Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Corporate Blogging

"Don't let your employees blog. And if they do anyway, don't admit it to anyone. And make sure they post a disclaimer. Otherwise, one of them will give away all your company secrets; another will commit libel and drop you in a lawsuit; and if you're really unlucky, and you're not an American, you'll end up in G'tmo. And your skin will turn green."

OK, that maybe exaggerates the warnings I got when looking into the idea of corporate blogging, but not by much. Here, however, is what I did ponder as I discussed the pros and cons of blogging with one of Verilab's consultants, JL Gray, author of Cool Verification.

First, we started from a position that blogging, done well, is a Good Thing. Verilab is home to some of the top experts in the field of VLSI verification, but often I still have to remind such a geek-heavy team that it's important not only to be good at what you do, but to be seen to be good. And blogging is one way of being seen. The question then is what, if any, are the costs and other pitfalls of blogging? And are those outweighed by any benefits?

The first potential pitfall is brand dilution. Take JL's Cool Verification for example. His blog stats show that lots of the traffic coming to the Verilab website is actually coming via his blog. On the one hand that's a good thing - traffic is, after all, coming to Verilab. On the other hand, it's "second-hand" traffic coming via Cool Verification. He and I discussed this back and forth a lot. For me, the key benefit of blogging and being not only good but seen to be good, is that it enhances the brand of Verilab. I'm happy - no, keen - for Verilab's brand to be enhanced by enhancing the personal brands of my
team. But I don't want the personal side to defocus the company side. In the end, this really became a non-issue because there is an inherent synergy between what JL is doing and Verilab. Of course there is, since he's a key member of my team. And were that not the case, no amount of blog rules, intended to force branding in one direction or the other, would be effective. My overall conclusion on the branding side of things - for me the most important issue - is that it is a reflection of the overall team spirit and effectiveness. Get that right, and the branding thing will follow. Don't get it right and you have bigger
problems than just ambiguous branding of blogs.

Next was the area of appropriateness of content. Verilab provides consulting services to some very large and well-known clients, and our influence is often at a significant strategic level. As a result we have tended to follow the McKinsey approach and keep much of our client names secret. And so we can't have bloggers speaking openly about things on which the company's policy is discretion. A related area is manners and good sense when it comes to discussing the sorts of tools and technologies we use in our daily work. Verilab is well known for it's neutral and objective stance on such things. We are partnered with the major tool vendors in our field, but are exclusive to none. We are, in a sense, the Switzerland of EDA. People come to us because we're friends with everyone. All of that has implications for blogging and for public discourse in general. Compared with the brand issue, however, this was relatively easy to handle. We follow a policy similar (remarkably similar) to that of Sun. It's not going to cover every single eventuality, but no policy will. It seems to work.

Finally, the biggest amount of time JL and I spent on this concerned the area of IP ownership. And it arose because of a part of Verilab's employment agreement that is fairly normal and, at first sight, unthreatening. In that agreement it says, in a nutshell, that if Verilab is paying an employee to do stuff - including writing stuff - then Verilab gets to own the stuff. What that means is, if someone blogs on Verilab time, then Verilab owns the post. Oops. Poor blogger invests his very heart into his blog only to have Big Bad Corporation "steal" it from him, or at very least serve him with a takedown notice after he leaves Verilab.

Now, one option could be to say that blogging cannot be done on "company time". But that doesn't really solve the problem. For a start, just because someone does something outside of company time doesn't mean the company doesn't have some rights in it. For example, JL blogged extensively about his travels to this year's DVCon and DATE conferences; travel which Verilab paid for. Even though he may have blogged about them in the evening, it's still arguable that Verilab was footing the bill. Also, remember that blogging is being seen as a Good Thing - i.e. it benefits Verilab. So it can be good to let bloggers do some blogging on company time.

Now from my (the employer) point of view, this was not really a problem. By the employee agreement, I may have a right to some of the employee blog posts. I don't have to enforce that right, but it's there
if I want it. Rather, it's a problem for the employee - in this case JL. For him, and for any blogger, the blog is a peculiar piece of work unlike a conference paper, or a trade journal article. It's peculiar in
that it is his blog. It's a daily or weekly (or whatever) stream of consciousness, of value not primarily because of any specific posting, but because it connects him to his readers and vice versa. But it's not just detached writings - it's his writings.

And I understood that (then, and even more so now that I'm blogging myself). So, to get around the problem, we first considered creating a special license that could be offered to our bloggers. It meant that
the core employment agreement - which created the issue in the first place - could remain unchanged. But the license would then effectively say, 'Although Verilab still owns that particular work product known as "your blog posts", it grants you a royalty-free license to use them on your blog even after you leave Verilab'.

That sounded fine at first, but as we mulled it over we realized it was contrived. It's just the sort of heavy legal stuff that a small and agile firm like Verilab would hope to avoid for a while. And so, amid thoughts of agility, I decided to ask some advice from the nice people at Thoughtworks. They appear
to have an excellent blog culture going, and it looks like it's unencumbered by too much legalese. For example, most of the blogs there, are personal blogs, not hosted by TW themselves. The implication is, TW is not trying to own them. So, I asked the question of a couple of Thoughtworkers; one a project manager, and one a senior technical figure there, and well-known blogger in his own right. Both came back with replies that confirmed my view of how TW manages its bloggers - with a light, encouraging hand, backed by common sense guidelines, and the (very) occasional wrist slap if needed.

So there JL and I, successfully and with a sense of relief, left it. Maybe we (and TW) are just asking for trouble in not having lots of legal stuff to control our blogging. But Verilab (and TW)  are characterized by relatively small groups of extremely smart people of the sort who perform best with a degree of trust and flexibility that may not be appropriate for the larger public firm.

One outcome of all of our discussion was that I decided myself to start a blog. A major reason was so that I myself could be on the blogger side of the table, in order to understand how any rules or
guidelines would affect the employee.

Finally, overall this is a particular area of interest for knowledge-base firms like consultancies, and JL is breaking a lot of new ground in that respect. In fact he's trying to coordinate a Blogging "Birds-of-a-feather" Session at the forthcoming DAC 2008 conference to which Verilab will be sending a team. If you're interested, drop him an email at jl dot gray at verilab dot com, or pop over to Cool Verification.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John. Yeah, we think we've managed to come up with a solution that will work. It wasn't too difficult to reach a satisfactory conclusion; after a few weeks of discussion, I had JL in an armlock, but he had managed to grab my throat and was trying a choke submission. And there was blood and teeth and stuff on the floor, and our Office Manager was getting grumpy about that. So we called it a draw, shook hands, apologized to the OM, and promised her we'd never argue about blogs ever again.