Month: August 2007

Dealing with it

In Competing Messages: Commerce and Sociality Dave Rogers says,

Commerce, at least as practiced in the west, is a competitive enterprise. There are winners and losers, some succeed while others fail. Every player seeks an advantage at all times. It’s a dynamic system, so strategies change and evolve over time, and the system presses against all boundaries in its efforts to find advantages to exploit. What presses back?

Well, government presses back, much to the dismay of libertarians. Government, presumably, has the public good as its central focus. We can debate whether or not that’s true some other time, but it’s true enough for the moment. As a result, we regulate businesses to establish boundaries against some efforts to seek a competitive advantage. These are most clearly observed in regulations governing public health and product safety.

Government is not a competitive enterprise. Politics is, but government is not. At least, not at the same scale that commerce is. Governments compete over longer spans of time, unless a war breaks out. But the Cold War is an example of competing governments. It didn’t take Microsoft a generation to defeat all other competitors in the OS wars. I hope the idea is clear. Technology changes this, but that’s a topic for another post.

But since politics controls government, and since politics is competitive, political figures are vulnerable to corruptive influences from commercial interests seeking economic advantages. Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

So again, what pushes back against commerce?

Very little, it turns out.

This is the point I tried to convey to Doc Searls in our telephone conversation, with no success. By trying to make commercial “messages” more “human,” by trying to make “commerce” more “social,” Doc and those who subscribe to his view cede the advantage to commercial interests at the expense of social ones. In my opinion, we need to start defending social and cultural boundaries against commercial efforts to gain a competitive advantage.

I don’t agree with Dave that commerce is purely competitive, and somehow zero-sum, requiring winners and losers. We’ve gone around on that, and I’m sure I won’t change his mind about it. But my point of view on “messages” is that they are by nature mostly bogus. I have not, for many years (since leaving the advertising and PR business long ago) advocated making “messages” more “social” or anything else.

What I’m trying to do with VRM is come at commerce from the customer side. To make substantive what Chris Locke meant when he wrote we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it. There is, implicit in that statement, and as a theoretical basis for The Cluetrain Manifesto, the assumption that the demand side has at least as much power as the supply side — power that the Net does not unleash, but does provide a means for expressing.

In fact, the power Dave talks about us ceding to commercial interests was lost long ago. VRM is about getting it back. But not by petitioning the powerful. Rather by engaging the powerful on fresh terms that are ours and not just theirs.

Health care relationship management

Google and Microsoft Look to Change Health Care is an interesting piece by Steve Lohr in today’s New York Times. (In the print edition the headline reads “Dr. Google and Dr. Microsoft”.) It begins,

In politics, every serious candidate for the White House has a health care plan. So too in business, where the two leading candidates for Web supremacy, Google and Microsoft, are working up their plans to improve the nation’s health care.

By combining better Internet search tools, the vast resources of the Web and online personal health records, both companies are betting they can enable people to make smarter choices about their health habits and medical care.

“What’s behind this is the mass consumerization of health information,” said Dr. David J. Brailer, the former health information technology coordinator in the Bush administration, who now heads a firm that invests in health ventures.

Naturally the piece frames health care as a fight between giants. Even the Larger Context is cast in terms of Big Interests:

It is too soon to know whether either Google or Microsoft will make real headway. Health care, experts note, is a field where policy, regulation and entrenched interests tend to slow the pace of change, and technology companies have a history of losing patience.

I suggest we need to lose patience even faster than the tech companies, and come up with solutions that are not framed in terms of big company (or big entrenched interest) sports, but rather in solving a single problem from a single angle.

That problem is patient records, and that angle is the patient.

The patient needs to be the point of integration for their health care data. That doesn’t mean that doctors and hospitals shouldn’t also have their data. It does mean that the patient should have access to all of it.

The way the system is set up now, important facts about our bodies are not ours. Nor are they easily accessible by us. Yet when we go to a clinic or an emergency room, we are handed a clipboard with a paper form that we are expected to fill out from memory, about our immediate condition and our relevant (and even irrelevant) health care background.

A couple months ago, when I developed a condition called posterior vitreous detachment in my left eyeball, I had to fill out a pile of forms at two different locations. In the course of that experience I found my name spelled three different ways, while I was also challenged to remember how to spell out Type II dyserythropoietic anemia, a rare and relatively minor blood disorder which in emergencies only comes into play when anesthesia is involved — which it might after I fill out forms like this. Who knows, right?

In any case, it would have been handy if I could have auto-filled the forms from my own database, or my own metadata: data about data that lives elsewhere.

While it might be true that the giant sticks in the mud (more like huge pilings holding up a rusty pier) aren’t going to be too cooperative, so what? We — individual patients — need to be able to use our own health care data, for our own good, and for the good of the systems that depend on it, and will be in the line of blame when things go wrong.

I’m not sure patients need to “own”, “control” or even “manage” their health care data. But they clearly need access to it, especially when emergencies come up. Where problems need to be solved, there is business to be made, and I think this is one big one.

The key, as with all VRM projects, is that the solution needs to be anchored on the customer side — in this case the patient side — of the relationship. The answer to the silo problem is not yet another silo. It’s a silo buster, or a silo integrator.

Any ideas? I can think of a few, but would rather see the rest of ya’ll go first.

“It’s all good”

That’s what Brad Fitzpatrick wrote in response to what Marc Canter wrote in response to what Owen Thomas wrote in Valleywag.

I like schvitzatura’s comment on Marc’s blog:

The true Web 2.0 Revolution was the rebuilding of the “walled garden” (softer, and with pretty little syndication bricks)…the technology exists but the business owners are still wanting to maintain “their own in their own”. Single-sign-on duchys and realms will still be the balkanized order of the day…

All this is is globalization, at the Web 1.9-2.2 mesoscale; the tribes will balk at any ham-handed introduction of interconnect.

This is why the Data Sharing Summit (which I’ll miss, regretably) is a right-track move.

Earth to walled-garden builders: You can’t own customers for the same reason you can’t own slaves: they’re human beings, and they want to be free.

Prediction: in Web 3.0, the best wall-less gardens will win.

Unscrewing the car rental business

Ever since the VRM conversation began with the Identity conversation, we’ve looked to the car rental business as one that desperately needs unscrewing.

This has come home to me in the last few weeks, while I’ve been on the road with the family, renting a bunch of cars. Three experiences stand out.

First was when I brought my rental Chevy Cobalt back to Budget at SFO (San Francisco’s airport). I had just filled the tank. The indicator on the dashboard, however, said slightly less than full. I showed my receipt to the woman who took in the car. She said “You only bought 1.35 gallons of gas, but drove 65 miles.” She said nothing more, and printed out a receipt from her hand-held device (what do you call that thing?), with a “fuel charge” of $9.50. By my math, the car got 48 miles to the gallon for the little I drove it: from San Jose to San Francisco and then to the airport — all highway driving. How far off from reality could that be for a car that small and weak? But never mind the math. This was clearly a screw-you. To this woman I was a cheat, clearly. And I was being punished for that. Never mind that I’m a Budget FastBreak member and rent from them a great deal. Rules are rules.

The next unpleasantness happened in Cambridge, Mass, where our rented Buick from Alamo was a victim in a 5-car accident in which an out-of-control car actually took off the corner of a cop car before jamming into the side of ours. Nobody was hurt, and the whole thing was almost comically weird. But at the end of the incident our car could not be driven and had to be towed somewhere. I called Alamo’s roadside assistance number, where the woman on the phone told me that she couldn’t help me at all unless I had a police report. The police on the scene told me that wouldn’t be ready until the next day. When I relayed that information to the roadside assistance woman, she said she was sorry, but couldn’t help me without the report. She also told me I wasn’t allowed to have the car towed back to the Alamo agency at Logan Airport until the police report was ready. The only choice then was to let the police have it towed to an impoundment yard, where I would have to pay to spring it at some later time. We reached an impasse there, at the end of which I asked if she could be of any further help to me, and she said no. So I hung up — or thought I hung up — after which I said to my wife, “Well, Alamo can go to hell.” Then the voice in my bluetooth headset said “Pardon me, sir?” Turns out I hadn’t actually hung up. The Treo does that, sometimes. You press “hang up” and it doesn’t. I said, “I didn’t know you were still on.” “I’m trying to help you, sir,” she said. “I thought we had agreed that you couldn’t do that without a police report,” I said. Then she explained that she has this routine that she has to go through in dealing with customers, and that the police report thing was pro forma. But in fact she could at least help me by giving me a claim number. Why she couldn’t do that earlier she wouldn’t explain, and I didn’t press her on it. With the help of the claim number, we were able to get a replacement car after we towed it back to the agency, and payed the tow fee, of over $100. But the runaround was no fun.

The third unfun experience came yesterday with Enterprise, from which we were renting a rather nice Toyota Corolla that we picked up at the airport in Baltimore. Turns out it had extremely squeaky brakes, however, so we brought it in to the nearest Enterprise location. There they swapped it for a Suzuki Reno. Now, we had already upgraded from a “compact” to an “intermediate” at the airport so we could get a car with room for a family’s full set of bags in the trunk. The Suzuki barely has a trunk, and is hardly in the same class as the Corolla in other respects. The guy at the agency said the Suzuki and the Corola are both “considered intermediate” in size; but let’s face it: they’re not equivalent, much less “similar” (which is the weasel word the car agencies use to swap you from what you thought you rented). I would have preferred it if the guy had just said “Hey, we’re sorry, but this is all we’ve got.” I could have accepted that. But instead he tried to convince us that a clearly inferior car was “equivalent”.

In all three cases the agencies took a “those are the rules” approach to customer relations. And, for all the gloss of fake-friendly greetings at the counter, it’s clear that underneath these car agencies are as customer-hostile as ever.

So let’s tell them what the rules are, instead. Once we can do that, I’ll know VRM has succeeded.

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