As part of Gravity Thinking's visit to Austin Texas for SXSW we were invited to attend a pre event kick off at Dell.  After an eventf...

Visiting the
Death Star of Texas

As part of Gravity Thinking's visit to Austin Texas for SXSW we were invited to attend a pre event kick off at Dell. After an eventful trip to involving engine problems, missed connections and cross country transfers the UKTI SXSW mission group found itself arriving bleary eyed at Dell HQ in Round Rock Texas to a pre SXSW kick off “Unconference”

If you haven’t been to Dell the comparison to the Death Star is entirely apposite with 5 Hangers named appropriately Dell 1-5, as you drive up you see Michael Dell’s very own 501 Legion of Troopers arriving in their SUV’s - polo shirt and chino clad clutching their silver coffee travel cups – Dilbert is alive and well and working as a stormtrooper in Texas !

So all my preconceptions had been met within 5 minutes of arrival but as we were ushered into the depths of Building One a different side of Dell emerged – one that is trying to re-visit the principals of its roots and embrace entrepreneurialism – they even wore T Shirts and Jeans (albeit over shirts!).

The tenet of this entrepreneurialism appears to be based on social media – the principles of listen to your audience I guess and to that end they are fully embracing the social media revolution – engaging with bloggers, techies, journo’s and social entrepreneurs. So with judgement held I threw myself into the day

The day was billed as an Unconference which developed from the 1980’s concept of open space thinking the Unconference was conceived by  Tim O'Reilly and Sara Winge  in reaction to the development of the more traditional agenda and sponsorship led where in their words "there is no agenda until  the attendees made one up."

The sessions consisted of 3 parts – a panel session, open space participant led breakouts and a Dell Social Media University Tour


The event kicked off with a panel session, which was fast, paced and informative so in the spirit of deconstruction I thought I would layout the key points for you to take your own conclusions:

The panel had a variety of different background – a blogger, offline journalist, techies and thought leaders (Robert Scoble included although he was characteristically late) - the themes were varied but consistent:

-Technology is a tool not an end in itself – needs to be used strategically and related to your customers / consumers and what you want to achieve.
- Personalisation is key
- Use of the Cloud is the future and this needs to be embraced by everyone as we see the consumerisatio  of IT

5 big areas for the next year or so = social / mobility / cloud / big data / unified communications

There are too many different tools out there - need to take control and let them help you achieve your objectives not let them lead – a great example was given in a plug in that links gmail to Linked in to see the senders profile.

The panel identified the interesting companies they were seeing out there, which included:

-       Gif Gaf (British YAY!) – truly crowd sourced and charity conscious
-       Iftt – marrying disparate services and customisation
-       Social photography – pinterest, blended, food spotting
-       Data / info sharing - Google docs, Dropbox
-       Healthcare – self and crowdsourced diagnostics

Issues include:

-       Time to implement when not core to your business
-       Need focused time and make your own agenda
-       Spend time on what not going to do not to do.


The next part was divided into 4 participant led session with subjects varying from content marketing to visual thinking, local TV, privacy, mobile payments, entrepreneurialism and staff retention and motivation.

The varied background of the attendees – from the successful to the start up and the in betweens as well as a smattering of more Social “Dilberts’ made for some polarizing views.

“Keeping people and managing Growth” was a stand out for me as the group grappled with issues ranging from culture change to transparency and from reward to giving back we heard that a model to follow was surprisingly the Navy Seals where everyone can attend every meeting and 100% unwavering commitment was not just expected but actively given – although the application to a software, tech or marketing agency is questionable:
The basic conclusions were however very useful:
-       Make sure at least 10% of your organization will follow you unquestionably
-       Eject toxicity asap
-       Trust gut feeling with employees
-       Complete transparency as word will out whatever you do


“Listen, listen, listen” has been the golden first rule of social for any savvy company and Dell appear to follow this lead in spades – they have established a Social Media and Community University program or SMaCU as they call it designed to educate Dell team members on the overall social media strategy, governance and principles. 

At the core of the SMaCU is Dell’s very own Hyermatter reactor (OK maybe the Star Wars analogies are running thin now ?)  – an all seeing “Social Media Command Centre” of 6 screens indicating how Dell are faring in social - truly listening to customers, influencers – telling them  what they think, what they are saying about Dell and the competition and  helping them understand what can Dell do about it. There is a threatening Dell blue hue to the screens and The Emperor’s Royal Guard (OK last one I promise) sits all seeing all knowing and reporting back.

We were told a number of anecdotes as to how this has helped Dell in customer services, sales, marketing and CSR – from a guy who survived a tornado using the laptop to failures in their webcams for PC’s shipped to Iraq for the troops – it feels like we are allowed to see the good, the bad and ugly – full disclosure at its best !

So did I leave with a different perception ? did they manage to turn my judgmental side and was the side of Dell that we were shown and they were trying hard to portray seem genuine ?

I really want to be positive – after all they seem to walk the talk – the University (although I think they should lose the cheesy acronym), the sophisticated listening, the passionate and knowledgeable team – but for me it all felt hollow – a little spurious – and that saddens me for 2 reasons.

Firstly because I really want big companies like to Dell to embrace social and all it can do for their business and spread the word to the other large, medium and small enterprises to do the same.

Secondly and probably most importantly I want to see social to be at the heart of an organization – not an end game – an analysis of the result and outcome – Dell feel like the little Dutch Boy plugging holes in the Dam rather than trying to divert the flow of water further upstream so that eventually the Dam isn’t needed at all.

As the Yanks say – “bake it in” – I would love to see Dell and other similar companies do just that however big they are – this is the future – who knows maybe Michael has a son who can apply the Jedi skills of social and redeem the Empire ;-)

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