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Beware evangelists

Understanding the nature of the beast

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Evangelists. Plenty of them hang out in the sustainability and collaboration fields where I work. Some irritate while others are acceptable. And this isn't because they necessarily reflect my views. (In case you were wondering.) The trick is to spot, early on, which variety you're faced with and make your excuses and leave if they're the 'wrong' kind.

Last week, the Free Software Foundation, wrote to the Fortune 500 companies (well, it didn't bother with Microsoft) essentially telling them they'd be mad to upgrade to Windows 7. The story was widely covered but few publications would have ended up with such a rich discussion as The Register. As you know, this is a hugely popular online IT publication which takes no prisoners. It has attitude and a healthy disregard for some of the tripe that emanates from the industry it serves. Readers are encouraged to comment on items and, this particular article quickly attracted 145 comments.

The interesting thing is that the article was about an evangelical organisation and it attracted evangelistic commentators, both pro- and anti-, as well as your everyday commenters. The end result is that anyone with the willingness to work through the comments, evangelistic or otherwise, would end up with an independent point of view, providing they read through with an open mind. If they didn't, they'd end up just strengthening their own prejudices.

Lobby hobby

The sustainability and collaboration folk are no different. The evangelists are noisy, in your face, on conference platforms, lobbying whoever and wherever possible, frequently on the web with their blogs, Tweets and comments. They exist everywhere, and always have. The big difference today is that they can be more readily heard.

You can get positive evangelists who show how life could be better. I have a lot of time for them, even if they turn out to be wrong. At least they're trying to help. Then you have the negative ones who are more intent on tearing down than building up. "This is wrong" or "you shouldn't do that" rather than "try this alternative" or "why not do this?". In pop psychology, the former are the I'm OK, you're not OK brigade - the same mentality, incidentally, as criminals.

A lot of evangelists are so immersed in their blinkered view of the world, that they forget (or ignore) the fact that, if adopted, their wheezes might cause more problems than they solve. We're shutting down coal and nuclear power stations to cheers from the acid rain and nuclear waste storage zealots. But how deeply have they considered where the energy is going to come from? Or, alternatively, what impact on our lives a profound cut in consumption will cause? I venture to suggest, 'not a lot'. Out here in the real world, we have to find solutions, not just state problems.

In a way, the easiest ones to deal with are those that have 'Evangelist' printed on their business cards. They're being paid by someone to persuade others of the folly of their ways. You'll find these folk in many major IT companies. Others are not so obvious. Perhaps a company has plied them with gifts or other, more subtle, bribes. Recently I was talking with a Toyota (non-employee) iQ evangelist. Turns out she'd 'won' the car for a six month trial, in exchange for blogs and other social media outreach. Others are just total believers in 'the cause' simply because it makes sense to them within their own frame of reference.

The answer has to be to filter them as quickly as possible. Find out who pays for their evangelism in money or in other ways. Ask them what alternatives they know about in detail. And get them to tell you what the long term implications of their advocacy are likely to be. Some will slink away from the interrogation. Some will bluster, so you can take your leave of them. Those that will remain probably have a good and well thought out story to tell.

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