You might remember that in September, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey testified before Congress—and Alphabet chose not to send anyone. They were invited to address a list of issues (including exacerbating divisions within our society and attempting to influence elections, both through the dissemination of misinformation) facing social media, how those issues affect our society and what they are doing to address the problems. Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey were not effective in their communication on any of those subjects—that is my take. And based on what they did say, I was disappointed by the lack of: 1) apparent progress; and 2) quality of the information that they shared. I can’t, for certain, attributed point two to be the result of point one, but I believe and am therefore concerned that this is the case.
There are two points that I would like to make before I move on:
- I took time to think about what follows. This is not an off-the-cuff reaction to what I heard; and
- I considered carefully how I should approach communicating my observations. I decided that my analysis of the situation should cover three questions: 1) where we are now; 2) why we are there; and 3) how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?
Where are we now?
The social media companies seem to be trapped at the starting line. They are exhibiting one dimensional thinking and using a brute force approach. Most disappointingly, they seem to be still reacting to the last threat. They aren’t getting ahead of the issue.
They are reporting numbers (e.g. how many fake accounts they have taken down) that lack context, i.e. not couched in terms of how they affect the issue. And, just like communications by leadership during the Vietnam War, the numbers reported by social media companies, while undoubtedly correct, are irrelevant to communicating how well they understand the problem and whether they are being effective in addressing it.
Further, they don’t seem to approach the problem systematically and by that, I mean: 1) defining the problem; 2) subdividing it into manageable pieces; and 3) defining a work plan that will address the root causes.
More importantly, they don’t seem to have a vision of a good end-state, an approach that satisfactorily addresses the problem or even a good definition of the problem. They communicated that they can’t characterize the problem because the threat is continually changing. Yeah! The market is also continually changing, but good companies come up with plans to get ahead of the market, adapt and succeed. Good leaders have a vision. They know where they are going. They are out ahead of their customers and their competitors. In this case the competitors are those that want to use social media in malevolent ways. And, quite frankly the competition is winning.
Finally, social media companies seem to think about this problem in one dimension (technology) and try to apply brute force (i.e., add people), an approach that will not work. I would suggest that the work that needs to be done here should include expertise from the following domains:
- Data Science
- Political Science
- Information Security
Why are we there?
These smart people seem to have attacked the issues with a brute force, technology focused approach. And, I say “seems” because their organizations have been anything but transparent. So, I am piecing things together here. I must do this because these folks have broken several rules of both change and stakeholder management (of which the general public, me included, are an important component) which forces me to do some guessing. More on this later.
Right now, I want to continue my examination of why a single, narrowly focused, brute force approach is wrong-headed. Abraham Maslow famously remarked that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It is an adaptation of the “law of the instrument” which states: “give a boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” This is short a short way of saying that no matter how smart you are (and the folks at Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet are smart), if your toolset is limited, you are unlikely to find an optimal solution to your problem because you are constrained by your tools.
I have run into this problem—i.e., smart people who think that raw intellectual power will overcome any problem even if their teams don’t have the experience in the relevant domains necessary to solve the problem at hand.
The most notable example of this was a case where I was brought on board to fix a project that had gone off the rails. The delivery date had been pushed back several times and I was initially brought in to figure out what was wrong. What I found was a group of domain experts who knew what the client wanted and had designed the system to address the problem but didn’t have enough system integration expertise to build a working system. It took me two years and several tens of millions of dollars to fix the problem, deliver the system and make the client happy. This reinforced my long-held belief that multidisciplinary teams are essential to developing robust solutions to difficult problems because complex problems rarely confine themselves to one domain. I was lucky that I discovered this piece of wisdom early in my career and was smart (secure) enough to leverage it.
There is another possible reason why we are where we are. That is that the leadership of Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet don’t think that there is an issue. This is a problem on two levels:
- If you don’t understand that you have a problem, you will never solve it. That puts you a step behind the aforementioned situation where you know you have an issue, but are not yet effectively understanding or addressing it; and
- If you don’t think you have a problem but dishonestly agree that there is an issue even though you do not actually intend to effectively recognize or address it. I am hoping that this is not the case.
How do we get from where we are to where we need to be?
In my career, the most successful projects were those where you have a team that has all the right skills necessary to fully specify and understand the problem and the smarts to devise solutions that are both efficient and effective. In other words, this approach produces a high value solution that delights the stakeholders.
But, even if you follow this advice, unless you actively and skillfully manage the change process (associated with the implementation of the solution) and your stakeholders, it is unlikely that the outcome will be optimal. This is especially true when the challenge you address is multifaceted, the solution is complex, the number of stakeholders is large.
And, I must give the folks at Facebook a lot of credit. Taking responsibility for the issues was a piece of great stakeholder management. Unfortunately, they a) didn’t follow through with a robust multi-faceted approach to the problem(s); and b) didn’t execute a solid, well thought-out communications plan that provides enough detail to assure their stakeholders without providing too much which might inform their adversaries, i.e. the people who are abusing the platforms. And make no mistake about it, public companies do this all the time. They must balance providing stockholders with enough information to make their value proposition clear without releasing information that will give the competition knowledge that they might use to parry near term strategies and tactics designed to maintain the disclosing company’s competitive advantage.
In figuring out how to address these issues, one must concede that this problem is big. Not just big, but really big. It is bigger than any one player and demands a level of active cooperation that is extensive as any that the technology industry has heretofore attempted. While each of the players (even the ones who feign resource constraints) are individually capable, so are their adversaries. And, the threat is real. I suggest that the players that need to be working together include: new media (social media), old media, technologists, academics, who can bring together all the expertise (and more) that I outlined above.
This is a serious problem. It demands serious attention. And, we must act even if some players decide to opt out. My advice is simple:
- Acknowledge the problem and take responsibility for correcting it;
- Make sure that the team working on the problem has all the skills and experience necessary to address it;
- Attack the problem like you would any competitive threat: 1) be methodical; 2) think about the solution as needing to be complete and well defined; 3) think at least three steps ahead, i.e. don’t let the competition ahead of you;
- Think about whether this is a problem that demands an industry-wide initiative, and if so, put together the mechanisms that will facilitate successful collaboration; and
- Take the time and put in the work to fully understand all the issues associated with the problem;
Copyright 2018 Howard Niden
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