IT lessons from Dean’s campaign

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign is setting a new standard for the political use of technology as a communications tool. Corporations can learn from Dean’s approach – and IT can help make the case for following the campaign’s lead.

Dean’s Internet strategy is all about decentralization. Although a command-and-control staff organization still exists at headquarters, Dean’s forces are dramatically dispersed. They’re raising vast amounts of money, creating pro-Dean weblogs, planning organizing meetings, chatting with one another in mail lists and discussion groups, and more.

In practice, it all adds up to something simple yet revolutionary in a national political campaign: Dean’s handlers and the candidate himself are trusting the people out at the edges to be essential parts of the campaign. The official campaign is smart enough not to attempt to control what the supporters are doing. Headquarters is supplying moral support and some tools – such as help in setting up fund-raising sites – but it’s emphatically staying away from anything that might be perceived as pulling the strings.

What might this mean to corporate America? Plenty, though I doubt that most companies – like most campaigns – would be very comfortable with the implications.

Consider the following scenario: Your company sells a consumer product with a fairly wide customer base. Whether you like it or not, people are talking about what you sell, typically in online forums as well as the physical world, and they’re helping one another figure out how best to use it.

Microsoft understood a long time ago that customers can help one another – and take a certain amount of pleasure in doing so – sometimes more efficiently than the paid support staff. It’s no coincidence that Microsoft does what it can to make its Usenet product-support newsgroups comfortable places to visit and learn.

Dean’s campaign has an official weblog, a complement to the scores of supportive blogs that have sprung up without any official prodding. The official blog only occasionally features Dean’s own statements – and they’re hardly scintillating – but it ably reflects the talent and commitment of his aides.

How many companies have even considered a blog? Too few. Blogs are relatively informal, but their key feature is voice. They speak in a human way to various constituencies, if you will – to voters in the political world, and to customers, staffers and suppliers in the corporate world.

But understanding and gaining value from the people out at the edges is the key. People who care enough about what you’re doing to talk about it online, and maybe do more than that, will annoy you on occasion, but they’ll also often be your best allies.

IT people can use these techniques to improve their own shops, of course. But they should take the idea of decentralized information to nontechnical managers, too. Show the suits what they can get out of listening to the folks outside the normal conversational stream. Then show them that IT has tools to bring the conversation to the insiders, who can capture – in the best sense of the word – the value in those communications.

Don’t try to clamp down on the edges of the network. What Dean gets and his opponents don’t is that the conversation is about everyone’s future, not just the guy in the middle.