February 13, 2003

The Right to Be Heard?


An electronic discussion list of an association I belong to has been filled with lively exchange the past couple of days. I think the underlying implications of the exchange hold some interesting potential for anyone interested in how change can be brought about in an organization.

Two primary discussion threads have emerged: (1) the first deals with some consternation over a recent communication the sponsoring association sent to members; and (2) the other addresses the desires some members are voicing to have an electronic discussion list that would exclude the supplier-members of the sponsoring association. Discussion list participants generally understand that a staff member of the sponsoring association is monitoring the list, and this staff liaison periodically interjects reminders about discussion list etiquette, comments on issues, etc.

It is an underlying tone of both of the discussion threads that has most intrigued me. It appears that some discussion participants either believe, or perhaps expect, that posting their opinion or concern to the discussion list should bring about the change they desire. And if they don’t think it will necessarily bring about the change they desire, they certainly seem to expect it will generate a response from an appropriate representative of the sponsoring association.

Is this a fair expectation in an era when electronic communication often rules the day?

When we didn’t have listservs and electronic bulletin boards as vehicles for mass venting, how would you bring about a desired change or communicate a concern or frustration? The answer is obvious, right? You would pick up the phone or write a letter, both of which typically (though not always) would result in some form of response from the other party. It might not be the desired response, but generally it closed the communication loop.

Customer service representatives, brand managers, and other corporate staff certainly scour their company’s discussion boards (when offered), as well as public sites like epinions.com and others for commentary regarding their company’s products. In some cases, these resources are seen as valuable forums for feedback the company might not otherwise receive. In others, it allows company reps to offer an “official response” to concerns or questions voice about products. And presumably, some ideas or complaints consumers voice find their way into the corporate halls of decision-making and lead to future product enhancements. But the company staff members are always significant filters of such communication, deciding which consumer comments merit being carried into the company for further consideration.

Do we have the right to expect a response when our concerns are expressed publicly versus being communicated directly to the source? In the association scenario I’ve described above, a few members have expressed a desire for a particular type of electronic discussion list. Is it the responsibility of the sponsoring association’s staff to take this concern to the appropriate forum within the association, pitch the members’ idea, and then respond to the membership? Is it reasonable to expect that course of action for every idea or complaint that gets posted to a discussion forum?

My real curiosity lies with thinking about the responsibility we have as individuals to be actively involved in bringing about changes we desire. The thought that I can just post a comment somewhere and have it automatically carried forward by another party strikes me as requiring too little of me and too much of others. If doing so unexpectedly brings about a change I would like, then that is a pleasant surprise. But to expect action to be taken because I’ve merely made my opinion public, seems unrealistic.

It also gives the third party too much control over my own satisfaction as that individual determines whether or not my opinion merits further attention by the host company or sponsoring organization. Finally, while I value minority opinion as much as majority opinion in many cases, the thought that a few vocal discussion list participants might bring about a change that the masses have not been consulted about strikes me as a bit unfair.

But the “passive response mindset” seems to be permeating our culture more and more as forums like electronic bulletin boards and discussion lists enable it. I’m not sure that bodes well for a relevant feedback loop between member and association or customer and company, but organizations need to determine how they will address what appears to be a growing expectation.


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