Solve the world’s food problems: Demand better tasting food.

smarter apple

My two worlds have collided this week: work and food.

At IBM right now, I’m deeply involved in the communications efforts supporting the “Smarter Planet” agenda. Basically, the premise is that the systems that make the world work – financial, food, health, water, traffic, etc. – are largely broken and need to be fixed. IBM’s point of view is that it takes technology, sure, but also policy and cultural change to really find solutions to these problems – to make them smarter.

This week, we’ve been focusing a lot on building smarter food systems. You can read through some of the content here for more background, but the essence is that as our food systems have become globally interconnected, it has heightened the potential risks associated with food safety, nutrition, affordability and availability.

Clearly, this topic of food interests me very personally. So allow me to be indulgent and offer some of my own perspectives on the topic. While many people far smarter and more qualified than I are working on this issue, I have but one point of entry to the topic: taste. Simply, I believe this country’s food problems can be solved with a greater emphasis on better tasting food. Trust me, I’ll explain. But first, some background:

I remember as a kid frequently driving to San Diego from my home in the Inland Empire – about 45 minutes East of Los Angeles. Anyone who has driven that stretch of the I-15 corridor to San Diego knows you pass miles and miles of rocky hills, largely covered by dark avocado trees. The avocado groves thrive in the warm hilly terrain and make the dry, often parched hills, look lush and verdant. Not long after one such trip, I went with my mom to a local produce market and was tasked with buying the avocados. Expecting to find avocados from some of the trees I’d seen on my last trip, I was surprised to find only avocados from Chile or Mexico.

If avocados grew commercially in abundance just miles from my house, why could I only buy ones picked from trees thousands of miles away?

Fast forward 20 years to my now hometown supermarket in Connecticut. It’s August, prime summer produce season in the Northeast, and yet all I find in my supermarket are tomatoes from California. (Ironically, it’s easier to find California grown avocados in Connecticut than in California, as this blogger also noted this week).

Clearly, something is wrong. How much money is being wasted sending food across the country when it’s grown around the corner? What kind of unnecessary energy is burned in the process?

With populations on the earth facing devastating food shortages, something feels wrong about shipping food across the globe to places fully capable of providing for its own.

Somehow we need to create an independent market for local agriculture that is capable of supporting the local population, as much as practical. We need market incentives that force supermarkets to make dramatic changes to how they source, distribute and market food.

How do we do that? the government’s solution, to date has seemed to hinge on farm subsidies. Just read Nicholas Kristof’s column from today’s New York Times to see the absurd results of those programs.

I have a different idea. Remember, I love food for food’s sake. So it always comes back to taste. And, I can’t help but think that peoples’ desire for better tasting food can, ultimately, help lead to the kind of systemic changes needed in our food supplies.

Trivial, you say? Well, let me explain.

Simply stated the closer food is consumed to the place it was grown, the better it tastes. That is an absolute rule.

So, as people yearn for better tasting food, they’ll ultimately yearn for more locally grown food. And as demand for locally grown food increases, demand (read: money) for local agriculture increases. And demand for local agriculture translates into incentives for supermarkets to stock local products. And stocking local products requires more efficient local distribution systems. Problem solved.

It all comes down to consumers’ understanding of what truly good food tastes like. For the most part, we’ve been complacent with two generations worth of mediocre food and have forgotten the link between local food and good food. But if we can begin to remember that linkage, the above scenarios begin to come true.

See how beautifully it all works out in the end? Who can’t get behind the idea of demanding better tasting food?

And that’s what I love doing. Hunting for great food, wherever it exists. And now it’s doubly good to know that my quests are contributing to a smarter food system.

Now, as a pay off for reading this post, a great little video from a colleague explaining why it’s important to know where your food comes from:


Everything I learned about social media, I learned from tacos

If you know me, you know one thing. I love food. I really love food. And tacos are generally the focus of my unhealthy food preoccupation. Almost a decade ago I moved to the East coast and out of sheer self preservation, I started what has become a never ending quest to find the perfect taco.

Now that my day job is centered around social media at IBM, I’m realizing the  process of searching for, learning about and sharing great tacos has given me better training in the dynamics of social media than anything else I could have done. 

Following are some lessons I’ve learned about communities and social media, all thanks to the humble taco.

  1. Go where the communities are already congregated on the topic. When I really want to have a conversation about where to find the best food, I don’t start them on this blog. I ALWAYS go to Chowhound.com first. (and trust me, the thousands of contributions I’ve made there over the past eight years are a testament to spending WAY too much time in community efforts).  While my blog might attract a few people (me, my wife, my mom, etc.), thousands are already congregated on Chowhound talking about where to find the best food. My goal is to find great food. My blog isn’t where that happens. I write my blog merely as a means to aggregate my random contributions online, but for real insight, I go to where the community already exists, where the conversations are already lively and the information sharing is the most helpful.
    Lesson: If you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Someone else has likely already built it. Go there first.
  2. Want value? Add value. The quality of what you get from a community is directly correlated to the value of your contributions into the community. This is self explanatory, but suffice to say that the quality of taco recommendations I got increased the more I gave recommendations to the community. Building a level of trust and credibility is paramount to affecting other people’s behavior – including what they offer you, and what they do as a result of what you offer them.
    Lesson: If you want to win friends and influence people, you’ve got to add value to the community. And “value” is defined by the community, not you.
  3. Listen, learn, follow. The great thing about communities is that you are never the smartest or most informed person in the community (if you are, I’d question either your community or your humility). Of all the great tacos I’ve found in NYC, Westchester or Fairfield counties over the past eight years, I’ve rarely been the first to discover them. Usually, someone else has already been there and reported about it. Those tips are often hard to find but through carefully listening, then following those tips, I’ve found some GREAT tacos. Listening preceded finding great tacos. Plus, I was able to see some of the dumb mistakes members made that alienated the rest of the community. Taking a listening-first approach helped me avoid many of those mistakes.
    Lesson: Listen first and you’ll learn things you didn’t even know you were there to learn about. You’ll also understand the explicit and implicit behavioral rules of the community.
  4. Closed loop. I’ve found the more I close the feedback loop, the more valuable feedback I end up getting. Finding tacos requires a lot of probing, asking and discovering. As I’ve taken people’s recommendations to try a certain taqueria, reporting back on those experiences often generates more discussion than the original query. Plus, it has the added benefit of assuring community members their contributions are considered and valued.
    Lesson: Companies would do well to create a more closed feedback loop, illustrating how community contributions are having an effect.
  5. It’s a long-term commitment. If I’d measured the value of the tacos I ate as a direct result of my participation in food communities after the first few months, I’m not sure I would have stuck around any longer. But, I took a long-term view – let’s be honest, food is a lifelong effort – and stuck to it. Over time, I found incredible value from the community (i.e., I eat better now than ever before).
    Lesson: Community focused efforts by companies are often short term in nature. And even when the mission is long term, if the measurements are short term, momentum quickly fades and companies drop their efforts.
  6. It’s not just about blogging. Blogging might be the poster child of Web 2.0, but blogs have not been that helpful in helping me find great tacos. Frankly, the best tools I’ve found in discovering food has been old-school message boards. That’s what chowhound originally was, and, in reality, still is. But that’s where people can share the most information and communities can get the best contribution. After all, forums are the original wiki.
    Lesson: Companies often take a myopic view with social media and focus on the Web 2.0 tool du jour. But sometimes the best solutions are the most boring. Find what works given the intent of the mission.
  7. Avoid any place that sells “hard shell tacos”. OK, I’m not sure how this relates, but let’s be honest, Taco Bell sucks and if you eat there, what you do with anything else in your life really won’t matter that much.
    Lesson: Got some great food tips? Share them.

Now I’m hungry.


Like to swim but afraid of the ocean? Taking an inside-out approach to social media

Photo courtesy of David Sifry via Flickr

My wife grew up a surfer. In high school, she’d ditch 4th period to head to the beach with her friend and her friend’s 9-foot longboard and surf the rest of the afternoon.

Some time during her senior year, she had an incident with a shark. Terrified, she paddled to shore as fast as she could. It turned out the shark was actually a playful dolphin circling underneath her board, but the result was the same. She never surfed again.

That doesn’t mean she is afraid of water or doesn’t love to swim. She’ll spend the entire summer in the pool. But when it comes to the big, deep blue ocean, she won’t go in past her waist.

Some people love to swim, but they are afraid of the ocean. Let me try and relate this to social media within the enterprise.

Those of us responsible in some way for driving adoption of social media within the enterprise face many of the same challenges. Foremost is overcoming the fear some employees – and companies – face when it comes to social media. Many harbor fear that Web 2.0 is a dangerous jungle with hazards lurking in every shadow. This fear can largely be overcome by providing a safer environment where people can learn, practice and experiment.

This has significant effect at the executive level too. As executives see social media work constructively inside the company, they begin to feel less need to control and more comfortable taking risks associated with new levels of openness and collaboration.

IBM’s approach – inside-out first

I wasn’t involved when IBM first dabbled its toes in the social media waters six years ago, so I can’t relate all of the discussions that went on at the time. But what I do know is this: the company made a deliberate decision to start our efforts inside the company first. We are a company of 380,000 employees, spread across the world, so it made sense for us to start our efforts inside the company – to find ways to connect more meaningfully across the world, to collaboration more effectively, and to flatten a massive organization.

(I’ll spare the lengthy discussion of what exactly we’ve been doing behind the firewall, but you can read about it here in Shel Israel’s interview with my colleague George Faulkner.)

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t done considerable work outside the firewall too. But our staring point was driving the adoption of social media inside the firewall first.

What has been the result? A culture within IBM familiar and comfortable with engaging in social media. As a whole, I think we are pretty advanced in our thinking of how to use these tools. We aren’t perfect, and I still see examples that make me cringe, but for the most part, the company is smart in its use of social media.

What does this mean for everyone else?

Adopting these tools and platforms behind the firewall first creates a safe environment where employees can safely learn the basics of social media without the fear of wading into the deep waters of a shark-infested ocean.

Employees will learn how to engage constructively with one another and behave in a way conducive to collaboration and openness. I can’t help but think many companies could avoid a lot of the embarrassing mistakes I see if employees had been able to experiment and learn behind the firewall first.

I realize that this approach doesn’t work for all companies. Perhaps their greatest needs are external and they need to address them immediately. IBM’s approach is IBM’s approach. But I can’t help but thinking that if more companies actively worked to create a safer environment within a company for employees to experiment and learn, they’d avoid many of the embarrassing mistakes that too often plague corporate use of social media.


Why social media matters for PR and marketing (hint – it’s all about the brand)

I spoke to a group of financial services communications professionals yesterday. It was a small, private event, with an impressively unique agenda. It isn’t every day that I present directly after Ari Fleischer and the Secret Service.

Given the current economic environment, and, specifically, the financial crisis that this crowd is steeped in daily, I wanted to make sure whatever I said passed the “Why does this matter to me?” test. Here is my take on that issue.

When companies are under incredible duress, the first priority rightly becomes fixing the fundamental problems with their business. Experimenting with social media isn’t the top of their agendas. Social media doesn’t replace simply doing business well. I agree with this approach.

In light of the huge issues these companies face, does that mean social media doesn’t matter at all? No. And here’s why: the brand. Nothing gets the attention of communications and marketing people more than talking about brand reputation or brand management. So how does social media influence the brand?

Take a look at this chart from an IBM study done earlier this year:
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Note where the traditional levers used by PR and marketing are in the hierarchy of what really shapes people’s perception of a brand. Near the bottom. What’s at the top? People’s interactions with employees of a company. The opinions of analysts and third parties. The personal opinions of family and friends.

So why does social media matter? Because it’s the way we in communications can move up the value ladder illustrated in that chart. We can start to participate in the conversations that really shape people’s perception of a brand much more effectively than our traditional vehicles.


The Future of Baseball…

Remember that baseball video podcast I mentioned a few weeks ago?

Well, here it is. If I could figure out a way to embed the video into this post, I would. Unfortunately, I didn’t, so so you’ll have to visit the page to watch. I think it’s worthwhile.

Nice job by Tim Washer on this one. Folks can see all the other episodes in the “Future of…” podcasts series here on ibm.com.


IBM and the Future of Baseball – coming soon

It’s rare when pursuing personal interests actually constitutes work. But today was one of those days.

After waking up at a cruelly early hour, a colleague and I drove up to Boston to film the next installment of the ongoing IBM podcast series, “IBM and the Future of…” But, as a departure of our normal format, this will be filmed, and, importantly, this will be about baseball.

What’s the connection between IBM and baseball? Well, I won’t share all the details as to not spoil the fun, but the thrust of the piece is that technology is playing a much greater role in how the game is played by professional teams, and how it’s enjoyed by fans. Needless to say, this will be a SABRMetrics friendly piece.

Keep your eyes out for it. We are hoping to wrap up the final bits of the piece in the coming week or two. In the meantime, check out past episodes of the series to catch up on what the future holds for energy, water, Africa, and a host of other interesting topics.


Public relations… constantly evolving, never changing

My colleague, George Faulkner, asked me last week if I’d accompany him to Poughkeepsie to speak with a group of communications students at Marist College about our work in leading the social media communications at IBM. Despite the keen feeling of being old, speaking with communications students was refreshing. When I asked the students about why they chose public relations as a major, their answers revealed a fair amount of uncertainty as to what the field is really about. That’s not all bad, in my opinion. I’ll try to explain why by sharing my personal history with the profession.

I’ll spare most of the details, but in short, I was about to start my sophomore year at BYU and had selected chemical engineering as my major. After a year of struggling with the major, I realized that this current path had only two outcomes: 1) at best, I’d trudge through school and be a mediocre engineer; or 2) at worse, I’d end up accidentally blowing up a chemical plant. Since neither outcome seemed palatable I started to look elsewhere.

I had heard of public relations from a friend and based solely on the name, changed my major. My rationale was simple: I liked people. And I liked having relationships with people. So public relations seemed perfect. I had no idea what the profession was. Just like the Marist students. And, frankly, the decision has turned out to be a good one for me in the end.

Now, this all has a point. I realized as we spoke to the Marist Students that my understanding of the profession has changed significantly from my first impressions while in college. And while the field evolves over time, at it’s heart, it’s always been the same: understanding what makes people tick and finding ways to influence and impact behavior. It was never only about pitching the media. Or even about media relations at all. It’s about understanding how to create a brand and reputation.

With the advent of social media, half of the PR professionals I know express consternation that the profession is changing, while the other half celebrate that the world has changed and none of the old rules apply. Both camps are wrong. Fundamentally the objectives and designs of the profession remain the same. Now we just have more opportunities and methods to engage with people. Hopefully that gives some level of comfort for those anxious about the changes in public relations, while tempering the exuberance of some who would hope to never talk to a reporter again.

In short, the profession is evolving. Social media, done right, simply enhances our ability to do what the intent of the profession has always been: understanding how people tick, and helping to influence people’s behavior.


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