The World’s Moved On: What David Kilcullen Can Teach Us

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Way back in September of 2005, I was invited by the folks from Eclipse to give a talk at their annual marketing meeting. As a subject, I chose one that many of you may know well – Bottom Up Marketing.1 The primary thesis was and is deceptively simple: that technology adoption and purchase is increasingly driven in bottom up fashion, rather than top down. Put differently, I told the assembled marketers that they would need to adapt their strategies and techniques to a world that was very different from the one they’d known. Getting on the CIO’s radar wasn’t enough anymore; vendors needed to persuade individual developers of the merits of their products on a one to one basis, so that they’d be adopted in volume.

It will surprise no one who’s followed RedMonk in even the most cursory fashion that this was not a thesis cooked up solely for this audience. It is, rather, a core tenet that we believe in ardently and, to some degree, have bet our own company on. Successfully, at least so far, I might add.

Validation of this approach is becoming more commonplace every day. Time’s person of the year, in fact, is not a person at all but a metaphorical you – what eBay would refer to as “all of us.” Although this could be construed as something of a dubious honor, given the fact that the prior recipient list includes men such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, the point is well taken. As I contended in my OSCON keynote, power has shifted; dramatically in many cases, and permanently in some.

At no time, however, have the implications of this shift been made manifest to me in quite the way they were last week while traveling to DIA to catch a flight. As I related to the audience I spoke to in Austin, NPR interviewed George Parker from the New Yorker concerning a piece he’d written for the magazine about the War on Terror, generally, and an Australian Army veteran / student of political anthropology on loan to the US State Department, specifically. David Kilcullen, the inadvertent subject of the interview, at least from my perspective, reportedly has some very radical ideas about the way the US and its allies are fighting terror both in Iraq and farther afield. His essential viewpoint, as I’d sum it up, is that our approach is fundamentally flawed and doomed to failure.

He bases these conclusions not merely on the outcome, but on the failed tactics and strategies employed by our commanders both in the planning stages and on the ground today – and those employed successfully by governments in the past. The nuances of his arguments are far too complex to be detailed here, nor is the martial comparison entirely appropriate given the deep gap between something as serious as insurgency and a (relatively) trivial subject like technology marketing. If you’re interested in the specifics, I suggest you look up Kilcullen’s work; it’s eye opening and insightful, whichever side of the aisle you happen to sit on.

The single most important observation, as far I’m concerned, is his fundamental realization that the world has changed almost a 180 degrees from a geopolitical perspective, and that our tactics need to adapt as a result. Any of this sounding familiar? As Parker summed up the nature of the shift in his interview, “In the old world you’d negotiate with governments, in the new one you negotiate with populations.” In our industry, we might say that it’s more about negotiating with communities than with vendors, but the principle holds, in my opinion.

Some vendors are (far) better at this than others, but it cannot be questioned that an organization that does not factor community thoughts and opinions into its planning (as several organizations, Novell and Oracle among them, have appeared to do lately) is likely to have issues. As Kilcullen and Parker both remind us, in a decentralized power structure the tactics should not not be top down, but bottom up. Bottom up implies the embrace of tactics based on information, economics, transparency and relationships. Neither the traditional military nor the traditional marketing approaches are particularly effective at scaling and engaging on a population-wide basis; they are, rather, blunt tools with increasingly limited applicability in their respective worlds.

Anyway, I won’t overburden the comparison, because it’s a stretch in many respects, but I’d highly suggest giving Kilcullen a read. Whether your interest is terrorism and foreign policy or technology marketing, he’ll have something to teach you.

  1. If you’d like to view the presentation, it’s available here either ODF or PPT flavors. [back]


  1. To have one foot in your industry and to be open to what Kilcullen is saying about a global issue (to even be aware of it) … puts you high in the stratosphere of pretty smart folk. Thanks to Google for pointing me to your insights. And congratulations to you.

  2. thanks, John. we try to look up every now and again to see what’s going on in the wider world – it’s amazing what you can learn.

  3. good stuff. one for the reading list, eh?

    “In our industry, we might say that it’s more about negotiating with communities than with vendors” – killer quote man. killer. i would love to see you fill out this idea some more – the tactics of negotiating with communities. something like the smell of agile.

  4. Kilcullen is right we are losing the war at the Internet level. The last two cartoons on Aljazeera show the Statue of Liberty: one with the face of George Bush, who is pulling the rope on Saddam Hussein; the other show the Statue of Liberty cowering before Kim Jong Il who has a nuclear missile in his hand maybe cocked like a football either for a pass or a handoff. Based on the psychological warfare model: why not print up 10 million postcards of the Statue of Liberty and the reverse side write the word HOPE in Arabic. Some percentage of Jihadist recruit among the frustrated who want electricity, education, economics. Obviously the postcard is abstract; we need the concrete ability to employ the Iraqis in jobs that build their country.

  5. […] If one accepts as a given that bottom up marketing is the increasingly most relevant approach from a technology marketing perspective; accepts, in other worlds, that David Kilcullen is correct and that the cold war paradigm of leaders negotiating with leaders desparately needs to give way to a model more focused on messaging populations, the logical question is what next? […]

  6. […] It will be interesting to see if Microsoft, with its obsessive commercial focus, can adapt to a more distributed world. Can Microsoft, in other words, learn from Kilcullen? […]

  7. […] lesson that statecraft has learned – “in the old world you’d negotiate with governments, in the new one you negotiate with populations” – is one that will become more and more familiar to those who would sell user facing business […]

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