microsoft research talk: why business people speak like idiots


This afternoon's talk is by Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere, authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots : A Bullfighter's Guide. How could I resist a talk with that title?

This series of talks by authors, which included Neil Gaiman's earlier this month, is truly one of the things I love most about being at MSR--Tamara Pesik, a former libarian (actually, is there such thing? once a librarian, always a librarian, I think) does a great job of bringing in interesting authors for these talks.

Chelsea starts out by showing the Business Week cover story on Microsoft, and says they wanted to have a conversation with us as to how Microsoft can start to woo back some of the customers and media that they've alienated.

We're going to play a game, she says. Puts up a slide with images of the $10,000 pyramid. She's going to toss out words and see if we get the right answer. Focus on what Microsoft has and doesn't, but she ends with the fact that Microsoft, unlike some of its competitors, is missing personality. She seems to think that the perceived corporate personality is reflective of the people here, which hasn't been my experience.

Mentions Whole Foods humanity, Virgin Airlines humor and edginess. Hands the microphone over to Brian., who says we have to worry more about "this thing called personality" than we ever have before.

(His approach strikes me as somewhat condescending, and targeted at the wrong audience. Most of these people are "individual contributors," and are far from lacking in passion and personality.)

Why? He says there's something profound and significant happening right now that hasn't quite caught up to us yet, and cites Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind (I seem to be one of the few people here who's read the book). Pink does do a great job of talking about things like why Starbucks can charge so much for a cup of coffee, and why we buy designer toilet brushes.

Says Msft has functioned for too long on the left side of the brain -- analysis, data,, logic. We need to have more persuasion, narrative, empathy.

Shows Google's halloween logo as an example of how companies can use personality to build brand connection. Says he's a power searcher, he should care about algorithms. But he doesn't. To him, all search engines are basically the same product. He cares about the aesthetics. He wants a "Michael Graves" search engine. Does Microsoft "get that"? He's right about this--I mentioned in one of my Internet Librarian posts the speaker who said that Microsoft's products fail to delight, but that Google's almost always do.

Also shows Apple's inclusion of Rosa Parks on their home page this week. At the company worked (works?) at, Deloitte, it would have taken six weeks of committee meetings to get this on the main web site, but Apple did it in 24 hours. Very powerful stuff. Could Microsoft have done this?

Shows a "napkin drawing" that GMail sent out to announce their service (I hadn't seen this before). "It's so authentic!" he exclaims. ("Huh?!?" I respond to myself. That's not authenticity. That's a carefully crafted marketing message that has manipulated his responses exactly as they planned.)

Then shows Ballmer's infamous "developers, developers, developers" speech. He loves the passion. If they could change one thing about it, it would be to substitute the word designer for developer in that chant. This (Microsoft) is a company that reveres technology...perhaps it needs to make room for people who, in Apple's terms "think different." I'd agree with him on this point, too.

Talks about the "dinosaur" ad campaign. It's funny, yes. But it's insulting, too. Why can't we turn our $ into better advertising campaigns. If he were us, he'd fire our advertising agency. Someone in the audience talks about how that campaign was carefully tested, and Brian says "THAT'S THE PROBLEM!" He's been in marketing, he knows how testing can kill a product. Someone in the audience points out that on the individual level, we do have that passion and creativity, but that there's a "blanding" process.

Someone asks about Microsoft bloggers--is that good or not? He responds "yes and no." Reaching out to customers is good. But, he says: "I'm shocked that you guys tolerate Scoble. You pay this guy to criticize your company? Not in my company, man." (Um, is Deloitte really doing that great a job of building its brand?) I think he's way off base on this. Scoble has done an enormous amount to change the stodgy, defensive stereotype of this company. And while he does occasionally (and appropriately) criticize, he does a lot of singing the company's praises, too. Because he does the former, people are willing to listen to the latter.)

Shows Dennis Hwang, who does Google's artwork. Labels the image "Your new headache." Who are our Dennis Hwangs? How do we identify and celebrate them?

Next shows Infosys Consulting's web site, and compares it to ours, which he says is covered with SGPs--"stupid generic photos." (The classic is a black hand and a white hand shaking.) What do we do when we see these? Ignore them. And that's not what we want people to do.

Talks about the excellent iPod packaging, quotes the I.D. Magazine award praising it. This delightful, joyful user experience isn't about the features and functions--it's about the feeling that it creates, and the bond that's created, when I experience this company's products.

There's some interesting question and answers, but it's not clear to me what the goal here is. I was really hoping for more of a discussion of their book itself, and less of a this "we know what's wrong with you," somewhat condescending talk.

Puts up on the screen the text from Microsoft's announcement of the recent re-org. "Is this how you talk to your family?" they ask. They're right on target with that. Brian points out that it's unlikely the executives from whom that came actually wrote it.

He then, however, appears to makes the assumption that we all talk like this within the organization, that we're all corporatized drones. That's a flawed assumption--which I just challenged him on.

They skip past a bunch of slides that look genuinely interesting...I wish they'd done more of their standard approach than trying to make this "Microsoft specific." (Funny thing is that Kathy Sierra did some very similar things when she spoke to us in MSN, but I found it much less grating. I think it's because she focused not on "here's what's wrong with you," but instead on "here's the good stuff I see here and here's how to unleash it.")


I'm noticing how quickly your term for Microsoft has become "we"...

Um...would it be better for me to pretend not to be an employee?

This talk appears to have hit its mark on the importance of personality and then got lost in the comparisons. Too bad. The essential point was - Microsoft's Personality. What is the Microsoft Personality ? By having to ask the question - among Microsoft Bloggers - its almost an admission there is a doubt about the corporate personality in Redmond. And why not ?

The current corporate image campaign - hovering around the theme of "our purpose is helping you fullfill your passions" catches the underlying theme and commitment of so many people I have worked with at Microsoft.

But then there is Jekyll and Hyde - this is the personality problem at Microsoft. There is a schizophrenic disconnect between the rank and file and the people at the top.

Microsoft's top executive's are really committed to securing dominant monopolies (80%++ share)in its markets and by hardball tactics. And hardball, as people have seen with the incessant litigation and payouts with "no admission of guilt", is the uncomfortable but persistent executive norm for the past 6-8 years in Redmond.

A 80%++ share of the market is zero-sum. It means for Microsoft to win just about everybody else has to lose. This is a very tough row to hoe. But the top brass from Bill and Steve on down are prepared to play hardball to achieve this Schumpeterian impossibility -"monopolies are the seeds of their own destruction".

Yet in stark contrast to the ethos of passionate commitment to others success of the rank and file, top executives are committed to other ISVs, VARs, and software vendors success only as means to an ulterior end - their ultimate demise.

So therefore we have seen such actions as cutting off the oxygen by bundling for free. This tactic induced Netscape's demise by giving away Netscape's two major revenues sources for free- the browser and Web server. And the current complete BI Stack nearly free giveaway is done knowing full well former partners such as Crystal/Business Objects, Hyperion, Cognos, SAS, etc cannot respond becuase they do not have a database as a source of revenues.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg of "hardball" tactics. There is the deliberate slowdown of key technologies when dominant market position allows Microsoft to do so and hardball tactics dictate doing so. Example, no updates to IE browser for 5-6 years thwarting such key Web technologiew as SVG, XForms, JavaScript 2.0 and E4X, XPath2 , JPEG2000, and even Microsoft pioneered AJAX methods. Part of this depended on the fact that Microsoft commitments in 1998 made to support a complete suite of Web stanadrds for JavaScript, CSS, DOM, and XML just never got swept under the table - and never done even in IE7 today.

This latter case is key to polluting markets where rival technologies could endanger market share. Another example, why does Microsoft insist on distributing a hoplessly obsolete JVM with Windows and offer non-standard J++ and J# - to pollute the Java market.

And so these are the incontravertible and uncomfortable facts of Microsoft's corporate personality. It is schizophrenic and disturbingly bi-polar. For many in the rank and file of the company, their ethos and puposes are a direct impedance mismatch with their top executives. Not a pretty site - pun intended.


Liz -- this isn't to substance -- which I found quite engaging -- but more to the style of your post. You referenced two books by linking to Amazon -- which is probably the most common way of doing citing materials and not something I'm criticizing. But...if you'd like to reference titles in a way that leads people to copies in libraries, you can reference the titles in the Open WorldCat service ( that you probably heard mentioned at Internet Librarian. So for the two titles you mentioned in this post:
Why Business People Speak Like Idiots : A Bullfighter’s Guide

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind

Yep, once a librarian, always a librarian. ;) BTW: I've been reading great things about your presentation about Internet Librarian -- sorry I missed it.

Came to this blog via the fightthebull blog. I find their book really useful in order to get clients to stop using business-speak and Stupid Generic Photos, and start talking in their own voice. Call it the Cluetrain Manifesto it's OK to give to your boss.

To speak directly to the most salient point mentioned - the lack of an identifiable Microsoft "personality" that comes through in its products - there are forces in the Microsoft universe that could permeate the rest of the company and maybe change the culture over time. XBox is one; the Microsoft PC hardware team is underrated; IPTV does good UI design that goes beyond simple Media Center PC stuff; and then there's the Macintosh Business Unit.

The Mac versions of Office seem designed to be "really good Mac apps that happen to open Office documents and come from Microsoft" as opposed to quickie ports that use Windows conventions and shortcuts (Mac Office 4, anyone?)

Now what would happen if that Mac team were given directions to redesign the Windows versions of those apps - and carte blanche to do it as they saw fit, with, as you said, "delighting the user" as the top priority? Hmmm.

Leave a comment




Recent Photos
This is a Flickr badge showing public photos and videos from mamamusings. Make your own badge here.

Upcoming Travel

Creative Commons License
This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 27, 2005 2:51 PM.

internet librarian 05: parting thoughts was the previous entry in this blog.

liz needs... is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.