I am warning you that as you read this post you will wonder where on earth I am going with it! I ask you to be patient. Just settle down with a cup of tea or coffee and read on.
Near our home in North Devon there are many trackways and pathways. These are the kind of lanes that if you are driving down them and meet another car you need to find a passing point. This usually involves reversing for a mile or more and pulling into the gateway of a field to allow the car to pass. The etiquette to this, you ignore at your car’s peril.
I was curious and wanted to know more about the history of these trackways so near to our doorstep. One of our neighbours told me the majority of them were medieval, or older. He told me they were commonly known as ‘pedlars pathways’. They are the trackways that pedlars traversed to hawk and vend their wares across the county. These ancient sales folk would set off with their panniers and sacks of goods and fancies, traveling mainly on foot from one hamlet, village and farm to another. Selling what they could, where they could, at a price they were happy with.
In recent times door-to-door peddling has become a pejorative activity. With pedlars being treated with suspicion and caution. They are often vilified in the media as the purveyors of cheap goods and broken promises. However in ‘ye olden days’ (!) pedlars served many useful purposes. They were human bumblebees, pollinating the community by bringing news and gossip from neighbouring settlements and introducing people to all kinds of notions and fancies they may never have seen before. Some of these items would be practical inventions and the new technology of the day. Things to help farmers and their families make their day-to-day lives easier. Others would be more aesthetic and fanciful; like jewellery for personal adornment and items of beauty and decoration for the home. Yet more would be of a religious and devotional nature.
However not all pedlars or the items they sold were what they seemed. I found this interesting and amusing description of unethical peddling in “The Sharper Image: Yankee Peddlers, Southern Consumers, and the Market Revolution”
“In his 1832 novel ‘Memoir of a Nullifier’ Algernon Sydney Johnston puts a Peddler on trial for the following:
To selling in the course of one peddling expedition 497, 368 wooden nutmegs 2,81,532 Spanish cigars made of oak leaves and 647 wooden clocks. To the stealing of an old grindstone, smearing it over with butter and then selling it as a cheese. To making a counterfeit dollar of pewter, when you were six years old and cheating your own father with it… To taking a worn out pair of shoes, which you found in the road and selling them to a pious old lady, as being actually the shoes of Saint Paul…To taking an empty old watchcase, putting a live cricket in to it, and then selling it as a patent lever in full motion.”
What this says to me is that scepticism about peddling has been around for a long while and in our dealings with them we need to keep the motto ‘caveat emptor’ or ’buyer beware’ in mind. I am pretty sure that in North Devon if all the bits of ‘the True Cross’ pedlars sold were put together, we would have a another huge forest in the neighbourhood. Equally, if all the vials of ‘the Virgin Marys Tears’ were emptied, we would now have a lake at the bottom of the garden!
Despite the fact that some pedlars were unscrupulous, pedlars played an important role in connecting people, bringing new ideas to communities, introducing people to labour saving devices and things of beauty. I also think they also had another, less conscious role; teaching people how to make judgements outside their norm and learning when and who to trust.
You are probably asking yourself what on earth has all this got to do with HR, social media or any of our usual Blog topics? Well, I will tell you! If you read my last blog post HR the Voice of A Woman you will know that my friend Tim Gorree very kindly launched a ‘Mission’ on Empire Avenue to help us get more entrepreneurs/startups to complete our survey. It was an interesting experience and generated well over a hundred responses. Dee Ortner and I are currently in the process of analysing these and the other responses we got by more traditional routes. During the ‘mission’ I was much more active than usual on Empire Avenue and my share price rose from around 20 Eaves per share at the start of the mission to just under 40 Eaves per share by the end of it. The majority of the people who bought shares in me sent a message with a link to their business. These businesses ranged from people selling photographs of Californian landscapes through to get rich quick schemes and everything in between. This set me thinking and led me to coin the term ‘cyber peddling’. Tim was cyber peddling the survey for us and people were cyber pedalling their wares back to me.
I am now starting to think that in one way or another all of us who engage with social media are cyber peddling across the www and the www is the equivalent of the pedlars’ pathways of North Devon. The most obvious forms of cyber peddling are of course sites like Ebay, Craigslist, Gumtree etc., as well as of course sites dedicated to the selling of good and services, whether these be from large commercial organisations or small businesses/startups. Yet, the more I thought about this the more I believe we are all cyber peddling in one way or another. From our use of LinkedIn where we advertise our achievements and share our masses of connections, to Facebook where we may be cyber peddling our businesses or even our rather wonderful lifestyles by sharing photographs, comments, likes etc.
I have even concluded that this blog is a form of cyber peddling. I am cyber peddling ideas in the hope that you will join in and support their development. I am also cyber peddling Edgelands, my consultancy business by building brand awareness and of course ultimately hoping to sell my skills as an OD consultant and find opportunities for doing interesting work with you, dear reader!
As in the past buyer beware needs to be in the forefront of our minds. Perhaps even more importantly than in the ‘real’ world, in the cyber world we need to know how to tell the difference between a wooden nutmeg and a real one, to recognise and make choices about the grindstone within the cheese! I am not saying that all cyber pedlars are shysters, just as not all real world ones were or are. What we need to do is to develop new ways of understanding and reading the truth in cyber situations and learning how to decide where to best place our trust.
Is ethical cyber peddling relevant to HR and OD? I would argue yes, given HR’s promotion of HRIT and HR’s increasing engagement with and reliance on social media both as a tool for communication and as a means of assessment and driving change. Yet given the varied success of HR’s initiative’s in this space I have to ask myself how good is HR at it? How credible are we, as HR professionals in the cyber peddling world? Are we selling ‘St Pauls shoes’ or are we seen as positive bumblebees, pollinating across the organisations?
This brings me to my bit of peddling with this blog! If you agree with me that cyber peddling is a key part of the social media revolution, then what do you think are the requirements of an ethical cyber peddler and what does HR need to do to develop and practice this? What new skills are required or old skills that need to be reawakened? What do you think? I really am looking forward to reading your comments.