Note: this review is an edited version of a longer book review found on my blog at [...].
Empowered is a welcome follow-up to Groundswell Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. It takes the perspective of the individual within the company who steps up to the challenges posed by organizational realities (and nonsense), to do the "right thing" for the company and/or the customer. Bernoff and Schadler call these people Highly Empowered Resourceful Operatives -- HEROs. The message is: you need HEROs. So let's talk about how the book tells this story, and what it might mean to you.
The book starts with the bold assertion that you need HEROs in your company to fix the flaws in the way you interact, ignore, or infuriate your customers. Moreover, you need to support your HEROs, even if this means breaking a few processes here and there. This assertion is then supported by a series of wonderful stories about the impact that influential customers and heroic employees have on huge multi-billion $ companies. You'll recognize the brand names throughout the book (such as Maytag and BestBuy), and you may already know some of the stories. You may also recognize the gracious mention of many vendors in the Social CRM and Enterprise 2.0 space. The big take-away in the first section is the clarification of the 4 technology drivers that amplify changes affecting marketing, customer support, and corporate technology. These are: mobile computing, pervasive video, cloud computing, and social technologies.
The analysis is on-target and crisp; highlighting the issues and implications of each. Note: At this point the careful reader might ask if the assertion "You need HEROs" is truly supported by the stories. I'd suggest another question is "who is the 'you' that the authors are talking about?" So let's read on and see.
The next section addresses some of the projects that HEROs create and provides a worksheet for how to predictively evaluate the value of the effort. This section is full of great stories from Zappos, ETrade, Intuit, UPS, Ford, Microsoft, and a few other familiar brands. Unfortunately the authors do not show how they would apply the worksheet inputs to any of the cases -- they only refer to the output. So you get a worksheet that seems reasonable and helpful, but I'm not sure it had been battle-tested. But, you can help battle-test the worksheet by using it. And you can find it on the website associated with the book (at [...]).
The section continues with more well-written stories of companies that allowed HERO-ic individuals to do the "right" thing in the face of corporate challenges. There is also a decent amount of supportive data that Forrester collected to add quantifiable scope to their assertions. You'll probably recognize the "United Breaks Guitars" story. Each story add a slightly different angle to the main point of the book - that being: Corporations get in their own way of great service, great marketing, and great employee engagement, but new tools and behaviors, along with a HERO-empowering mindset can help fix this.
The final section focuses on the impact that HEROs have on the organization. And thankfully the authors address the fact that not all change is going to go over well. The reality is that HEROs make mistakes. But the authors argue (effectively) that mitigating the extent and negative impact of the mistakes is usually pretty achievable, and the benefits usually outweigh the risks. The authors take a clear stand, even though they disclose that companies will struggle taking their advice. They did not present the anti-case studies of failed HEROs or of employees who get themselves fired by trying to be HEROs 'cuz they read about it in a hot business book. As with most HERO epics, the story has a hopeful ending.
As I closed the book I felt this was a great read, well written, and worthwhile. The stories carried the message. Forrester's data supported the message. And the practical advice throughout provided tangible value to the message. But for some strange reason, I could not give it 5 stars. Perhaps because I have over-inflated expectations based on my familiarity with the authors and the topic. Sorry if that's unfair.
Here's where it fell short for me. My expectation was that the authors would take a sharper edge at the Pollyanna syndrome where we get so dazzled by Social Media that we forget to challenge the stories. The fact that someone might have a few thousand twitter followers, is alone, not enough to say that a few thousand people actually read tweets from that person. Many twitter follower are non-people, or are people who don't read your tweets. The fact that someone you admire really hates some brand and blogs about it might make for fun reading -- but to what extent does that really impact sales or stock price? I believe 100% approval usually mean "boring". You probably want to have a least 5% of the people in the world upset with you -- otherwise you are not doing enough. So I expected to see the hard data demonstrating the extent that Maytag (or United, etc.) really suffered from some negative blogs. Maybe it actually benefited from this book mention? Maybe sales are really impacted by the impression we have of the salesperson in the store, not the articulate blogger who had a some random bad experience. So I expected more data, and more critical perspective on the proof-points. It was present, I wanted more.
I also hoped to see a very clear articulation of the three areas that the book covered -- 1. brand impression 2. customer service, and 3. employee collaboration. These all benefit from HEROs, but the cases are very different, and I hoped the authors would delineate these in a very crisp manner. Again, it was present, but I wanted more.
I also hoped that they would make very clear to whom they target their message. Let me take a stab: these authors typically speak to, and about, $1B+ companies. So if you are the CMO in such a company -- this book is your task list and you have to read it. There are many such companies: banks, airlines, tech-giants, utilities, media properties, big-box retailers, and others. But let's say you are the CMO of a small business that runs a chain of auto-repair shops? or you run a dry cleaner? How does the HERO message work for you? Do you have a brand that could be impacted by a blogger? Do people think that the best way to get your attention is to tweet? Maybe. But we'd all understand that the approach would differ substantially.
We love reading about heroes, since they give us something to admire, and aspire to. But I wonder if the book would have been even better if the lasting message was how to make sure that HERO behavior becomes more viral and pervasive than hero stories. After all, there is no Superman. We each have to be the HERO in our own little corner of the world. Companies don't need the solo, inspirational social media HERO that we can use as case studies for great blog posts and business books. Companies need everyone to be a hero. "Empowered" is the next needed step -- but I suspect there's more to this story.