There has been a lot of comment about Twitter over the last few months with, as ever, opinions sharply split. On the negative side it has been described as a passing fad, something for school kinds, etc, whilst on the positive side there has been speculation that it is the new ‘black swan’, meaning the next Google. What strikes me is the lack of context to most of this; i.e. it’s going to fail because, or it will succeed because, and those of you who are kind enough to follow my postings know that I am always looking to see the context.
Peter Fingar, author of ‘Extreme Competition’ and other works, was kind enough to send me an early draft of a new book he is working on, and as ever it’s really thought provoking. He describes the difference between ‘alarms’ or ‘alerts’ and ‘reports’, or ‘requests’, in the terms of how news, events, and the need to take action are generated. His point was that an older generation of managers want to receive structured reports, or requests, in the format that they understand, allows them to make personal decisions, and then to pass on to those that report to them a direction on what and how to act. To them their life time experience tells them that structure and procedure is everything. The contrast to the younger managers was that they are working in a fluid collaborative way with their ‘colleagues’ and the group as a whole continually interacted in the full knowledge of what they were all doing and able to do. The contrast was that they could spot and react to an ‘alarm’ or ‘Alert’, signal immediately, and by early action optimise the result.

Now before I go any further I must emphasis that neither Peter, nor I, are advocating this as a replacement for the structure and organisation of an enterprise, it merely illustrates a difference in approach to organising work and responses. However you can see how instant messaging, and indeed Twitter, are the basic tools for this ‘agile’ management style. Actually the use of the word Agile is quite deliberate as there are equal parallels in this between the behaviour of an Agile development team during a sprint, and a conventional waterfall based development approach. With this in mind I started to look around to see if this hypothesis of how to use real time collaboration tools such as Twitter to manage ‘alarms’ and ‘alerts’ could be tracked elsewhere.
It didn’t take much to find an interesting example at the USA South Western airlines, which are somewhat famous for being the airline that ‘innovatively’ does many things in a different way. The striking phrase in their use of Twitter as a means of ‘collaborating’ with their customers that stood out to me was in a Blog by Piaras Kelly who posts interesting stuff on PR, Marketing, etc, and delivers the details on exactly how South Western, and indeed others succeed with Twitter. His comment was “A colleague raised an interesting point about the evolution of the role of a customer service agent. Why wait at the end of a phone, when you could be hunting down unhappy customers online and setting the ball rolling to solving their problem”. His point is that for the customers of some sectors of business being in a community and sharing alarms and alerts really helps and builds still further intimacy in the customer supplier relationship.
The USA has a lot of ‘road warriors’ who are on and off planes, active around an unfamiliar town for the day, so having a community of similar people with the experience and knowledge to help just when you need it, i.e. delays through snow, recommendations for a local hotel, and yes flight information too, makes a huge difference. Bet it helps South West to sell a lot of extra services around their customers non airline wants too! Okay so test one, is there successful context use in the form of enabling something of genuine business value, both in generic working practice and in real business implementation seems to be a pass for Twitter.
Test two is the extent to which others see it as the basis for new products and services of their own. Think Google and embedding their various elements, or FaceBook and LinkedIn as frameworks that support a whole range of new capabilities. It seems that Twitter is passing this test as well. My standard way to find out is to visit TechCrunch and put a query in to their huge listings of tech start-ups; enter ‘Twitter’ and you get a lot! Finally there is test three, high profile user adoption; well Barack Obama tweets are out there joining a load of marketing savvy companies using Twitter for their customers; the story on how Pepsi and others are entering into Microblogging supports the South Western example.
It’s too early to say if Twitter is a genuine mass market phenomenon, but it does seem to have some genuine value in supporting the way a whole generation of people is changing their working and life patterns so providing it can add to its revenue model beyond the reliance on advertising, which is a tough market in 2009, to support itself in the next year or two then it seems to have distinct possibilities to grow into a reasonable sized and successful business, will it be a ‘black swan’ who knows, the whole point is that ‘black swans’ take everyone by surprise, and few, if any see it coming!