Tag Archives: corporate responsibility

Bean Counters and Ecologists

[So many things in my drafts, but this one should be quick.]

Recently met someone who started describing their restaurant after calling it a “café”. The “pitch” revolved around ethical practices, using local products, etc. As both a coffee geek and ethnographer, my simple question was: “Which coffee do you use?” Turns out, they’re importing coffee from a multinational corporation. “Oh, but, they’re lending us an expensive espresso machine for free! And they have fair-trade coffee!”

Luckily, we didn’t start talking about “fair trade”. And this person was willing to reflect upon the practices involved, including about the analogy with Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola. We didn’t get further into the deeper consequences of the resto’s actions, but the “seed” has been planted.

Sure, it’s important to focus on your financials and there’s nothing preventing a business from being both socially responsible and profitable. It just requires a shift in mindset. Small, lean, nimble businesses are more likely to do it than big, multinational corporate empires…

…which leads me to Google.

Over the years since its IPO, Google has attracted its share of praise and criticism. Like any big, multinational corporate empire. In any sector.

Within the tech sector, the Goog‘ is often compared with Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. All of these corporate entities have been associated in some people’s minds with some specific issue, from child labour and failure to protect users’ privacy to anticompetitive practices (the tech equivalent of free fridges and espresso machines). The issues are distinct and tech enthusiast spend a large amount of time discussing which one is worse. Meanwhile, we’re forgetting a number of larger issues.

Twitter is an interesting example, here. The service took its value from being at the centre of an ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, numerous interactions among many different members produce unexpected and often remarkable results. As the story goes, elements like hashtags and “@-replies” were invented by users and became an important part of the system. Third-party developers were instrumental in Twitter’s reach outside of its original confines. Though most of the original actors have since left the company, the ecosystem has maintained itself over the years.

When Twitter started changing the rules concerning its API, it shook the ecosystem. Sure, the ecosystem will maintain itself, in the end. But it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will change. For people at Twitter, it must have been obvious that the first changes was a warning shot to scare away those they didn’t want in their ecosystem. But, to this day, there are people who depend on Twitter, one way or another.

Google Reader offers an interesting case. The decision to kill it might have been myopic and its death might have a domino effect.

The warning shot was ambiguous, but the “writing was on the wall”. Among potential consequences of the move, the death of RSS readers was to be expected. One might also expect users of feedreaders to be displeased. In the end, the ecosystem will maintain itself.

Chances are, feedreading will be even more marginalized than it’s been and something else might replace it. Already, many people have been switching from feedreading to using Twitter as a way to gather news items.

What’s not so well-understood is the set of indirect consequences, further down the line. Again, domino effect. Some dominoes are falling in the direction of news outlets which have been slow to adapt to the ways people create and “consume” news items. Though their ad-driven models may sound similar to Google’s, and though feedreading might not be a significant source of direct revenue, the death of feedreaders may give way to the birth of new models for news production and “consumption” which might destabilize them even further. Among the things I tag as #FoJ (“Future of Journalism”) are several pieces of a big puzzle which seems misunderstood by news organizations.

There are other big dominoes which might fall from the death of Google Reader. Partly because RSS itself is part of a whole ecosystem. Dave Winer and Aaron Swartz have been major actors in the technical specifications of RSS. But Chris Lydon and people building on calendar syndication are also part of the ecosystem. In business-speak, you might call them “stakeholders”. But thinking about the ecosystem itself leads to a deeper set of thoughts, beyond the individuals involved. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s premature death, it may be appropriate to point out that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

As I said on a service owned by another widely-criticized corporate empire:

Many of us keep saying that Google needs to listen to its social scientists. It also needs to understand ecology.

Flying Saucer: Doing the Right Thing

Few things impress me more from management than responsiveness and a sense of responsibility. Contrary to what some people seem to assume when I say a thing like this, the reciprocal isn’t true. There are several things managers can do which disappoint me more than their lack of responsiveness or their failure to take responsibility for something going on in their business. The main point is that I don’t really expect most managers to be responsive or responsible in matters pertaining to their business. Without my noticing it, there might be an implicit indictment of common managerial styles in the way I perceive responsive and responsible managers. But I mostly mean this as praise for what I perceive as proper management.

Now, those who know me would probably shout out that I’m really nothing like the “managerial type.” At best, I’d be the kind of person managers may pay attention to, on occasion. But I like ambivalence and nuance too much to be a “decider.” Since I have never been (nor do I ever plan to be) in a position of power over others, “it’s all good.”

What does any of this have to do with the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, you ask so eagerly I can smell the anxiety in your voice? Simple: Management at FS has just provided me with an excellent example of what I consider to be responsible and responsive management. And this does almost as much to endear them to me than their beer selection. SRSLY!

Here’s the deal…

Went to the recently-opened Austin location of the FS beerpub chain. Based in Houston, the chain has pubs in different parts of Southcentral and Southeastern United States (AR, TN, TX, NC, and SC). Because their beer selection tends to be rather extensive, their pubs are mentioned occasionally in beer podcasts and informal discussions. I was thus enthusiastic about the opportunity to go and sample some of their beers. Anything which brings people to understand beer diversity has my attention.

To make things even more exciting, the pub has a Monday night special (every week, apparently) during which draft beers are sold at $2.50 a pint. There are less expensive beers around (including some carefully crafted beer brewed locally) but given Flying Saucer’s beer selection, the deal sounded too good to be true.

And it kind of was. Not every beer on the draft menu was part of the special. Fair enough, of course. But a bit confusing. In fact, something on their Austin website was slightly misleading. Nothing to sue them over but, still, it’s a bit frustrating to have reality not live up to expectations set up by information given out by an enterprise. (A rare occurrence, right? 😉 )
So I submitted some comments using their feedback form. Because my comments were (hopefully constructive but still) somewhat negative, I sent those comments in the “Criticize Us” category. I tried to make my comments as thoughtful as possible but I did feel a bit silly to criticize a pub for what is objectively a very nice special. It’s probably just something about myself that I like to tell people what I feel about what they do to me. It might even be a Quebecker thing.

Thing is, I didn’t really expect an answer. I was sending comments in the hope that, maybe, it would reach someone who might be reminded of it on an occasion where it might matter, somewhat. I almost sent a copy of my comments as an “open letter” but, probably because I felt a bit silly for sending such comments, I refrained from compulsively blogging the issue.

I sent my comment at 10PM CET. An automatic response told me, in a humorous way, that I should receive a response within 12 to 24 hours and, failing this, I should send another message. I don’t even expect that kind of a response time in time-sensitive situations (say, a moving or a courier company) so I really didn’t expect a response in that timeframe. But this auto-response did prepare me to get some kind of reply (probably a generic response) at some point in the not-too-distant future. Again, this wasn’t something I was really expecting when I submitted my comments.

What I still wasn’t expecting after receiving the automatic response was what actually happened. By 4:30AM CET,  a message was sent to me by someone at the Austin management for Flying Saucer. That message was CC’ed to other people but was clearly addressed to me. No form letter here. In fact, the message was directly addressing the issues I had raised, in exactly the right tone and most appropriate way. The person who sent the message took responsibility for the misleading statement and pledged to rectify it right away. In fact, by the time I read that message, the actual webpage had in fact been updated, and the statement I had quoted had been replaced with a claim that I find humorous, honest, and quite appropriate.


Of course, it didn’t take them too much of an effort to make these changes. And they might have acted so quickly for fear of legal issues (even though my message wasn’t at all meant to be threatening). But I’m still very impressed by the responsiveness and sense of responsibility displayed by management at Flying Saucer Austin.

To remain in the corporate mindframe, it reminds me of ads for a fast-food chain in which people act in a “refreshingly honest” way. Though I’m certainly not going to eat fast-food because of ads like these, I definitely appreciate the concept. Openness, transparency, effectiveness, responsiveness, responsibility… Taken together, these qualities make for a very pleasurable experience, even when they relate to relatively large institutions. I sincerely think that if more managers were like that, many problems could be solved.

Now, if I can only get Texas to change its beer import laws… 😉

The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium – www.beerknurd.com