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Finding Creativity in This Age of Disruption

This is the age of disruption. Whether you realize it or not, disruptive forces are at work in your industry. As a communications leader, it is important that you keep an open mind about change and be hypervigilant to provide your CEO with pertinent information about emerging trends and opportunities inside and outside your industry or sector.

From your CEO’s perspective, this is where creativity has real value.

Macro trends, such as mobility, generational change in the workplace and globalization have massive effects on the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. How are your customers and communities changing, and what do these changes mean to their relationship with your organization? What creative new approaches are being developed to address emerging or overlooked customer needs? 

In this age of disruption, the PR counselor can play a central role in formulating business and communications strategies that encourage change and capitalize on it.
All business pivots are rooted in such strategies and the data that drives them.

As an entrepreneur, I can assure you that a pivot is more than a mere concept. It is personal.

For more than a dozen years we profitably grew a respected Web marketing brand. Along the way, we built Tendenci software for associations and nonprofits. A couple years ago, after a great deal of deliberation, we released Tendenci software to the open-source community, essentially giving away the code for software that cost approximately $6 million to build. Then we renamed the company and narrowed our focus, spinning off Web marketing services to other providers that made up nearly half our revenue at the time.

From the outside, it looked like we were dismantling one of the fastest-growing companies in Houston. That’s the danger of looking in the rearview mirror rather than at the horizon and beyond.

Businesses and nonprofit organizations can either be the disrupted, the disrupters — or both. Every day, we make choices that either direct our organizations down the expected and comfortable path or send us exploring. We may reach dead ends or we may stumble into unexpected discoveries.

Research in motion

On June 29, 2007, the world changed.

If the public statements from RIM’s co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, were any indication, then the market leader was unfazed.

“It’s kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers. But in terms of sort of a sea change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.”

At the time, BlackBerry was winning its battle for market share with Palm. In fact, RIM’s market share actually went up during the last half of 2007 — rising from 38 percent when the iPhone hit the market to 43 percent in January 2008. The future seemed bright, with BlackBerry enjoying a firmly entrenched business user base, but BlackBerry’s market share was never that high again.

The world was different after the introduction of the modern smartphone, which profoundly shifted user expectations and demands. And this was RIM’s undoing: not understanding that the expectations of their own customers were altered the moment they saw what the iPhone could do.

Wherever they went, everyone with an iPhone suddenly had access to the Web, their social networking tools, their camera, their movies and music, and a seemingly bottomless pool of apps. And most who didn’t have an iPhone wanted a device that did all that.

The latest report from International Data Corporation (IDC) pegs BlackBerry’s market share at 0.5 percent.

Meanwhile, it is not Apple who commands the market today — it is Google’s Android, with a stunning 85 percent market share. Android was not first; its disruption was to be an open system, which allowed a variety of device manufacturers to build on it.

RIM disrupted Palm; Apple disrupted RIM; and Google disrupted Apple. All this happened in the span of about a decade, and each leap in capability contributed to revolutionary changes in how people connect.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to second guess the relative inaction of RIM despite what now seem like clear signs that their world would soon crumble around them. They were, in fact, behaving very rationally — very humanly. The experts call it “confirmation bias” — our tendency to look for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe.

Confirmation bias is the greatest threat to your organization. It is the enemy of creativity and vice versa.

Unknown unknowns

When he was U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once famously broke down national intelligence into four quadrants: known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Both CEOs and their PR counselors should be creatively driven by that final quadrant — the things we don’t know we don’t know.

Below are a few tips for how to encourage a culture of curiosity and creativity necessary for organizations to thrive in this age of disruption. I present these with the caveat that I learned them through hard knocks that resulted from frequent mistakes during our company’s pivot:

• Expect and welcome disruption. Ironically, suddenly introducing the idea of disruption out of the blue can be disruptive — and not in a good way. Normalize it by including topics related to market disruption during routine staff meetings and in internal communications. Just as Google’s Gmail and AdSense services emerged from employee side projects, your organization can encourage and reward entrepreneurial activities that anticipate market shifts.

• Stretch beyond reporting to imagining. Organizational communications pros tend to do a great job of gathering, packaging and reporting information about the known knowns — the here and now. Less emphasis is placed on helping CEOs raise questions and articulate possibilities. Doesn’t that seem backward? Routinely engage people throughout the organization as well as your customers in imagining, but be ready to push people beyond the knowns into the unknowns.

• Resist confirmation bias. Creativity isn’t always fun and games — it can also consist of challenging and pushing back. There is nothing more creative than challenging ideas and solutions that seem obvious. In his book, “In Mixed Company: Communicating in Small Groups and Teams,” J. Dan Rothwell wrote, “Groups that resist confirmation bias and actively search for possible flaws in decisions and solutions usually make better choices than groups that don’t.”

• Use positive language. It is interesting that disruption is often discussed in negative terms. We use words such as “threats,” “attacks,” “vulnerabilities” and “gaps.” Semantics can be powerful in helping to establish an organizational mindset. When we use negative language, we frame change and disruption from a defensive posture. Eliminate that negative language and instead use terms such as “opportunities,” “possibilities” and “openings” to generate enthusiasm for change.

• Take care of you. One reason we resist change is that dramatic, disruptive change takes a toll — physically and emotionally. A radical organizational change will often sever relationships with employees and customers as the mission of an organization shifts, the skill sets needed are altered and business units are shut down or spun off. Feelings are hurt, rumors are started and it is all very personal. Have a support system in place — preferably with people outside the organization. Stay physically active and eat well. Organizational change requires the best from you.

Disruption is happening. Will you be the disrupter or the disrupted? In our case, I imagined a world in which our Web marketing services were increasingly commoditized. It soon would no longer matter that we had been at the forefront of social media, search engine optimization and content strategy. We had developed powerful software for associations and nonprofits, but development of Tendenci software was constrained by our team’s capacity.

The decision to release the software to the open-source community and spin off our Web marketing services was incredibly hard. Looking back, the biggest mistake was failing to do it as soon as I realized it was necessary. We are human and we resist change.

You can only have true creativity — the kind of creativity that changes the world — if you embrace discomfort.


HOUSTON, June 8. 2010 – Schipul – The Web Marketing Company (www.schipul.com), a Web marketing, design and software company, announced that CEO Ed Schipul will present “Personal Brands: The Opportunities and Threats,” at the upcoming T3PR Conference 2010. Presented by the Public Relations Society of America’s Technology Section, Schipul’s presentation will discuss the business case for encouraging employees to develop personal brands.
“Social technologies enable employees to create their own brands and many organizations are struggling to adapt,” said Schipul. “What we have discovered is that personal brands can be disruptive to the status quo of many companies, but if encouraged and supported appropriately, they can reflect positively on an organization and contribute to a company’s profitability.”
Schipul will encourage T3PR participants, who provide PR support to technology companies around the world, to take responsibility for personal brand management within their organizations. Instead of focusing only on the CEO, companies can benefit from encouraging virtually every employee to develop a personal brand that is distinct, yet supportive of the corporate brand.
This year, Schipul has been spreading the personal branding gospel to public relations pros across the country. His article, “Recruit and Retain the Best Talent: Why companies Should Encourage Personal Brands,” was published in The Public Relations Strategist. In recent weeks, he was a keynote speaker at PRSA Georgia’s Annual Conference and led a discussion on personal branding at PRSA’s Travel and Tourism Conference. His plenary session at T3PR 2010 begins at 10:45 a.m.
“This is the time to embrace change and adapt, and technology PR pros should lead the way,” said Schipul. “As was the case with social media tools, organizations that resist will miss the opportunity to profit from their employees’ personal brands and will spend the rest of the decade playing catch-up.”

Schipul – The Web Marketing Company Schipul provides social media consulting, search engine marketing, Web design and blog design services. The company develops and markets Tendenci® online management software, which powers hundreds of Web sites for organization around the world.

T3PR 2010 will be held June 11th at Concierge Conference Center in New York City. Registration information is available at www.prsa.org/Conferences/Technology/.  
About Schipul - The Web Marketing Company
Schipul – The Web Marketing Company developed and builds on the Tendenci Web marketing application, a powerful online tool with over a half million people logging in during the past year and millions of users overall. Schipul is based in Houston, and provides marketing services on the Internet to more than 300 organizations from a variety of service industries in local, national and international markets. Schipul’s nonprofit clients include the Web Analytics Association, Houston Zoo and the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, among many others. 

Our Mission is to Connect and Organize the World's People. Do Good.

The Web's Next Generation: Web 2.0 - As published in PRSA Tactics March 2006 by Ed Schipul

pr_tactics.jpgIn the 11 years since the introduction of the first Web browser, the Internet has been considered an interactive communications tool, but we’re just beginning to unlock the Web’s ability to help us truly interact. Instead, most organizations still use the Web primarily to disseminate information.

That’s about to change thanks to a movement called, “Web 2.0,” a collection of emerging technologies that enable social networking by offering Web users the ability to add and edit Web content. It was initially referred to as “Consumer Generated Media,” but the label proved to be too restrictive for the sea change that has been occurring.

As illustrated by the blogs, video blogs (vlogs), podcasts and wikis, Web 2.0 is essentially a platform for sharing information of all kinds.

A Fundamental Change
In the past decade, search engines have turned the Web into an enormous user-driven and non-linear repository of information. Instead of the information source dictating how information is presented and consumed, the user is in charge.

The belief that the Web user should have some control is at the heart of Web 2.0. As the name suggests, these technologies are fundamentally changing the Web and how it is used.

Unfortunately, public relations practitioners have generally failed to grasp how this revolutionary change can be leveraged. Instead, most organization Web sites continue to mimic corporate brochures and still take a sequential approach to presenting their information. First we’ll tell you this, and then click here and we’ll give you that.

And even though the Web makes frequent updates possible, most corporate sites remain static for long periods.

In an environment in which Web users scan their favorite blogs daily, these old habits can signal to the market that your organization isn’t keeping up. On the flip side, numerous organizations have used blogs and podcasts in the past year to support their positioning as trendsetters.

Examples of Web 2.0
A great example of how everyone can have a voice and everyone can be part of the conversation is Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com), the popular online encyclopedia completely generated, edited and updated by Web users. Not only is Wikipedia a great channel for getting your organization’s message out, the technology that makes it work is available to incorporate into your organization’s Web site.

Using wikis, an organization may enlist its customers to help collaboratively produce how-to guides for their products – or might present new product concepts in order to gather immediate feedback. Internally, wikis might be used to develop more user-friendly employee handbooks by encouraging employees to tinker with the wording.

Two other popular sites that illustrate the power of Web 2.0 technologies include Del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/) and Flickr (www.flickr.com).

Del.icio.us describes itself as a collection of favorites. Essentially, the site’s community of users list Web sites that they like. It might sound innocuous, but in fact this knowledge sharing can be very powerful. Each time a user adds a favorite site, they choose a few words to describe the site, which is called “tagging.” For instance, possible tags for this article include: Web 2.0, public relations and social networks.

Public relations counselors can make del.icio.us a standard part of their PR program by establishing a list of favorites with their organization’s Web site and adding each news release, article or white paper as they are posted online. It’s hard to predict what might capture the attention of the user community.

Flickr, another quintessential web 2.0 site, shares many attributes with del.icio.us, except users generate the content in the form of uploaded photos. Users create tags to describe the images they like, which again offers a unique, current and relevant look into the minds of the publics we are working to reach and influence.

How to Get Started
Public relations strategists generally are behind the curve in terms of understanding how to leverage Web 2.0 technologies to achieve greater results through improved flexibility and cost efficiencies. However, it will be increasingly difficult to keep it business as usual in the midst of a technology revolution.

Following are a few specific steps you can take to get started:

  • Be willing to share control with the Web user – By giving Web users the ability to add and edit Web content, you can foster a community and build an indelible connection between the users and your brand. Even though you may prefer to control all aspects of their communications programs to the smallest detail, the true power of the Web only comes when you enable Web users to add and edit Web content. 
  • Build flexibility into your PR program – The real power of Web 2.0 technologies is they immediately tap into the attitudes and behaviors of Web users. To capitalize on this knowledge, develop PR plans that allow you to quickly adjust course and capitalize on opportunities the spring up.
  • Take responsibility for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – Many PR Firms have finally discovered Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for press releases.  Tech savvy firms have been involved in SEO for years with their clients showing up in Yahoo news and attracting additional media coverage.  But Web 2.0 is more about gathering information for strategy formulation.  Helping your clients being an active part of the conversation even with sometimes over reactive bloggers.
  • Continually Listen and Analyze – Take advantage of the feedback loops in Web 2.0 technologies to keep tabs on what people are saying about your brand. Beyond that, examine the words and phrases used to describe your brand. You might find that the market views your products or services differently than you do, which can prompt a review of your positioning.   
  • Make it a point to experiment with emerging technologies – In the past year, numerous organizations have experimented with blogs and podcasts. This year, look for corporate vlogs and wikis to join them. They won’t be right for every organization, but learning and trying can be rewarding too.

If your organization is still approaching the Web the same way it has for the past decade, this should serve as a wakeup call. The wired world is changing.

Visitors to your Web site are no longer entering through your home page and flipping through the site as they would a brochure. They are using search engines to hunt for and transport them to specific bits of information.

Now, Web 2.0 is taking that user behavior a step further by transforming the Web into a platform for sharing information of all kinds – text, sound and images.

By tapping directly into the minds of the Web user, Web 2.0 technologies provide public relations counselors unfiltered information with which to create strategic solutions that resonate with their publics. Web 2.0 can help reveal what target publics really care about, in close to real time. This can be invaluable in helping ensure that messages and tactics are aligned with the interests and concerns of their publics.

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