Posted by: kevinliebl | November 14, 2009

Social Media – Can it Be Used to Provide an Unbiased Platform for Communication?

Joshua BellIt was a morning rush hour just like any other in the Washington DC subway station.  Commuters rushed through the tunnel with their Starbucks coffee in one hand and their newspaper under their other arm.  A man sat on a chair with a violin and played to the crowd, hoping they would stop for a few minutes and possibly throw some change into his cardboard box.  During his 45-minute session, he played six different Bach compositions and approximately 1,100 people passed him by.

In the first three minutes, a middle-aged man slowed for a moment and then hurried by.  A few minutes later, the violinist received his first tip – a woman threw a dollar in the box without slowing or even looking directly at him.  Several minutes later, a man stopped, leaned against the wall to listen and then looked at his watch and moved on.  The spectator who gave the violinist the most attention, was a 3-year old boy.  His mother, clearly annoyed, tugged the child along.

The 1,097 people who passed through the L’Enfant Plaza Station on January 12, 2007 had no idea that they were being treated to a free concert by the world-renowned violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.  He performed six classical pieces on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which he paid $3.5 million).  During his 45-minute mini-concert, he collected a total of $32.17.  Three days earlier, he played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where seats sold for $100.

What can we conclude from this experiment?  Can we conclude that people were too busy to stop and enjoy the beauty right in front of them?  Can we conclude that people chose to ignore the performance because this was simply a “subway performer”, and therefore, not an artist of any significant talent?  Can we conclude that the “herd mentality” kept people from stepping out of line to stop and listen?

How can this lesson be applied to business cultures?  In each company, there are preconceived notions that certain people have more value than others.  Executives will dominate meetings.  Middle management will be ignored.  Low-level employees may not even be invited to the conversation.  Over time, the senior executives and dominant personalities stifle the others in the company.  Many employees eventually give up offering suggestions and simply keep their mouths shut.

It goes without saying, but some of the greatest suggestions come from the mid-level and entry-level employees because they live-and-breathe the day-to-day operations of the company.  They know the challenges and have thought through the solutions.  We have all been in meetings where the C-level executive goes on, and on, about some meaningless issue and simply reinforces that he is a “stuffed-suit”.

We need to challenge ourselves to not be blinded by title, personality, or role within a company.  Don’t always assume that your senior executives have the best ideas.  For that matter, don’t always assume that your largest customers have the best suggestions.  The beauty of social media is that it is blind.  Whether you are communicating with your employees, investors, partners or customers, each group and each participant has an equal voice.  As an example, anyone – from any company, any position or any country – can participate in this blog on a level field.  Everyone has an equal voice and an equal opportunity to participate and learn from each other.  Social media knows no caste system.  There are many examples of companies who have used internal and external online communities to create environments of productivity and innovation that would never have occurred in traditional business cultures.

Action Item: Create social media environments where you can listen carefully and identify the “violin virtuosos” that are currently being ignored within your company and/or within your customer base.


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  1. Kevin…..thank you for reminding us of the importance of human development within an organization. Human capital is always a company’s most important asset.

  2. Nice story. Fast forward to 2009, would we have a different outcome for Joshua Bell? With so many people connected, would we really pass this one by?

    • A very good question… You may be right. Interesting perspective.

  3. Kevin,
    Enjoyed the blog. I would also like to add to your blog by pointing out that too often individuals/executives find themselves talking to and not with people. Too often execs don’t take the time to to listen. Social media provides a forum for all levels of society to participate as either a participant and/or an observer.

    As more an more companies venture into the online world of social media, how would you suggest these companies avoid being looked at as spam verses active participants?


    • Paul,

      Good question. I believe it is all about adding value. There needs to be a quid-pro-quo on both sides. There also needs to be sincerity in the approach. If companies ask customers to join an online community to participate in the input process for future products/services, then they better be sincere. The program will backfire if they ignore the customer requests. If a company asks customers to join an online community, but simply wants to gather email contacts for SPAM content, then it will clearly backfire.

      Social media can empower and build efficient communication channels and productive organizations. However, it needs to be done correctly. It is not free. It takes time, planning and commitment. However, in my opinion, the companies that do it correctly will have significant competitive advantage over those that don’t.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      – Kevin

  4. Great story Kevin.
    To expand on Paul’s point of talking to, and not with, people, it has been my experience, more often than not, preconceived attitudes get in the way of open honest discussion.
    Having been employed by a fortune 500 company for twenty seven years, and now self employed for the past 16 years, I have experienced both sides of the spectrum. I have yet to figure out, how to break through the typical upper management mentality, that bigger is always better. This may be true in some cases, but not always. Sometimes, the little guy has the brains, knowledge, determination and know how, to work smarter and more effectively on his own, than trying to make positive changes in a corporate environment. I’m sure there are many other sole proprietors, trying to find their way in the Social Media arena, with similar results.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    You rock buddy!! I see it happening everyday in the corporative environment. If you do not belong to middle management or C-level, you have no voice. You have capture it so right!

    Thanks once again for the posting,


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