Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rumor, Gossip, and WOM: Response to Jeremy Depauw's Query

Jeremy Depauw posted the following query as a comment on my blog:

Am I correct if I think that WoM could also be risky as a rumors creator?

I'm really interrested in the ways organisations are able to make WoM a force instead of a weakness. I have to admit that during my Communication studies, most of the teachers used to focus on the negative way rumors and legends may interact with an organisation r├ęputation and image.

It's really surprising to see that few information sources about Information Management (my resaerch fiel actually), as KM for example, don't consider WoM as you do. Maybe I'm wrong, but as far as I know (not so far by the way)it does not seem to be a major interest as a positive field of improvement in organisation IM.

I would be glad to have your opinion about that.

Thanks anymway.

Here's my response:
Hi Jeremy,

It might be helpful to differentiate rumour, gossip, and WOM.

I define a rumour as unverified information that is spread within and across informal, or emergent, networks. By emergent I mean those networks that are not prescribed by the organization chart but emerge organically. It sometimes takes a formal network or a formal source to authorize the information as legitimate. However, the grapevine communication is often faster, richer, and accurate, more often than not.

Gossip refers to evaluative, moral talk about an absent other. It tends to categorize others as a certain type of person, belonging to social categories such as jerks, studs, saints, etc.

In my research on WOM marketing, I define WOM as informal, evaluative communication about an organization, brand, product, or service, which may or may not include a recommendation. I further differentiate this between institutional (consciously managed by an organization) and everyday WOM. This obviously shows a bias towards "marketing" or "brand"-related content.

All three can be "risky" to the organization depending on how each is managed.

To the rest of your question, I think there IS a lot of interest for WOM and internal information management.

One of the foundational articles on informal, emergent networks is Keith Davis' article in Harvard Business Review from the 1950s ("Management Communication and the Grapevine"). But there are much more recent examples, such as the work of David Krackhardt (see his co-authored article in HBR from 1993 entitled "Informal Networks: The Company"). You may also be interested in the work of Rob Cross for his 2003 book entitled The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations. You may also want to read the work of Noshir Contractor who also is very active in this space.

Hope that helps!