Reviewing the Groundswell

One danger of reviewing a book is the reality that the reviews ultimately say more about the reviewer, and the book he or she wishes had been written, than they do about the book which actually was written. It’s in that context that I offer this review of Groundswell, by Forrester Research analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, published by Harvard Business Press (note: disclaimers at the end of the post).

Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies

To start with the positive: This is a really solid business book, which sets out a clear methodology (including the Social Technographics Profile and the POST method with which Forrester clients / subscribers are already familiar), walks through a broad range of well explained case studies, and situates the business benefits of the different approaches.

Bernoff and Li have clearly done their research here, talking to a wide variety of companies in different industries about their experiences with “social technologies,” and they do a very astute job of avoiding oversimplification (never suggesting, for example, that every business should follow a simple formula) while also not falling back on the consultant’s refrain (“it depends”) or failing to give real, useful, pragmatic, and actionable advice.

The book is laid out into three key sections (you can see the whole table of contents online):

  1. Understanding the Groundswell – in which they lay out the basic context of what has changed and why businesses need new approaches, as well as the social technographics profiles
  2. Tapping the Groundswell – in which they lay out the POST method, and walk through all the ways companies can benefit from / leverage this new world
  3. The Groundswell Transforms – in which they extend the argument to include how this new set of conditions can transform the enterprise.

Each section is supported by a handful of specific case studies and other examples, which are drawn from a wide variety of industries. There are indices by company and by strategy at the end of the book, so you can quickly find examples from your own vertical or place on the adoption curve.

Li and Bernoff are at their rhetorical best when they are describing the veritable sea change that the groundswell represents:

You cannot ignore this trend. You cannot sit this one out. Unless you are retiring in the next six months, it’s too late to quite and let somebody else handle it. The groundswell trend is unstoppable, and your customers are there. You may go a little slower or a little faster, but you have to move forward. There is no going back.

They also offer solid, sound advice to those looking to manage the cultural change required within an enterprise to successfully pull of “Groundswell thinking”:

  • First, start small.
  • Second, educate your executives.
  • Third, get the right people to run your strategy.
  • Fourth, get your agency and technology partners in sync.
  • Fifth, plan for the next step and for the long term.

Not exactly radical or wholly original advice, but wrapped in the context of real business decisions made by people facing the issues, and informed by real experiences.

In short, I’d say the book is a must read for anyone from a traditional (by which I mean anything existing before the web) business looking to adapt to the internet age, anyone trying to convince their more traditional colleagues or bosses to adopt new strategies, and anyone hoping to sell such folks consulting and technology services.

Having said all of that, there are some minor blemishes – for example, when did become “a simple downloadable application”? Are they talking about the bookmarklets (javascript buttons for your browser to submit things to But that is really an exception in an otherwise well researched and well documented book.

Rather more difficult to ignore is the almost complete absence of Free and Open Source Software from a discussion of “Social Technologies.” There is a section titled “people collaborating: wikis and open source” (the lack of title capitalization is in the original – even the book title is in all lower case), but it really should be called “people collaborating: wikis.” Granted, Bernoff and Li aren’t technology analysts per se – in the sense of analyzing development approaches and platforms – and in the POST methodology technology is the last element. But I’d argue that it is critical to understand the context of mass collaboration rising out of open source communities in order to better understand the mechanisms by which communities are created and sustained, thrive or fail, and interact with each other in an online world.

Instead, the whole of the analysis of this phenomenon comes to a paragraph in which we learn:

The same sort of cooperation [as that which drives wikipedia and other wikis] drives other forms of online collaboration, including open-source software products like Linux (a version of the Unix operating system), Apache (a Web server), and Firefox (a Web browser). In open source, technically adept developers combine their efforts to build, test, and improve software products, and the code is available for all to see. Before you scoff at this form of development, recognize that Linux now underpins many Web servers and consumer electronics devices, including TiVo; Apache is the dominant Web server software on the Internet, and Firefox has gone from zero to over 25 percent market share in less than two years.

That’s it, basically, for open source. No analysis of the massive collaboration efforts behind those projects, or how they are managed, arise, die, become businesses, become communities, etc. No analysis of how these and other open source projects provide either models or anti-patterns to be avoided. Not even any analysis of how the open source development methodology and licensing practices have influenced other cultural practices through things like creative commons licensing, open access, and challenges to many fundamental corporate notions of intellectual property.

Bernoff and Li seem to assume that their reader has no familiarity with and no interest in development – which may be accurate – and don’t seem to have much interest themselves in the impact open source can and has had.

(Readers interested in these issues would do well to check out Chris Kelty’s Two Bits and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – the former on the cultural significance of free software, the latter on how technology changes have enabled and facilitated changes in social organization – both of which I hope to write more about in the future).

What ultimately left me dissatisfied with the book, however – and here we return to the question of whether this reveals more about me as a reviewer than the text – is that it never steps outside its tightly constructed frame, which essentially comes down to “how do I use this to improve my business”?

It isn’t that I expected, or even wanted, Li and Bernoff to craft a revolutionary manifesto – a sort of Cluetrain II or Wealth of Networks for the MBA set – but that the tone is so relentless in its focus it can begin to feel like the only valid reason for the Internet’s existence (and the only valid use of it now that it exists) is to sell more widgets, make people feel better about the widgets they’ve bought, and maybe help a few companies make better widgets.

It ended up reminding me of one of my favorite 80s movie scenes, from Say Anything, when John Cusack is asked what he wants to do with his life, and answers:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

Again, to be fair, I’ve got no problem with businesses trying to understand how to adapt to the changing environment the Internet and social media represent, or even with helping businesses figure out how to leverage these new approaches to generate profit or awareness – in fact, that’s a fair description of what I do at Optaros, and what Optaros does more broadly.

It’s just that in the middle of the focus on tapping, listening to, talking with, energizing, embracing, and connecting with the Groundswell (every single chapter title involves doing something with the groundswell or enabling it to do something to your company), there’s precious little exploration of what is driving the Groundswell in the first place, or what it means more broadly as a social and historical phenomenon. Why the groundswell now? What impact is it having on us as a culture, other than just what toothpaste we think is cool?

(Yes, there is a section in the opening chapter on what the groundswell is and why it is happening now – but it is reduced to this level of causality: “These three trends – people’s desire to connect new interactive technologies, and online economics – have created a new era.”)

Ultimately, Groundswell presents “the groundswell” as something which is happening to us – something we are not creating but either passively suffering from or being carried by, like a surfer on a wave. It seems almost a force of a nature – an inevitable technology tsunami – rather than a collective project in which we are all engaged in actively constructing a specific historical reality.

So is it fair to critique Groundswell for staying within its own well-defined purpose? To criticize it for not being The Wealth of Networks?

If what you’re looking for is an eminently readable, well researched, pragmatic guide to business strategies for dealing with this set of social changes, Groundswell delivers. But in doing so, I wish it had taken more time to step outside the framing of this social change as a kind of natural consequence of the inevitable march of technology and understand the set of changes themselves in greater detail.

Disclosures: Forrester sent me a review copy of the book, as they did to a number of bloggers. Optaros co-sponsored a webinar with Josh Bernoff earlier this year on the topic of open innovation. Several of the companies discussed as case studies are or have been Optaros clients, though Optaros was not involved in any of the specific projects described. Swisscom Mobile Labs, an Optaros client project, was a finalist in the groundswell awards. Optaros is a Forrester client. I know a number of people who work there or have worked there.


  1. Great review, John. I have not read Groundswell, but I’m curious to know your thoughts on Forrester’s Social Technographics profile.

    A while back Josh Bernoff offered a free report about Social Technographics to bloggers, and I grabbed it, but I didn’t end up reviewing it on my blog because I had several problems with it. I decided at the time that it was better in that case to not write anything than to write a negative review…

    So I’m curious, did the methodology strike you in any way?

  2. Nice review! I had similar thoughts as I was reading it. A perfectly adequate business book, like a whole raft of others that have come out recently, all of which assume the audience really don’t know much or are somehow looking in from the outside rather than being and feeling part of it all. I think we’re all ready for some deeper stuff now.

  3. Thank you for the review John. I have been reading Charlene’s feed for a while now and was curious about the book. To be honest I was a little turned off by how much she was pimping the book over the past few months.

    I look forward to whatever her next venture will be and will keep clued into her blog, but I’ll pass on the book this time around.

  4. @joshua porter

    Great question about the Technographics stuff. I’ve tried to write about before and failed.

    Instruments like the Social Technographics Profile always have to oversimplify. There’s not enough sense of grain in recency and frequency – doing different activities once per month versus a hundred times a day. There’s also not enough clarity about motivations and how they differ across groups. Finally, it implies that people grow up the ladder – they start by listening and some of them eventually get to the top.

    That’s wrong because some people start elsewhere in the ladder and then move up or down. Some people are all things in the ladder at once. Others start in one rung and basically stay there forever.

    However, I think it has a lot of value as a rough instrument. Knowing, in a given demographic, whether it seems like that population is more active or less active than the overall net population in a given category can be useful. The way they use it in the discussion in groundswell is relevant here – helps determine how a business should go after different audiences.

    Of course, more detailed stats on user actions on your own site – your actual customers, not a demographically balanced panel, combined with user testing and user feedback – beats broad brush demographics anyway.

    Since you asked the question, what were your concerns about the technographics profile stuff?

  5. My concerns were similar…the assumption that people can fit into “buckets” or rungs on the ladder that describe their technological use. You are either someone who blogs and reads blogs or you aren’t.

    My experience has suggested that people are all over the place, as you say. They might read a blog on their favorite topic of food and not even think about it as being a blog…while that is sophisticated behavior Social Technographics-wise it really doesn’t say anything about the person…merely that they found the site and liked the content there.

    So yes, as a rough instrument it can be a good conversation starter, and as I get older I realize that this is important on the team level. But I really don’t see how one can make tactical decisions with it…given that it’s such a broad tool and that all the data is self-reported in the first place. (that’s the bigger problem with most of Forrester’s data)

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