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Community 101: Recognizing Your Advocates

Let’s start this with a fable of quasi-Aesopian profundity…skip on past if you have heard it before. Oh, and it involves the S-word. If you are easily offended by course terms for feces, consider yourself warned.

A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field.

While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was.

The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy.

A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him.

Moral of the story:

  1. Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.
  2. Not everyone who gets you out of shit is your friend.
  3. And, when you’re in deep shit, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!

Maybe you already heard that one…it made the email joke circuit a few years ago. I cite it mainly for its first truism of the three morals it offers. Indeed, not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.

This brings us once again to Cap’n Dave Kearns. Novell takes frequent, heavy-handed critique from Mr. Kearns. Sometimes his information is painfully errant. Other times, Dave’s information is too well informed to be merely Dave’s musings from outside Novell’s corporate walls. (To the point that when Dave liberally praised my work in a recent edition of his newsletter, it gave me more than a small amount of dispepsia about whether management at Novell might suspect me possibly as an inside source to Dave. As Dave can attest, I meticulously toe the non-disclosure line with him. That’s mostly because my various other antics already get me into enough hot water. I don’t certainly don’t need to add violating confidentiality to the litany.) I submit to you…

Exhibit A:Dave Kearns’s recent newsletter takes Red Hat’s CEO to task on some exaggerations he made against Novell.

Okay, so the price of tea in China: Among the things I am learning from my ongoing studies about how user communities work–particularly how the people in Novell’s user community behave–is that strong user communities operate somewhat as families do: members may argue their differing opinions, but they can still share a strong, common allegiance. As far as user communities go, members may often criticize the institution whose banner they fly, but when non-members level such an attack, the members will often defend fiercely. To offer another analogy, consider ethnic jokes: they’re funny only if the comedian making them is a member of that same ethnic group. Otherwise, people bristle and things get uncomfortable.

So the very existence of a journalist who can take a highly critical stance about a company he covers in one week’s newsletter to defending the same company’s business and technology in his next release–and still command enough readership to keep going–demonstrates strength and cohesion of the Novell user community. From my many years of attending BrainShare, I know that Kearns is in no way an atypical member of this community (perhaps with the exception that he has readership). In the sense of community, Kearns is merely one prominent member of a broad community of Novell-technology adherents who may not always agree with decisions of Novell management, but share a common loyalty nevertheless.

There are countless other examples of this odd brand of loyalty. A couple weeks ago, I was musing to a coworker about this strange aspect of communities. This developer (he works on c-lib and libc) immediately cited a recent experience on a discussion board he frequents. One of the members there responded to a naysayer’s comments about Novell’s commitment to NetWare by conjecturing his strongly-held belief that Novell was about to release 64-bit NetWare any day to the shock and awe of the entire industry. (For the record, to my knowledge that scenario is not in the works, so please don’t interpret this post as a sneaky way to leak an announcement. I recount this little anecdote because it further demonstrates the extreme loyalty some have for Novell.)

This kind of customers fidelity is the envy of many companies of much larger size than Novell. They are perhaps the most valuable thing a company can ever hope to create. Earning them is difficult, and keeping them requires attentive caretaking. Like the first moral in our opening story, best allies do not always laud you with praise. (In fact, they can often be your harshest critics.) It’s their long-term commitment that defines them.

Incidentally, most of what I have been working on is cooking up a master plan for better taking care of Novell’s various user communities. As soon as I know which components of the plan I’ll be able to implement, I’ll start discussing them here and a couple other places.

Sooner than that (and at risk of this blog becoming a newsletter about a newsletter) perhaps we should have some words about another topic Dave Kearns discussed recently: the promotion of Ron Hovsepian to Chief Operating Officer.

As always, you can contact me at reverendted at novelldotcom with your thoughts, suggestions, rants and raves.


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