...these pages sprang up overnight like a crop of magic mushrooms on a rich motherlode of corporate horseshit.
Entropy Gradient Reversals

ID4: Gonzo Goes Corporate

So we're pretty soon off to see the fireworks this Day of Our Lord, July 4 1998. But we figured we'd first shoot off this interview, which is the best thing we've got in keeping with the spirit of the day's celebrations. Something about freedom, if we remember correctly.

The following first appeared in "Intranet's: What's the Bottom Line?" a Sun Microsystems/Prentice Hall book by Randy Hinrichs, which also includes interviews with the CIOs and webmasters at SGI, Sun, Netscape and Microsoft.

For more context check out "Firewall My Ass!" at:

To buy the book, go to:

Randy sent us a copy, inside the cover of which he wrote:

To RageBoy a.k.a. Chris Locke

So now you're a visionary. Larry Geisel said so and so did I. No wonder you're working on providing the world with glasses to see better.

You have influenced my thinking, impassioned me to rage forward and contributed generously to the success of this book.

Thank you.

Warm heartedly,

Randy Hinrichs

Anyway, that's enough self-effacing humility for one issue, don't you think? Here's how the chapter appeared in print...

Christopher Locke

Locke was founding editor of Internet Business Report and has written extensively on net-related themes for Internet World, Information Week, Byte, Network Computing and the Internet Society's magazine, OnTheInternet. He has held positions with Mecklermedia, MCI, and IBM, and his Internet work has been reported on by publications such as The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, the Economist, Advertising Age, Inter@ctive Week, and NBC Nightly News. Locke is also editor of a highly irreverent webzine called Entropy Gradient Reversals. If you want to know what that means, visit Chris' web site at http://www.rageboy.com.

Randy: You have an interesting background that shapes your vision. You were editor and publisher of internetMCI's Net Editors Web pages, you were the guy behind MecklerWeb, you were founding editor of the Internet Business Report at CMP Publications. Larry Geisel, CIO at Netscape, calls you an Internet visionary. So what's the vision?

Chris: It's more of an open issue than a vision really. I've got this nagging question in the back of my mind. Are audiences as stupid as many seem to believe? Or have they just been waiting for something like the Net to come along? I'm not suggesting this is a conscious thing necessarily. There has been so much conditioning by previous media models in which people were simply information consumers that, at this point, I think they're not sure what they want. But when most people I've talked to first encountered the Net, they sort of went crazy -- and I mean that in a very positive sense. It's so open and free compared to traditional media, and invites participation as broadcast never could -- nor usually wanted to.

It's genuinely empowering, well beyond the cliché that word has become. This whole constellation of questions also applies to employees -- and since we're talking about intranets here, that's critical.

Bottom Line: The old industrial-era mandate to "check your brain at the door" is utterly dysfunctional in an economy driven by knowledge and innovation.

That doesn't mean this mentality is dead by any means; just that it's more suicidal than ever. Intranets invite participation in the same way the Internet does.

But businesses, especially large ones, have been subject to a lot of denial with respect to this radical shift in the capabilities and desires of both external markets and internal workforces. If I have a vision, I've built it around confronting that denial wherever I encountered it, and believe me, I've had no lack of opportunities.

Randy: One shift, two results -- with the technology supplying the motive force. That's saying you see significant parallels between the desires of the market and the needs of employees?

Chris: Well, I'm not convinced technology is the primary driver here, but it certainly potentiates other trends that were in motion well before networks or even computers came on the scene. That's a long street to go down, though. As to significant parallels, yes indeed, these do constitute the two sides of the network coin: Let's say obverse is the market-oriented Internet and reverse is the workforce-focused intranet. Each relies on the other in fundamental and highly complimentary ways. Without strong market objectives and connections, you have no viable focus for the work of the intranet; without a strong intranet, your market objectives and connections might remain wishful thinking.

Randy: That seems pretty easy to accept. So where does the denial come in?

Chris: There were tremendous economies of scale in the old-school broadcast-advertising alliance -- and there still are in some traditional media. Many companies don't want to relinquish that. It's what they know. It's where they made their fortunes. But trying to keep things in that old familiar rut is to deny that the ability of markets to respond and interact -- and this is what the Internet has brought to the party -- makes any real or lasting difference. But in fact, it does.

Randy: Are you suggesting that companies are afraid that the Internet and intranets will actually make people smarter?

Chris: Yeah, actually I am saying precisely that. The single greatest difference the Net has made to market realities is that -- because networks enable people to share relevant knowledge with those having like interests -- the lowest common denominator of informed awareness tends to be much higher on-line than in broadcast media.

And it also tends to get higher a lot faster. This raising of "informed awareness" obviously applies to intranets as well -- I'd say it's where their primary value lies. Notice I said networks had this "potential" though. A lot can get in the way of that before it's realized -- like the denial we just mentioned.

Randy: So what would you say is the greatest danger for a company seeking to create a viable intranet?

Chris: That's easy: the command-and-control mentality.

Randy: Can you give an example of how that might work against an intranet effort?

Chris: Well, I'm reminded of an excellent cover story on intranets that Business Week ran a while back -- this was just around the time the buzzwords were emerging into general parlance. Several CIOs were quoted as saying they had so many thousand web pages behind the firewalls. And they were kind of crowing about it. But my take was that this content didn't get created top-down by the IS organization. Instead, these pages sprang up overnight like a crop of magic mushrooms on a rich motherlode of corporate horseshit.

Randy: That's certainly an amusing turn of phrase, but what does it mean in practical terms?

Chris: Well, look, when this got started -- all of what? maybe 12-18 months ago at best? -- you had thousands of workers with easy access to free web browsers and a smaller set of folks who had figured out how to set up servers whose only cost was download and tinkering time. These people soon figured out that HTML wasn't rocket science -- and the rest is history! Suddenly there was nothing in the way of their own ideas and creativity. Skunk works wanted to build broader support for their projects, individuals wanted to be noticed for their technical savvy or penetrating wit or business insight.

Randy: And then the corporate types stepped in . . .

Chris: Exactly. To be fair, a certain type of corporate types, because there are people out there -- a handful anyway -- who truly understand the dynamics of how all this stuff works. And by dynamics, I mean more the cultural aspect of networking. For the technology, you can buy a book. Aside from this handful, though, most corporate managers are clueless in the extreme.

For one thing, far too many have never spent any serious time on-line. Then the first thing they think about is who will report to whom and where everybody sits in some abstract organization chart. But command-and-control thinking throws cold water onto all that magic-mushroom enthusiasm. You know, directives saying "Your pages must be formally approved by the Department of Business Prevention." That sort of thing. But it's quite often the people at the lower levels of the organization that have the most valuable knowledge -- not the managers and corporate control freaks.

So if you kill off this enthusiasm, you can have a large, professional looking, very expensive intranet that nobody uses or cares much about. The question companies should be asking themselves is, "What if we built an intranet and nobody came?"

Bottom Line: If control is what you're really after, you might as well go back to mainframes.

Randy: But don't you need top management support to make it really work?

Chris: Yeah sure, but mostly that support needs to come in the form of facilitation and enough brains to get out of the way. It's gotta be more like rock and roll than strait-laced traditional business -- and that puts the command-and-control crowd right over the top. This is the exact corporate analogy of the broadcasters not wanting to relinquish their mass markets. It's stonewall denial.

Randy: But come on. Are you seriously suggesting that you can run a company by improvising all the time?

Chris: Companies run that way whether anybody wants them to or not. Nobody runs them, nobody writes the score. If you plan to serve these companies -- which means making money of course -- you'd better have a clue about what's going on out there in the marketspace. And what's going on is the Internet.

The Net was a novelty when I was first preaching all this stuff, but market expectations are totally welded to Net-speed performance today. Your software product isn't available for downloading? You don't have secure transaction processing so I can buy it when I need it? Hey, I'm gone! And so is a big chunk of your market share. Your company doesn't have access to a high volume of corporate data, or you aren't doing process transactions on-line, I'm looking for another company.

Randy: This doesn't just apply strictly to software companies -- nor to product marketing, I assume.

Chris: That's right. It applies across the board to information of every stripe. It applies to ideas -- how to acquire them within the company and from the market, move them around, get peer feedback, sort them, slice them, dice them, move them back out into the market as new products, get customer feedback -- then iterate, getting better at it as you go. Make mistakes. Debug on the fly. It's fast, it's furious. It's fun! You get the picture. If you want a rock-and-roll company, which is more important, knowing how to dance or adhering to procedure?

Randy: Well, yes, but how does all this get coordinated? Doesn't this turn into anarchy?

Chris: Yeah, it does, and you start instigating it. It's bizarre. What I've always been really interested in is revolution. A real one, not some bogus "revolutionary" flavor of the month management obsession like "downsizing" where everybody gets screwed but the top dogs. Where do you think the fervor came from to produce that first wild-oats crop of intranets? It surely wasn't from the CIOs who got quoted in Business Week. Look, workers at every level have had it with repressive organizations. Markets have had it with hyperbole-laden corporate rhetoric that's 99 percent hot air. Why not put them both together and kick some serious butt? About time, don't you think?

Randy: And you say you worked for IBM?

Chris: It was a short marriage.

Randy: But I have to ask the question again. How does this get coordinated? It can't just be a bunch of individuals doing their own thing.

Chris: Well, I'd say that's already the case in too many corporations that only think they're in control. People largely do what they feel like anyway and give as little as possible to the company. It's adversarial as hell, yes. But if you look into it, the company almost invariably has set things up that way by not trusting people to be motivated, intelligent, creative, innovative . . . the list goes on.

Randy: So would you say that intranet initiatives represent an opportunity to turn this situation around?

Chris: Absolutely. But only if there's genuine awareness of what's on the table. Remember Deming? Was he just whistling in the wind or was he pointing out real problems in organizations that can't just be swept under the rug? I'd say the latter. However, too much of the juice that's gone into intranet development is focused on whiz-bang technology and not nearly enough on the cultural revolution all this implies -- in fact demands.

The answer to your question about coordination -- finally -- is cooperation and negotiation among peers and colleagues. But these have to be executed very fast, not in committee meetings. This is why people need power in organizations -- not to lord it over others but to make intelligent decisions on the fly and not see them get overturned two days later by managers who don't know the territory. Without getting into the politics of it, do you remember the biggest complaint of the armed forces in Vietnam? It was that the war was being fought from Washington. Again without getting into the politics of it: We lost. This is a big clue as to how many intranet initiatives could play out.

Randy: So is there some kind of infrastructure that would better fit this new mode of operation?

Chris: I'm not so sure any imposed infrastructure would help. Most "empowerment" programs are embarrassingly paternalistic, to the point of backfiring entirely. Real authority is based on knowledge and the two are inherently intertwined. Also, both grow bottom up. When arbitrary "management" takes over what was initially a "hand-rolled" intranet -- the individuals who championed and created it often feel betrayed and disenfranchised. If you look back into the history of craft and what happened in the Industrial Revolution, you see the same thing. We are making some very old mistakes here.

Take another example much closer to the present. The autonomous PC challenged the hegemony of mainframe information systems and enabled the development of quick solutions that could end-run the infamous MIS-bottleneck. Then IS management discovered the LAN, which did deliver another layer of utility. However, instead of leveraging this new resource for the benefit of "users" -- even that word is an artifact of the mentality -- they largely used the LAN to reestablish control over information access and work environments.

Now, many companies are doing the same thing again with the intranet. You get this rule-book mentality -- the corporation's common look and feel, logo placement, legal number of words on each web page. Whatever. It's all so cramped and constipated and uninviting. Dead. The people who actually built the intranet -- created the content that makes it valuable -- will bail, looking for yet another open system. And today they're sure to find one.

Randy: Where?

Chris: Well, remember the context for all this. Twenty years ago, or even five, only corporations could provide the kind of resources needed to process even modest volumes of information. The cost of such systems was a significant barrier to entry for new businesses that might become competitors. But today individuals have this kind of power in their rec rooms! And they can get all the Internet they can eat for 20 bucks a month. If the company doesn't come through with the kind of information (and delivery) that turns them on -- provides learning, advances careers, and nurtures the unbridled joy of creation -- well, hey, they'll just do it elsewhere. Maybe in the garage. You can laugh, but it's happening right now.

Randy: I assume the results of all this are showing up somewhere on the World Wide Web?

Chris: Yeah, but you've got to get down to the underbelly of the thing -- way down below the hype and hoopla, there's something very different brewing. It has to do with living, with livelihood, with connection and community. This isn't some smarmy New Age mysticism either. It's tough and gritty and it's just beginning to find its voice, its own direction. This is hard to communicate -- you have to see it for yourself. You have to live in the net for a while.

At the risk of sounding self-serving -- a dirty job but someone's gotta do it -- you could take my own webzine, Entropy Gradient Reversals as an example. This might be shocking stuff to some corporate denizens, but they'd probably be even more shocked by the subscriber list. It includes some of the best minds in the on-line business.

EGR screenshot
Figure 9-4 Entropy Gradient Reversals -- a Visionary E-zine

Randy: You've mentioned several cases where things are radically other than they appear, almost as if a new kind of logic is emerging, or needs to.

Chris: Yeah, I call it gonzo business management -- paradox become paradigm. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and we might as well get used to it. The opportunity here is to keep your day job but at the same time to indulge your human creativity and self-expression.

Companies that try to prevent this sort of thing within their firewalls -- as many do -- need to have their collective heads examined. Conversely, companies that foster and encourage it will win big.

The best software, design, graphics, writing -- elegant, artistic, fantastically interesting and valuable content -- are coming out of places where people feel their creativity is valued. Places where inspiration is king. No arrogance, no pretense, just like grunge rock coming out of Seattle garages. Here's another clue: Unless your industry is very "mature" -- which means ready for the bone yard -- your market isn't wearing pinstripe suits anymore, either. In many cases, your workers are your market. Come out of the bunker once in a while, see what they're up to -- it could be your future.

Randy: And what would this innovative creativity do for a corporation?

Chris: Well, the last few sentences in fact described exactly where intranets came from in most cases -- not from the boardrooms, but from the corporate basements. After Business Week blessed them as "Significant Developments," everybody jumped aboard. But how do you know where the next big thing is going to come from? You need great radar today, and that means a wide-awake workforce that's constantly tinkering, exploring, figuring out new ways to have fun.

If that sounds too frivolous, this kind of creativity also tends to jump-start real knowledge exchange. But for that to really happen, you've to get outside the firewall to a very real extent.

Bottom Line: Intranets could blow corporations out of their counterproductive stove pipes and get people charged up to bring new knowledge into the company.

Randy: You just went from intranet to Internet to what Zona Research calls extended intranet.

Chris: If that's not just another empty buzzword, it could point to a much needed dimension of all this. I'm bothered by the Internet/intranet dichotomy. It reinforces the "not invented here syndrome" that has seriously damaged so many companies. I think the businesses that are going to make it will not only have to tear down their internal walls, they're also going to have to tear down their external walls. The survivors will be left standing naked -- in the middle of a thriving marketplace. That's actually a very promising paradox, but it's the stuff of nightmares for many companies.

"Drive out fear," Deming said, and he was right. But it's not easy for the Old Guard. It goes very deep.

Randy: Fear of what exactly?

Chris: Well, we were just talking about mistrust a while ago, between managers and the managed. Do you follow Dilbert? Mike Hammer, the god of reengineering himself, said it wasn't a comic strip but a documentary. There is a long history of adversarial worker-management relations in America. And it's not because of Karl Marx or the AFL-CIO as much as it is the fallout from people like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, ideas like "scientific management" and Theory X -- it's a long story. The basic fear is that employees are pilfering your time, collecting a paycheck while hanging out on the Net or playing Solitaire all day. Let me tell you, though, the people who built the first internet sites in the organizations I worked with put in 17-hour days. They worked like soldiers rebuilding a bridge. You had to be there to believe it.

But many now managing internet or intranet projects were not there and they don't believe it. It all goes back to a fear of losing control. Whatever the cause, it has to go. Right now these fear-driven corporations are spending millions on market research, the whole point of which is to find out whom they're selling to. They don't know anymore. They've barricaded themselves in their executive suites, and now they want to erect firewalls on top of that.

Randy: This goes back to your belief that you have to live on the Net to work with the Net. That is why data security is so necessary.

Chris: Yes, yes, it's necessary. Data security is no joke and it needs to be done well. But many of the outfits I'm talking about here are desperate for firewalls because they don't want the market to see they have nothing worth stealing inside them! That's not security, it's paranoia. You can't identify best practices without sticking your neck out -- but if you don't, you risk premature death. You can't invite customers to contribute design ideas and requirements by holding them at bay. In contrast, companies that are in touch with their markets have got the doors flung wide open. They're constantly searching for solid information -- we're not talking advertising here -- that they can share with customers and prospects via Web and FTP sites, personal e-mail and phone calls, whatever it takes. They're not half as concerned with protecting their data -- with certain critical exceptions of course -- as with how much of it they can manage to give away. That's how they stay in touch, stay competitive, keep market attention from drifting to competitors.

Randy: It's as if the kind of companies you're talking about here are creating a whole new kind of corporate identity, not based so much on brand awareness and the repetitive advertising needed to create that, as on substantive, personalized communications.

Chris: Yes! The question is whether, as a company, can you afford to have more than an advertising-jingle persona? Can you put yourself out there -- say what you really think, present who you really are, what you really care about, what really turns you on? Do you have any genuine passion to share? Can you deal with such honesty? Such exposure? Human beings are often magnificent in this regard, while companies, frankly, tend to suck.

You asked where the fear was coming from. I think it's fairly obvious. For most large corporations, even considering these questions -- and they're being forced to by both Internet and intranet -- is about as exciting as the prospect of an experimental brain transplant.

Randy: You predicted that the Internet was going to be a very big deal in a 1992 Byte cover story. So what do you see happening by the end of the decade? You're painting a pretty dismal picture here.

Chris: Well, yes and no. It's only dismal if you're spooked by the prospect of coming in out of the cold. The companies at highest risk are not wonderful places to be working in -- at any level. Their prospects could be very bright if they'd just decide to stop being prisons with nasty wardens.

And if they choose not to . . . well, I don't have much pity for them. Companies that are harming themselves out of genuine ignorance can, with a little humility and a lot of hard work, begin to learn and change. I've seen it happen and it's an impressive thing. On the other hand, companies that are harming the people who work for them out of cowardice, greed, and willful stupidity richly deserve whatever fate may have in store. Passion is a two-way street, you know. It doesn't always refer to love.

As to predictions, I predicted in a 1992 Byte cover story that the Internet was going to be A Very Big Deal -- and everyone thought I was completely nuts. So I've tried to stop saying those sorts of things. However, I strongly suspect that unless Fortune 1000 companies wake up with respect to the issues surfaced here, half will be gone by the year 2000. These giant companies tend to look only over the tops of the trees at the other giants they consider worthy competitors. Few bother to look down at their feet. If they did, I think more than a few would see their foundations being nibbled away by competitors many times smaller, yet fiercely committed to do battle for even a tiny slice of this new territory. Some guy in a garage can only take away, say, .001 percent of market share from one of these monster companies. However, a million guys -- or gals -- in garages can take it all. And given the new business dynamics that the Internet brings to bear, this can happen overnight. There will certainly be some radical discontinuities. Some catastrophic breaks.

Believe it: There really are people out there who know what to do with this stuff. But again, I don't think it's necessarily a dismal picture. Let's just say companies currently have a lot of motivation to get serious. And to get really serious, they first have to get a sense of humor and relax.

Randy: Whoa. You suggest that maybe half of the Fortune 1000 may soon evaporate, and then you say these same companies should relax?

Chris: Yeah, yet another pretzel-logic paradox. They need to relax to break that obsessive-compulsive control habit. They need to trust their people to do the work better than they ever could themselves -- Jack Welch said that several years ago in a GE annual report, so it's not just more of my own mad-dog opinion. Corporate intranets, if implemented along the lines we've been talking about, could unleash the potential energy of the corporation. But in order to nourish and grow that potential, you first have to let go of it. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi said "to control your cow, give it a bigger pasture." That is the true essence of the intranet, oh Grasshopper.

Entropy Gradient Reversals
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