The Permanent Town Hall: Why a President needs to know the Internet

The Permanent Town Hall: Why a President needs to know the Internet

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(in part, regarding an item in the NY Times yesterday.)

It's hard for me, as a nerd, to admit, but the technology isn't really as important as my peers might think. As a customer service rep, however, I can tell you definitively that comfort with Internet use and culture is absolutely required for any kind of leadership these days. It has to do with staying in touch with your community and constituency.

My day job for almost nine years is customer service for a significant web site, on the job every day. In that role I talk to people throughout America, people who are new to computers, people with all kinds of value systems. Prior work was at big corporations, including IBM, Charles Schwab, General Motors and Bank of America… and what I noticed were that guys in leadership roles were increasingly out of touch with people on the front lines.

Part of the problem is that leaders need people around them to deal with Too Much Information. In some cases, assistants limit the information to what the leader wants to hear, letting the leader live in a bubble of complacency, leading to low approval ratings, etc.

Another part of the problem is that people often tell their boss what the boss wants to hear, and the boss tells his boss what she wants to hear.

That's why leaders in big organizations are so frequently out of touch.

People use Internet technology to work around that, effectively and successfully. We're talking email, discussion groups, blogging, and messaging in all its forms. If the leader is paying attention, and looking at direct feedback of that sort, the leader might just be in touch with his or her constituency.

The Internet tech isn't required to stay in touch, it's just the only way if your community numbers in the hundreds of millions.

Doing customer service for a living, I feel like I just might be pretty deeply in touch with my community. I can let my bosses know what's going on, a little redundant, since my CEO also does customer service. Most leaders, CEOs or Presidents, don't have the time to do customer service or even to skim feedback forums or whatever. If the leader is Internet comfortable or literate, he can have an assistant do that. However, it only works if the leader has a good sense of what Internet culture and feedback is about.

A President is the leader of the American community, a lot of people, many of which don't yet have Internet access or comfort. That's being addressed, too slowly, but we do have the critical mass online that a President needs to listen to, to be in touch.

It's a permanent Town Hall, everyone's invited, and in this year, and in this election, it's becoming real. If you want to be President, you need to be in touch with people, and that's one of the best things you can use the Internet for.

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18 Comments

Allen

Good call. We can see this “filter factor” everywhere in business these days. I think it’s one of the reasons the US automakers are in such sad shape.

James

It's an interesting debate for web innovators:
Do we want a leader who wants government to manage internet usage and privacy OR do we want a prez who things it's a bunch of tubes? (FISA bill vs. ambivalence)
Personally, I do not want a Prez who twitters or sends good karma. They should be computer literate but not entrenched in the interruptive technologies.
Unless other world leaders and the G8 Summit is on MySpace then the prez is better building relationships face-to-face rather than text messages to world leaders we have pissed off. That would be the day, when leaders buy, sell, and bitch slap each other on Facebook.
Prez TechEtiquette tip #12: Don't play crackberry games unless Sarkozy is drunk again.

Neil_in_Chicago

SNAFU Principle: Because subordinates tend to tell superiors what they want to hear, the higher up any hierarchical ladder you go, the more distorted the picture becomes. The person with the most authority in the system will likely be the most ignorant.
Technology can't "fix" what is implicit in hierarchy to begin with.

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Personally, I do not want a Prez who twitters or sends good karma. They should be computer literate but not entrenched in the interruptive technologies.

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Most leaders, CEOs or Presidents, don't have the time to do customer service or even to skim feedback forums or whatever. If the leader is Internet comfortable or literate, he can have an assistant do that. However, it only works if the leader has a good sense of what Internet culture and feedback is about.

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We're talking email, discussion groups, blogging, and messaging in all its forms. If the leader is paying attention, and looking at direct feedback of that sort, the leader might just be in touch with his or her constituency.

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Part of the problem is that leaders need people around them to deal with Too Much Information. In some cases, assistants limit the information to what the leader wants to hear, letting the leader live in a bubble of complacency, leading to low approval ratings, etc.

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