Credibility, Crowds and Conferences

Last week I got asked to do a keynote speech for an international Cloud Computing Conference. But let’s come back to that in a bit…

I haven’t written much recently, but I was reflecting on credibility and expertise and how the status of ‘someone to listen to’ is conferred. We have mental shortcuts that tell us that someone with a big job title might be worth listening to or maybe the same is true of someone who works at a large or trendy organisation. I’m not saying these mental shortcuts aren’t flawed – but if you wanted to know more about change management you would probably be more interested in hearing from the CEO of a major bank than my friend who works in the library. It’s a not unreasonable calculation to make. Similarly, if you are chosen to go on a stage at a conference or public platform there is a natural and reasonable assumption that can be made by the audience that you deserve to be there or have something to offer in that space.

In addition (and slightly linked) to the appearing on stage thing is the ability to say you are on a list of experts. Some of these lists are genuinely well assembled (these tend to be the ones in print as there is research time put into them) and some of them are marketing ploys (the organisation often picks people with a big online following hoping they will share) and now there are lists that are just automatically created by software with no other checks. When I first saw these I found them interesting because it struck me that with no human intervention and no discretion they would be open to abuse. And exploring how badly we weight expertise and what we hold as credible is an interest of mine. Also I like to break things.

So, about a year ago, I randomly nominated myself as an expert in cloud computing on one of these platforms, through just a few clicks of the mouse.

It should be noted – and this is quite important – that I have no expertise whatsoever in cloud computing (I can use Google Docs, but that is my natural limit). But sure enough after a month I got an email (that I forwarded onto my team with glee) saying that I was the 19th most influential account online for cloud computing. That’s a big thing. I mean if someone told you that you might be on a list of the 100 most influential people online for a specific area you would think your life’s work had finally been recognised. To break the top 20 must mean you’ve been working hard… And I’d done literally no work and it was still recognised. Over the last year or so I have retained my position despite never really mentioning cloud computing or indeed doing anything with cloud computing. In fact my online conversations may possibly have covered most conceivable subjects EXCEPT cloud computing.

So last week the inevitable happened and I got a direct message on Twitter from a conference producer asking me to speak at a large international Cloud Computing Conference – and clarifying that the offer was for a keynote slot. In about a year someone with no expertise in something AT ALL was being asked to do a keynote speech about that area of inexpertise. So the next time you see a list of influencers or you see someone mentioning one in their bio just have a think about what that list really signifies and who put that list together. Some are reputable and some are less so…

And when you are listening to someone on stage/on a public platform listen to the words and wisdom they offer – and do your best to ignore the titles. I repeat my assertion that thought leadership is for cults. The really clear thinkers should simply provoke better reflections in others.

Anyway, I have to leave you now, I’ve got some slides to prepare for a keynote speech. If this story makes you smile and cast a slightly more cynical eye at some ‘thought leaders’ or ‘influencers’ then I’ve done my job well. There is good stuff out there and there are good people out there – but it’s a market and markets are always flawed. Or to paraphrase Warren Buffet…it’s important to know the difference between a popularity contest and a weighing mechanism.

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