Years ago, an old man who had been a union organizer was a frequent questioner at municipal council meetings. He was known as one of the regulars, the often-loony characters who always made comments or asked questions. Yet, you couldn’t ignore him; try as we might at the press table.

For through the ramblings and crazy ideas came an occasionally penetrating insight. Maybe that describes all of us, who at some time or another sound loony to some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, and once in a while make perfect sense.

The executive question- and-answer sessions that Doug Burgum has hosted throughout his role as president of Great Plains and now as president of Microsoft Business Solutions fall into that same description. Those who stride to the microphones don’t always make sense. But they are listened to.

There is no greater demonstration of the power of access. It is one of the things that Burgum does best and does willingly. Unfortunately, the planners for the Microsoft Worldwide Reseller Conference, that uncomfortable blend of accounting software and traditional Microsoft VARs, originally did not plan the Q&A, which was an event held on the opening night of Stampede, the former Great Plains reseller conference. It was re-instated as an unscheduled afterthought, a welcome addition to a conference devoted to endless keynotes and breakouts best described as CPE Lite.

Two things make Burgum’s presentations important: His skill at fielding any question that comes along, whether business or personal, and the power that providing access to decision makers provides to any organization.

Access creates community, to use a phrase that gets bandied about like come-ons at a carnival, and often with about as much real value. True community requires that all parts of the community share power. Without that sharing, those without power are simply spectators.

True access requires courage and trust--and it requires them of  both management and the rest of the organization. Management needs to trust that most input will be done respectfully and that employees have the interests of the company at heart, even when input makes no sense. Employees must have the courage to make suggestions and ask questions with the belief that they will not be lynched by management for speaking out (again, respectfully.)

Such communication, whatever form, must be regular and dependable. Burgum’s questioners got their courage from watching him answer these questions patiently throughout the years. One-shot offers will not work.

As corporations grow, access to decision makers is too often one of the things that falls by the wayside. That feeling that the folks at the top thinkg they are there by divine right is one of the things that fueled the anger at the Enrons and WorldComs of the world to a level beyond what anger at simple financial loss would have produced.

Anyone who wants to see how it can be done differently, should watch Burgum.

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