EOF - The Last Silos Standing

by Doc Searls

For the many years I wrote Linux for Suits and the SuitWatch newsletter, I always insisted that Linux and business were joined by and logic rather than or.

I still believe that's true. But, I also believe that many businesses—especially the big ones—still don't get Linux, free software, open source or even the Internet itself. That's because they remain, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things”.

Oddly, the things they want to own most are not things at all, but customers. These companies still harbor the illusion that customers can be “acquired” like slaves and “managed” like cattle. The nicest ranches for customers are politely called “walled gardens”. I prefer an equally agricultural metaphor: silo.

The definition of silo I like best is “a tall cylindrical structure, usually beside a barn, in which fodder is stored”. (That's from the Free Dictionary.) Fodder, in the case of business, is customer data. That data includes specifics, such as name, address, purchase history and call records. It also might include customers' stated or inferred preferences, status with the company (frequent flyer grades, for example) and other variables.

The crowning irony of business silos is that they are built to maximize BI (Business Intelligence), yet they are blind to how they're not working. This form of inward-gazing ignorance is familiar to techies who have watched many silos come down in the computing and networking fields. Mainframes, closed on-line services and proprietary e-mail systems all come to mind. The Internet and its open protocols killed all those things, yet the lessons remain lost on every business that continues to believe that good “intelligence” about what customers actually want can be found inside the company's customer data silo.

For evidence I offer three examples: call centers, loyalty cards and mobile phones. All three are shining examples of a form of architecture that has been discredited, if not defeated, by the successes of Linux, FOSS and the Internet.

Look up “call center hell” in Google, and you'll get millions of results. (This morning, 8.65.) Two of the three top search results on Twitter are by people working in call centers. Most of these are “hold centers”, because putting callers on hold is what they do best. Conversation is not their forté. If you ever reach a human being at the end of a choice maze, you too often interact with a script rather than a human being. After an accident involving my rental car a couple years ago, the woman at the other end of the line reacted to my anger at her uncooperativeness by admitting that her options were limited, literally, by a script. There were only certain things she was allowed to say or hear. When the conversation stepped outside those lines—as it had to, since the accident was novel in several ways—both of us went nonlinear. The call crashed as badly as the four cars (including one cop car) involved in the pile-up.

Loyalty cards are the silliest thing since Green Stamps. By the middle of the last century, nearly every store gave away green stamps, achieving zero differentiation from every other store and adding friction to the entire economy in the process. Today, instead of collecting stamps and sticking them in books (to redeem later for a crappy grill or something), we collect cards that fatten our wallets without making us richer. Loyalty cards require retailers to maintain dual pricing for merchandise and add friction at the checkout counter, where too often the only benefit to the customer is a coupon for something they just bought. Worse, loyalty programs can't tell when or why people don't shop at a store. My family likes to shop at Trader Joe's, because that store avoids the hassles of both loyalty cards and coupons. There is nothing in other stores' loyalty programs that welcomes hearing this useful information.

Perhaps the worst business silos are the Siamese ones formed by cell-phone equipment makers and carriers. Although PCs—even closed ones with Apple and Microsoft operating systems—are open to endless varieties of third-party applications, we see nothing of the sort from the cell-phone business, with the notable exception of the iPhone, which is (as I write this) enjoying its billionth application download. That download, of course, will come from exactly one source: Apple's iTunes. One might consider this a step in the right direction—it's kind of like the one Windows 95 took by making it easy for countless developers to write applications that would run on even-more-countless PCs. The next step, however, has to come from outside the silos of both the equipment makers and the phone system carriers. More eyes make bugs shallower, as we say.

Time to debug some business silos.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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