How Filter Failure Contributes to Business Failure

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Watch this video by Bruce Nussbaum, BusinessWeek’s innovation editor and veteran employee with the company. It’s a fascinating illustration of the shifts in business we are seeing in real time. Media outlets in particular have been on the front lines of this shift. As I’ve said many times before, the Web and its latest social iteration has introduced ultra deep and pervasive niche content and experiences which directly compete with many business models.

There is a unique online destination for everyone, no matter how specialized the interest. The network economy is the opposite of mass—it’s niche, fragmented and content distributers are feeling the heat.

There was something about Bruce’s talk that stood out to me in particular. While he calls out corporate culture as a main factor which may have contributed to BusinessWeek ending up on the buyers market, it was this insight that really stood out for me.

"somehow BusinessWeek lost deep contact with its readers"
"surveys…in the end they were misleading. The message was, be general—go horizontal"

Now this kind of blows me away. Right now there are scores of vendors telling us to "listen" and selling software to do it. There are several platforms offering dashboards that will allow you to actively hear EVERYTHING your customers tell you. You can post a poll on Twitter in minutes and get responses in real time. So is it possible that surveys contributed to BusinessWeek’s situation?

First let’s examine what surveys do, They tell us what preferences people have. There is nothing wrong with this, and they can be boiled down to percentages and stats. They can also generate a lot of data, and this is where the idea of filter failure comes in. Obtaining large quantities of data is becoming a commodity due to the technologies available—it’s what we do with that data that makes the difference. Finding the signal within the noise which can help generate an insight that leads to perhaps a game changing business model is much more difficult than the act of listening itself. Listening and discernment are not the same.

Here’s a true story I recently heard—I have to use generic terms to describe it. A large consumer product company found out about a group of people who were brainstorming a way to solve a problem which was related to this company. Because this consumer product company has people working for it who actively participate in networks, and monitor the space, they found out about it. Someone identified this idea as a signal in a sea of noise—there are a lot of people who talk about this company daily, but this was different. The people who independently brainstormed this idea outside of the company’s ecosystem are now talking to the people who work for the company about making the idea into a reality. 

No survey needed.

Scenarios like this get me excited because they underscore several tenets of social business design.

1. The company realizes that value can be produced outside of it’s own ecosystem and monitors for dynamic signals
2. The company likely has a combination of people, process and technology to filter the signal from noise
3. The company has a open culture in place that realizes value exists outside it’s ecosystem and looks to maximize it

Listening is one part of the equation. Being able to discern what’s valuable and then act upon it is another. The more I think about the concept of applying a metafilter to your business, the more I’m convinced that it’s something that will rely on the combination of not only technology but people. Technology can help us listen to everything that’s ever been said about ourselves our company, brand  etc.—but finding that one key, game changing insight in a sea of infinite chatter and then actually doing something about it is another story.

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