If you've read any of my previous articles, most notably my opinion on SharePoint, I'm not afraid of throwing bombs on the cherished myths of others. My target today: the governance myth. You know the one I'm talking about, the panacea that's trotted out as the solution to all the problems that crop up when you are trying to manage an intranet. So what do mattress manufacturers have to do with governing an intranet? Please humor me and read on.

Lack of Moderation

Mattress manufacturers have one of the hardest challenges to overcome in business; Commoditization. From what the commercials would have you believe, Tempurpedic would have to be the best selling mattress brand in America. After all, all we hear about online and on their TV commercials is how beloved their mattresses are. Here's the weird thing -- Tempurpedic is a minor player in the mattress market. They hover around 10% in revenue and in single digit percentages of units sold.

What is even weirder is that Tempurpedic holds the both the mattress dealer industry and the major manufacturers Sealy, Simmons and Serta hostage at the point of sale. But the weirdest thing by far is how they've managed to do this -- lack of moderation.

For the last few years, Tempurpedic has turned social media strategy and even marketing strategy on its ear and as a result, consumers, competitors and partners can't keep their eyes off the little guy. Let's take a closer look at how they do it, why it matters for their business and what we can learn from it.

How They Do It

Tempurpedic does not respond to criticism -- Take a look at Tempurpedic's wall on facebook and you'll see something strange. They have a very active social presence and do interact with customers who pose questions, but they never respond to criticism. Tempurpedic has unforgotten a lesson that very few of us practice; a willingness to open oneself up to slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is a show of strength; a statement of being. And taking arms against a sea of troubles is, in Shakespeare's view, a route to death.

Tempurpedic's commitment to unvarnished authenticity has created a consumer perspective that Tempur must have a ridiculous level of confidence in the quality and attributes of their product; why else would they not bother to respond to criticism? They embrace being different, because the love hate dialogue by their consumers has done something nobody else in the mattress business has been able to do. They have differentiated their product in a commodity marketplace.

Why It Matters For Their Business

Tempurpedic has been able to leverage their social content strategy of confidence into a point of leverage at the point of purchase. Consumers looking for a mattress buy mattresses in one of two places.

  • Through a dealer -- People walk into the mattress showroom knowing one thing: "I need to try the Tempurpedic." They know this so well, that Tempurpedic is the only brand name that consumers mention by name when they enter the showroom. This means that a dealer without Tempurpedic will also be a dealer with no customers. This envious position, known as the catbird seat, means that Tempurpedic can do all sorts of things that are unheard of in typical OEM to dealer relationships. Tempurpedic not only controls how much floor-space they have in the dealership, they also control how much floor-space their competitors get and even get a say on which of their competitors products will even show up on the floor in the first place -- this is why you see very few non-Tempurpedic memory foam products on the floor of mattress retailers.
  • Online -- There are not a lot of OEMs who compete against their dealers by offering their products online in any market. The myth of disintermediation has long been exposed as false in most markets and distributers and dealers still have power enough to prevent OEMs from selling direct to consumers. Once again, Tempurpedic is the exception to this rule. Tempurpedic has such a strong hold as the only differentiated product in the marketplace that they not only can tell their dealers what to do, they can even directly compete against them!

What We Can Learn

To understand exactly why this no moderation approach is important beyond the obvious, look to objectives most enterprises cite when developing a more typical moderation approach. In general, most enterprises engage in moderation to "control the message". What we can learn from Tempurpedic, is that not trying to control message can be an advantage with your target audience. Tempurpedic has controlled the message by not attempting to control it.

Online audiences are not as simplistic as the general population. This higher level of sophistication is the specific reason that user ratings and reviews has become the predominant means of online product selection. In short, online audiences are distrustful of any corporate message and when they are looking for someone to trust, they turn to other consumers.

How This Relates to the Intranet

So who else is it who looks to "control the message"....hmmm.....let me see.....oh yeah that's it, Corporate Communications! The most typical owners of the corporate intranet team up with hordes of consultants to trot out the governance banner. My problem with the governance craze is this; At best, governance is a solution in search of a problem and at worst governance is a solution to a poor conceptual approach.

Some may say that governance is necessary to control organic growth, but this is myopic both as a claim and as an aim. As a claim, it’s imprecise -- organic growth is not a problem in and of itself, the only reason it seems to be a problem is that it hurts findability and manageability. As an aim, it’s misguided, because again, organic growth is not actually a problem.

The actual business concerns that vigilant governance is intended to address are controlling the message, ensuring findability and controlling the cost of maintainability.

  • Controlling the message -- If online audiences are sophisticated, intranet users at large enterprises are even more sophisticated. In this day and age, every ounce of effort put into controlling the message with employees is met with skepticism at best. Enterprises would do better to suffer the slings and arrows with a genuine attempt to learn from the voices of their workforces than to try to stifle the voices.
  • Ensuring findability -- Neither governance nor inside the firewall search have succeeded here and I'm not sure that this problem can be solved without radical changes in the industry approach to content and document management. I'm on the record with one suggestion -- forget about governance and make a truly social intranet by changing the mental model of the company intranet to put documents and web content at the fringes of the experience and move the users and their connections to the center of the experience.
  • Controlling the cost of maintainability -- This boils down to the costs to change as the company changes and the costs of storage and platform maintenance. The social intranet embraces what information architects have been saying for more than a decade -- don't organize anything by your company structure because it changes too often. My other favorite topic, the cloud, directly addresses the other.  It is inevitable that the cost of storage and platform maintenance will be lower on the cloud than inside the enterprise because data, content and document storage is nobody's core competency, except for the cloud vendors.

Final Thoughts

While it is unproven that having a Tempurpedic mattress will give consumers a better night's sleep, it is proven, given the near-universal employee dissatisfaction with company intranets, that vigilant governance won't necessarily give anyone a better night's sleep, so stop worrying about the message and learn how to love the bomb.