Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paying the price of doing what’s right --another war story

I often hear in conversation about companies’ engagement in Social Media that it is the right thing to do.
Doing what’s right might often seem like a common sense, honest and if not easy, natural thing to do. However, it is a process that is based on one’s beliefs and is intrinsically subjective. My view of doing what is right might not be in agreement with the majority’s view. Facing the consequences of following the right path might also not always be pleasant. Companies, marketers and individuals are facing the challenge of reconciling the outcome of decisions and keeping their interests in mind.

Decisions are complex equations with many factors:
One’s beliefs / values,
Environment beliefs (philosophy and values of entourage and/or organization)
Consequences of failure,
Expected results and the likelihood for them to occur.
These criteria are given different weight in the decision making process according to the specificity of the situation, its urgency, the focus on the outcome and past experiences.

Doing the right thing when it’s legally wrong:
I mentioned in a previous post that my Dad spent a good portion of his life in the military. As an officer involved in combats, he had to face the challenge of making decisions that impacted lives, his career and to a certain degree the course of history.
One of my Dad’s most consequential decisions during his engagement in the French-Algeria war illustrates not only how the weight given to these factors can shift dramatically and how the notion of what is right might differ between individuals.

After joining the Allies troops and marching over Europe, Dad joined the Saint-Cyr academy, graduated as an officer and soon found himself in charge of a Foreign Legion Commando in Indochina (the French Vietnam war) using American made weasels or crabs. In fighting what is now known as the colony wars, the fielded French military establishment believed in building trust among the population and gain ground that way. While there were many combats against the Viet-minh, Dad’s Indochina war consisted of wining the trust of villages and their leaders to acquire information in exchange of protection. The very same way officers had to make decisions regarding the trustworthiness of the information and the integrity of the villages’ leaders, these villages had to take a leap of faith and choose whether to go with the French soldiers or the Viet-minh. The survival of each individual in the village was at stake, and similarly the life of every soldier in his commando depended on the decision to trust village leader or not. When the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu and decided to pull out of Indochina, they abandoned those who had trusted them. Those who had worked so hard to establish relationships with villagers were now abandoning them knowing that the Viet-minh would seek revenge. If you’ve seen The Killing Fields you can imagine how it looked. (I recommend Helie de Saint Marc’s book “les champs de braises” to truly understand what the troops witnessed. Imagine trucks taking the troops away followed by villagers running behind trying to climb in the trucks).

When troops were send to Algeria to fight a similar war (in a much different terrain), Capitaine Petit was sent to the Sahara desert in the region of Touggourt to pacify the area. After a few years of combats, the “insurgents” (for a lack of a better word) composed of the FLN and ALN, realized that their cause would not be won with combat in Algeria and took the combat to the main land: France. After terrorist attacks started in France, it was clear to the government in place that the country would not support this war much longer and talks with the “insurgents” started. Military officials on the ground quickly realized that De Gaulle was now preparing to abandon Algeria and in April 61 a tight group decided to seize power in Algeria in what would become known as the Generals’ Putsch.
As the word of the coup spread out, officers were confronted to the decision of following the coup or remaining loyal to De Gaulle and the government which meant pulling out of Algeria. Few followed the coup, including Capitaine Petit’s unit.

The plan backfired and actually reinforced De Gaulle’s power. The coup collapsed within few days and De Gaulle was able to negotiate a pull out with the FLN.
The coup’s followers moved out singing Edith Piaf’s song “Je ne regrette rien” (I have no regrets). Some were jailed (up to 10 years) and some like my dad were consigned to garrisons in Germany and banned from France for few years. Being banned from France is certainly not the worst, but considering the fact that most of these men had fought for France in many harsh combats for nearly two decades this was a slap in the face. This was even more so, because these men had to deal with the loss of comrades in combats due to sabotaged material by communists militants in France which went unpunished (Soldiers were killed because of sabotaged jeeps shipped with sand in the oil tank).

As you can imagine, this decision impacted his life and his career. While Dad remained in the military for one more decade, his career path was abruptly stopped in spite of many medals, honors and citations.

Looking at the equation above here is one scenario of what the decision process might have looked like when deciding to follow the coup:
-Beliefs / values:
Keeping a promise: established trust with villages and nomad population, with an understanding of France’s loyalists should and would be protected.
Betrayal and its dire consequences: dealt with the betrayal of loyalist villagers in Indochina and now had to face it again.
Death for a meaning: dealt with the death of their comrades in combat which would turn out to be meaningless if pulling out.
-Environment beliefs:
Surrounded with pro-putschists
-Consequences of failure:
Death, jail, destitution, the end of a career…
-Expected results and their likelihood to occur:
Historians have clearly established that the purpose of the coup was not to take over power (neither in Algeria nor France), but rather to destabilize the government in place and push for a new administration that would back a French Algeria, maintain the status quo and would not negotiate with the insurgents.
Regarding the likelihood of this happening, this is where I wish I could ask Dad about his thoughts. However, I don’t think it mattered much for most of those who followed the coup. It did not matter because it was the right thing to do. This was about not letting down the locals who decided to remain loyal to France and those who put their life on the line. (I have to believe that this is very similar to what our troops in Iraq are currently experiencing in regards to the Iraqis who are helping them). These men stood up for their loyalists and were ready to face whatever consequences for their convictions.

Most of the troops however, did not agree with their choices and saw the right path as following the orders of De Gaulle, the chief commander. The coup’s followers were a minority but in their mind they were doing the right thing and they were ready to pay the price. In there mind those who follow De Gaulle where doing the right thing by following the commander’s orders.

In most cases, everyone has good reasons: marketers, regulatory/legal/medical, short term minded business managers, finance managers…
The right thing to do is clearly not always as clear and shared by everyone…for good reasons.
Some of us see Social Media as an opportunity. It is a customer centric approach with a promise of engagement, positive brand perception and in the long term loyalty. It is a right approach because it extends the value proposition beyond the actual product and provides support to customers.
But looking at it from other perspectives, engaging with customers is not as obvious as we see it.
In the pharmaceutical industry, from a regulatory/legal & medical standpoint, given that their duty is to protect the assets of the company which in turn has to answer to the shareholders, the liability of engaging real time with customers on topics of medical treatment is too great of a threat with a risk/benefit ratio too skewed on the risks (not to mention the inadequate current regulation).
For financial managers, brand managers, and promotions response managers the return on the investment needed might not be delivered fast enough, while they have market share targets and sales volume to achieve every months.

Capitaine Petit quickly made a decision in 1961 and expected that it would be understood because it felt right. For most in France, his decision was wrong. Whether or not it was the wrong decision, those who planned and organized the coup and those who followed it, failed to recognize that their reasons for doing so where not understood and therefore not shared by most in the country. They failed to educate, they failed to seek understanding and somehow failed to demonstrate their ROI.

It’s our job to educate and “sell” social media:
We certainly can not expect everyone to see the risk/benefit ratio the same way we are just because it feels right. Because the right thing to do is not enough of a reason to blindly execute strategies and the fundamental changes needed within corporations, requires a little more than a leap of faith. And it does require some investment analysis including ROI.
As employees of companies with responsibilities and liabilities, it is our job to “sell” social media internally. It is our job to understand everyone’s roles and responsibilities and what is driving their behaviors. It is our job to come up with solutions that will address everyone’s concerns. Great attention to details and working internally to identify solutions.