Corporate Insecurity, the Magic Mirror, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

A cautionary tale of control

Once upon a time—OK, it was 2002, but I'm trying to keep this tale abstract—there was a Big Software Company that suddenly realized that customer satisfaction among IT professionals was shockingly low. The Company had earned a reputation for arrogance and for being convinced that it must control everything connected with its products. After much agonizing and pondering over the curious appeal of open source alternatives to its products, the Company decided to start talking to customers and paying attention to feedback.

Something of a renaissance resulted. Control as the prime directive seemed to relax: Employee blogs proliferated, user groups were underwritten, feedback mechanisms became ubiquitous, MVPs were recruited in droves, "heterogeneous" became a socially acceptable word, and products began to include user-requested functionality. A magical awakening was transforming the land.

Happily Ever After?
In every good story comes a point when the magical progress seems on the verge of disappearing. Hubris always threatens to turn the fairy tale into a tragedy. The protagonists start feeling pretty cocky about whuppin' the dragon, then suddenly the dragon grows another head and snorts out a fresh fiery blast.

In the ongoing tale of this hypothetical Software Company, signs are beginning to portend that some executives might be feeling pretty cocky about the progress they've made with IT customer satisfaction. Some influential princes are urging the Company to take back control of what information customers can access and to "own" the nascent community. The dèja vu dragon is stirring. How long will the Company's customers be satisfied when they figure out they're only able to get the information the Company thinks they should have?

Opposing factions within the Company recognize this need for control as insecurity and point to how miserably the "We know what's best for you" approach failed with IT customers. These factions understand that the power of the Mighty Open Source rests in the ideas that no central authority controls information and that Linux followers rally to defend Open Source out of enthusiasm, conviction, and empowerment.

Can't Handle the Truth
Fairy tales abound with examples of characters who can't handle the truth and who fall victim to their insecurity. Snow White's evil queen doesn't want to hear that she's not the fairest in the land, so she decides to solve the problem by killing the competition. That tactic accomplishes only the evil queen's demise. The fashion-challenged emperor surrounded by yes-men ends up exposing all his secrets because nobody dares to tell him the truth about his nakedness.

These stories are told to help children learn what it takes to become a mature adult. As the Big Software Company matures, its executives need to decide whether they can handle the truth or just want to surround themselves with yes-men who love the executives' invisible outfits.

Learn from Mistakes or Repeat Them
The IT customer satisfaction crisis seems to have convinced the Company that customers want it to be open to outside ideas. If the Company decides that it has all the information its customers could need, it runs the risk of once again shutting down the dialog that has produced so much good will.

The Company likes to refer to our industry as an ecosystem in which the Company, third-party vendors, and customers all contribute to healthy growth. If the Company's embrace of customers becomes a stranglehold that prevents exposure to different perspectives, the Company is likely to face major dissatisfaction again.

The Leopard's Spots
Rudyard Kipling wrote a tale that asked whether leopards could change their spots, and the answer was no: "They are quite contented as they are." Is the Big Company really interested in becoming more open to customers, or will it resort to its old ways once it has customer satisfaction "fixed"? I wonder whether the Company's executives really care about IT community, or whether they're actually quite contented as they are.

Please send me your thoughts on this tale. Let me know if you think things are really changing.

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