Well, I Know I Conversed with People About the Book.

For the last week or so, I’ve been deep into reading The Cluetrain Manifesto, and I will admit specifically to being late to the party on this one, as much of it was published back in 1999 on the Web. I’ve found it to be one of the most interesting collections of essays I’ve read in years, and to be truthsome I believe that, if I had read it back in college, I would have approached a few things in utterly different ways.

Does it have anything to say about ministry or about anything specifically Lutheran? By no means. But it does have some very specific and very pointed things to say about doing business—and doing business well—in an Internet-enabled world.

Part of what it has to say must be taken in the proper context. I had been pointed in the direction of this book by a podcast I was listening to this past week (though I had heard about it before). This book was composed between 1999 and 2001. It is, in hindsight, prophetic. I believe that it accurately predicted the results of the dot-com crash of the early 2000’s, and that the authors saw things happening that many, many other people did not.

There are, on the flip side of this, some things they could not have foreseen. The rise of Google as the preeminent provider of search and context-sensitive advertising had not yet happened, and I seriously doubt that the authors saw the meteoric rise of blogging as a publishing paradigm, as neither is really mentioned. Much focus is heaped on corporate intranets, which in many cases don’t exist anymore—IMO due to atrophy more than anything else. They banked on markets being more interconnected and organized than they appear to have become.

But some things in this book are very, very right. And we would do well to listen to them.

Just about all the concessions we make to work in a well-run, non- disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed environment have to do with giving up our voice.

Nothing is more intimately a part of who we are than our voice. It expresses what we think and feel. It is an amalgam of the voluntary and involuntary. It gives style and shape to content. It subtends the most public and the most private. It is what we withhold at the moments of greatest significance.

Our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, our visible enthusiasms.

If there is one thing that I have learned in my various jobs and in working with people, it’s that they are looking for a voice on the other side of communication mediums. Whether it be the use of an online forum, a community site, a blog, a personal visit or conversation, a phone call, or an e-mail, there is something immensely satisfying about discovering that the answer coming from the other end of the phone is being delivered by a person, actual and whole. There’s an immense amount of trust that is generated in business coming down to a conversation, dictated by the unique needs and voices of both parties, not just one or the other.

Each conversation is unique, in the same way that each person is unique. As expressed elsewhere in Cluetrain, underneath the hood of every faceless company sits a number of real human beings, each with faults and failings, each with their own strengths as well as weaknesses. It is most important that we, as people, not lose our voice in our day-to-day dealings with each other.

In business as it has become in our networked world, it’s become more important than anyone could have imagined (I think even more than the authors of Cluetrain imagined) for both buyers and sellers to speak in their own voices. What I mean by this isn’t something that can be confined, defined, or restricted by “public relations” or by speaking only through corporate mouthpieces. Customers want to be introduced to the people who are behind what they are purchasing and what they are being told they need to buy. Being connected is more important to us than ever, now that we have shed the restrictions of traditional mediums of marketing and communications and have moved to the ever-shifting and non-hierarchical medium of the Internet—and more specifically the Web.

It’s important to know that these principles don’t just apply to business, but can apply to other organizations as well. The recent blogging initiatives by both the Ft. Wayne seminary and the St. Louis seminary (and St. Louis, CTS totally beat you to that URL) are proof that we are finally waking up and realizing that people on the outside want more information, more contact, more reality from the institutions and organizations to which they are connected and in which they have become invested. You see this in our church body in how carefully we measure things, how critical an eye we have towards what our various entities and organizations are doing, and—more importantly—who is doing the moving, how they are doing it, and why. We want to be involved.

Networked markets are not only smart markets, but they’re also equipped to get much smarter, much faster, than business-as-usual.

Business-as-usual doesn’t realize this because it continues to conceptualize markets as distant abstractions — battlefields, targets, demographics — and the Net as simply another conduit down which companies can broadcast messages. But the Net isn’t a conduit, a pipeline, or another television channel. The Net invites your customers in to talk, to laugh with each other, and to learn from each other. Connected, they reclaim their voice in the market, but this time with more reach and wider influence than ever . . .

People are talking in the new market because they want to, because they’re interested, because it’s fun. Conversations are the “products” the new markets are “marketing” to one another constantly online. Hey! Come look at my Web site. Subscribe to my e-zine. Check the whacked-out rant I just posted to alt.transylvanian.polarbears. Get a load of this stupid banner ad I just found at boy-are-we-clueless.com!

By comparison, corporate messaging is pathetic. It’s not funny. It’s not interesting. It doesn’t know who we are, or care. It only wants us to buy. If we wanted more of that, we’d turn on the tube. But we don’t and we won’t. We’re too busy. We’re too wrapped up in some fascinating conversation.

Engagement in these open free-wheeling marketplace exchanges isn’t optional. It’s a prerequisite to having a future. Silence is fatal.

I think there is no better example of a success in this methodology and this application of the Internet as a tool for reaching and connecting people than the success of Lutheran Service Book. If you are a Missouri Lutheran, you’re now seeing the book everywhere you go. Everywhere.

I don’t mean in marketing materials, in catalogs, or in the Reporter. Such a simple thing as a new hymnal has been widely adopted by our churches, finding vast acceptance throughout a church body that is normally reticent to alter course and has a stereotypical reputation for being frightened of change. We’re Missouri Lutherans. We were using two different hymnals, and many of us didn’t want to give up one or the other. So how did this happen?

We were conversing about it well before it ever became a reality, before it was ever offered for us to buy. It was a painstaking and time-consuming process, to be sure, but the congregations, pastors, and theologians of our church body were involved in the project on a level I have a hard time fully imagining, and as a consequence, our people were in active discussion with each other. It’s not a book created by an elite group (though elite is a term I would certainly apply to some of the individuals involved), but rather came out of having conversations and dialoguing with our congregations.

Granted, many of these conversations were handled the old-fashioned way, through calls and personal meetings, but I daresay (as an educated guess) that e-mail acted as an enabler in this situation, providing people who would not have had a voice otherwise a method for reaching the people they needed to reach and engaging them in conversation.

And remember that conversation isn’t just talking at people, it’s talking with people. Talking with people means that you’re also listening to them and taking what they have to say to heart.

The project required large amounts of time, manpower, and attention to detail, but the end result is something that is uniquely tailored to our church body. It does not, as Paul Grime once remarked, create a perfect fit for any single congregation in our church, but it does create the perfect fit for all of them, seen as a single organism that is created by the chorus of millions of individual voices joined together in faith.

We talked to each other. Some of us conversed with those who were guiding the project. Some of us became people who were involved in guiding the project and in guiding that project into our churches. Some of us became people who went out to present the finished product using our own unique voice, conversing with other unique voices and giving them honest answers to honest questions. There were years full of news—whether you agreed or disagreed with every little decision—and while we were being fed that information, bit by bit, our appreciation for the thing increased in small increments until we loved it, and for some of us, we loved it before we had really even seen it.

It had us at “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

And then—perhaps most remarkably and most beneficially—our pastors and church councils engaged their people in the same way. The conversational methodology for dealing with such a thing had become contagious. Instead of by fiat or decree, decisions to spend money and to equip our people with a new worship resource were done by opening the floor to listening to each other, to conversing. We led with our hearts and talked with our voices. And when people asked questions, the answers were ready, and the answers were honest and given within the context of that voice.

Once it was released and was taken up into the lives of our people and our congregations, they felt like they knew it already, and in a strange sort of a way, they did. It didn’t matter which book you came from. You had been talking about it, reading the proposed materials, and keeping track of the project for so long that once it arrived, it was only natural. It was about time, and everybody knew it.

We’re still doing this—still conversing about it—today. It’s a wonderful thing.

Do I realize that these are business principles being applied to the life of the church? Of course I do. I’ll admit there’s more than a little shoehorning going on as I type this. I’m aware that it doesn’t fit completely, and there are other things I plan on addressing in future entries. I’m aware that something like a hymnal is a strange beast, and there are perhaps other factors that have influenced the fact that I enjoy knowing that such an awesome resource is in so many of our congregations and is serving them well.

I also understand that I’m speaking about the hymnal project, how it came about, and how it was worked through anecdotal evidence as well as my own following the project through my time at university and seminary. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, and if I am, I’d expect some gentle criticism and a correction or two: some conversation. Nobody’s perfect. I’m just calling it as I see it.

I leave you with this: this kind of conversation doesn’t always happen. But it should. And to top it all off, we as Lutherans have a distinct and unique opportunity through our theological understandings to speak in our own voices, to let each other know who we are, what we do, and who we represent. We are inspired, creative, struggling, passionate, saints and sinners in the same package. There’s a lot of power in that understanding. We’d be wise to take advantage of it.

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