March 2012 update: I originally posted this on SCN in 2009, but as I review my old blogs this one jumped out to share on the new SAP SCN platform. I've seen some really good blogs on SCN, and some that didn't seem to have much effort or thought. That leads us to a spirited discussion of what the aims of blogging should be - consider this piece one aspect of that - Jon.
In my own work inside and outside of SAP contexts, there are two things I am often reflecting on:
How should I conduct myself online, particularly in situations where I strongly disagree with someone else in a community, or when I feel I have been unfairly criticized or attacked?
How should I balance what I love about blogging: the immediacy and the (often) outspoken nature of an entertaining blog, with the need for intellectual and factual rigor?
I am always looking for tips to guide me in my efforts. I know, for example, that I have regrets about some things I have published (or even Tweeted) in the SAP field: sometimes for shooting too much from the hip, other times because I could have gone farther, made one more call to get another view, or dug for that crucial piece of data that would have driven my point home.
Recently, while doing a spring cleaning purge of my office, I came across a short document I found quite relevant. For those who haven't seen my SCN profile video, I am a Hampshire College graduate. I served on the presidential search team that hired President Gregory Prince to serve at Hampshire, where he began his term in 1987. Greg led the college until his departure in 2005.
Greg was a leader I admired, willing to take unpopular or unconventional stands. One time I will never forget: in the summer of 1988, I was working at a banquet for college donors, pouring drinks and cleaning tables. After dinner, the group gathered around a long table to discuss Hampshire's future. I was shocked when Greg called on me to sit at the table with the donors and participate in the discussion as a peer. It was a lasting reminder that leadership means drawing out the views of everyone in the community, not just the so-called rock stars who have been afforded a certain status.
At any rate, Greg was also someone who was brilliant at engaging in heated arguments without ever losing a thoughtful respect for the views of those he was jousting with. He once derided the appalling state of public education and the federal remedies around testing standards as a "failure of imagination," a phrase I've thrown down in heated moments of my own in years since.
To the point of this blog post, Greg also developed a "Principles of Discourse for Hampshire College," a document he probably made after one of his many run-ins with student activists (at Hampshire, engaging with politically vigorous students is part of the President's job description).
While scouring through my office, I stumbled on this document. I was struck by how relevant it felt to my own pursuits, both as a blogger and SAP community member:
"1) That we value truth and the process of seeking truth as ends in themselves;
2) That we accept responsibility to articulate a position as close to the truth as one can make it, using to the best of one's ability, available evidence, and the rules of reason, logic and relevance;
3) That we listen openly, recognizing always that new information may alter one's position;
4) That we welcome evaluation and accept and even encourage disagreement and criticism even to the point of seeking out for ourselves that which will disprove our position;
5) That we refuse to reduce disagreement to personal attacks or attacks on groups or classes of individuals;
6) That we value civility, even in disagreement;
7) That we reject the premise that ends, no matter how worthy, can justify means which violate these principles."
As I consider these principles in an SAP community context, I'm aware that an unwavering pursuit of the truth is probably not the most fashionable way to approach enterprise software discussions. Too many of us feel pressure, either stated or not, from our sponsors or employers, to toe a certain line in our public comments. Even those who claim to want honest feedback are not always happy with how it reads on a web page. Sometimes we wrap ourselves in "honesty" when we are being at best intellectually sloppy, and at worst, a bit cruel. And there is always the question of how to balance our commercial interests with our desire to call it like we see it - something that college students in fierce debates don't have to worry about so much, as long as they keep it off their Facebook pages.
I'm not going to offer any easy answers to these dilemmas here, only to say that for me, the closer we can model our business dealings on a foundation of open and honest dialogue, the stronger I believe we will be in the long run. Exactly what that model will look like is something that is still being developed, on many fronts. We can look to the impact of sustainability as one sign that companies are confronting "externalities," issues that used to remain hidden outside of narrow corporate balance sheets, in a way that has not happened historically.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I guess for me, it will unfold one blog at a time, but more than ever before, in the context of a community that is influencing and impacting my own work. I'm not sure if my attempts to follow Greg's principles will make me a better business person, but I know they will make me a better blogger.