberation


Seal colony sez: you can't force the true collaboration, yo!

Seal colony sez: you can't force true collaboration, yo!

Picture this: You are sitting in a meeting, and someone from another department is beating you up because you won’t go along their vision. They’ve never asked your for your opinion, they didn’t involve you in their process, and now you are sitting there getting railed because you are not sure what they are pushing is the right thing to do.

And then it comes. You get accused of not being collaborative.

You were just a victim of clobberation.

Clobberation [klob-uh-reh-shun] (n)

The art of beating someone into submission under the guise of collaboration.

I first heard this term from my friend Todd Barr a few years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Especially for us open source folks, who think of true collaboration as something almost holy, getting clobberated is really, really painful. And the hard part? It is sometimes difficult to articulate how someone clobberated you, but you almost always know it when you feel it. You feel anxious, cheated, even guilty.

So what’s an honest collaborator to do?

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Brand naming strategy: branded house or house of brands?


At Red Hat, I often get questions about how we name stuff. It is usually not just idle curiosity, mind you, in most cases someone has a new program or product and would like to call it something like Supersexyshinyfoo. Our team has to play the bad guy role and explain that we don’t usually create new brands like that at Red Hat.

Cow sez: Dude. Do I really need another brand?

Cow sez: Dude. Do I really need another brand?

The response is typically something like “Let me get this straight… You guys think long, boring names like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, and JBoss Enterprise Application Platform are better than Supersexyshinyfoo?”

My answer? We already have a Supersexyshiny… it’s the Red Hat brand.

We’ve spent years building the Red Hat brand into something that people associate with (according to our surveys) value, trust, openness, choice, collaboration, and a bunch of other neat things. Studies have shown that Red Hat brand karma is pretty positive. And the logo looks great on a t-shirt. Our brand is one of our most valuable assets.

This is why most Red Hat products have very descriptive (some would say boring…) names. The equation probably looks something like this:

(Supersexyshiny + Foo) = (Red Hat + descriptive name)

This brand strategy is often referred to as a “branded house” strategy.¬† Take one strong brand, plow all of your brand meaning into it, while differentiating each product with descriptors instead of brand names.

These days, many automobile manufacturers do things this way. Remember when Acura used to have the Acura Integra and the Acura Legend? Honda simplified the branding strategy by moving to RL, TL, TSX, etc. as descriptors for their cars, pointing all of the brand energy back at the Acura brand. Many other auto manufacturers follow similar principles.

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Does transparency really have to start on day 1?


Open source folks often talk about transparency as a key part of the open source way. And if you ask most good open source folks when a project should start being open, they’ll say it should be open from the very beginning.

Linus_Torvalds.jpegBut what does that really mean?

Let’s look at the example of one of the most famous and successful open source projects (and one that is close to my heart), Linux.

Back in January, I wrote a post that broke down the first message Linus Torvalds ever sent out to the world about Linux into some of the key concepts that would become central to the open source way. Linus created a blueprint for the open source culture in the tone of his first email, long before the term “open source” was even coined.

Here again are the first few lines of his initial Linux post from August 25, 1991:

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In the whirlwind of Chris Brogan, author of Trust Agents


Last week I was on a panel with Chris Brogan, author of (with Julien Smith) the NY Times bestselling book Trust Agents. Also on the panel were Robert Cook (founder of Freebase and Metaweb), Gary Slack (Chairman of Slack Barshinger and head of the Business Marketing Association), and June Arunga (partner at Black Star Lines and one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business). The panel was moderated by Sree Sreenivasan (Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia Journalism School and regular TV commentator).

trust-agentsAfter looking up the kickin’ credentials of each of these folks, I figured I’d better get my act together and do some research so I wouldn’t immediately out myself as the weak bulb. As part of my homework, I picked up a copy of Trust Agents to read on the plane.

Now I must admit, I’m not a big fan of most books about social media stuff. I think I may be allergic to what I call social media meta-marketing: people using social media to show others how much they know about social media. If all the people using social media to talk about social media just shut up for a minute, we’d probably save Twitter some serious bandwidth expense. But I digress…

So I buy this book, sign up for Chris’s Twitter feed, all the normal stuff. It turns out Chris has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, and almost every post on his blog gets like 50 or 100 comments (and most of them seem really nice and friendly, us open source folks aren’t used to that).

His Twitter feed almost looks like a breathing rhythm, with tweets coming in and out every few seconds. You could probably even calculate how much sleep he gets by putting the times of his first and last tweets of the day for a month in a spreadsheet and averaging out the results. If I hadn’t seen him sneaking some tweeting in under the panel table via his phone, I’d guess TweetDeck was directly wired into his brain.

OK, cut to it. The book is great. I really dug it. It turns out it isn’t so much about social media as it is about building relationships, building trust, being helpful, being useful, being nice, and a bunch of other stuff your mom told you to do when you were younger. After reading the book and spending an afternoon with Chris, it’s pretty obvious how he’s been so successful. He’s just really, really freaking nice.

From the book, here is his strategy:

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Test my theory… when it comes to community, are the words “monetize” and “kill” interchangeable?


I was reading an article online the other day discussing how to “monetize” community. For those of you who don’t speak marketing, monetize means “to convert into money.”

Hey babe! Wanna monetize this community with me?

Hey babe! Wanna monetize this community with me?

Am I the only one who gets a creepy feeling when I see the words monetize and community used closely together?

Bringing up the idea of monetizing stuff at the beginning of a conversation about community is akin to a guy going up to a girl he’s never met and asking her to sleep with him straight out.

Nothing kills community mojo like bad intentions. And when you lead with bad intentions in a community setting, best case people will turn their backs on you, worst case they’ll pour a drink on your head or get their boyfriend to beat you up. Metaphorically speaking.

Look, people, I’m not saying it is wrong to make a living off of good community work. Just like it’s not wrong to date in the hope of finding someone to love you forever. There are just some ways of going about it that are gonna work better than others. And if your own happiness/success is your only goal, you will fail. To be successful in creating community you must take pleasure in sharing something.

So here’s my theory. Next time you hear someone in a meeting use the words “monetize” and “community” closely together (or see someone doing it online), think of me. Try substituting the word “kill” for monetize, and see if it fits. Feel free to post your examples here, send them to me via Twitter, whatever.

Here are a couple of examples I found online to get you started:

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Tom Sawyer, whitewashing fences, and building communities online


I spoke on a panel at GE today with Chris Brogan, author of the book Trust Agents (almost finished with it, more comments in a later post…).

Tom Sayer sez everyone's fence gets whitewashed today, people!

Tom Sawyer sez everyone's fence gets whitewashed today, people!

After hearing Chris talk about building trust in online communities, it hit me that one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when trying to build communities online, even in the open source world, is that they think like Tom Sawyer.

Here’s how Wikipedia retells the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence:

After playing hooky from school on Friday and dirtying his clothes in a fight, Tom is made to whitewash the fence as punishment on Saturday. At first, Tom is disappointed by having to forfeit his day off. However, he soon cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work.

When thinking about building communities online, are you thinking like Tom Sawyer? Why are you building a community in the first place? When it comes right down to it, do you really just want people to whitewash your fence for you and give you small treasures in return for the privilege?

If you are looking to ideas like open source or social media as simple means to get what you want for your company, it’s time to rethink your community strategy.

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Jack Welch on transparency, meritocracy, and the death of hierarchy


On Tuesday I’m heading up to New York to share an open source perspective with GE marketing executives at the legendary GE leadership center in Crotonville. I wrote a post a few months ago praising GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt’s compelling new vision for corporate America, and I have an enormous amount of respect for GE as an innovation engine. I’m excited about the opportunity to exchange ideas with the smart folks there.

GEIn 2009, Forbes ranked GE as the world’s largest company, so I’ve figured before I went up to Crotonville it’d be a good idea to do some homework and see what elements of what we call the open source way are already in practice within one of the most successful companies in history. I’ve found some interesting stuff in my research.

One piece in particular grabbed me. Sitting on the beach today over the holiday weekend, I finished the 2001 biography of Jack Welch (the legendary predecessor to Immelt as Chairman of GE) entitled Jack: Straight from the Gut. I thought I’d share a Jack Welch prediction (written almost ten years ago) that fits right in with our open source view of what the 21st century organization looks like.

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Hey, I Wrote a Book!

The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World

Available now in print and electronic versions.

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