12 Realities Employees Will Use in Determining if Your Company is “With it” or “Past it”

Mar 6, 2012
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of Generation Facebook. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of their worklife to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than a mid-twentieth-century bureaucracy.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 12 work-relevant characteristics of the social Web. These are the post-bureaucratic realities that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is ‘‘with it’’ or ‘‘past it.’’ In assembling this short list, I haven’t tried to catalog every salient feature of the Web’s social milieu, only those that are most at odds with the legacy management practices that characterize most companies.

  1. All ideas compete on an equal footing. On the Web, every idea has the chance to gain a following, or not. No one has the power to kill off a subversive idea or squelch an embarrassing debate. Ideas gain traction based on their perceived merits, rather than on the political power of their proponents. By disassociating ‘‘share of voice’’ and ‘‘share of power,’’ the Web undermines the ability of the elites to control the conversation or set the agenda.
  2. Contribution counts for more than credentials. When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether or not you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees — none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.
  3. Hierarchies are built bottom-up. In any Web forum there are some individuals who command more respect and attention than others, and have more influence as a consequence. Critically, though, these individuals haven’t been appointed by some higher authority. Instead, their clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the Web, authority trickles up, not down.
  4. Leaders serve rather than preside. On the Web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction. Credible arguments, demonstrated expertise, and selfless behavior are the only levers for getting things done. Forget this online, and your followers will soon desert you.
  5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned. The Web is an opt-in economy. Whether contributing to a blog, working on an open source project, or sharing advice in a forum, people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor and everyone scratches their own itch.
  6. Groups are self-defining and self-organizing. On the Web, you get to choose your compatriots. In any online community, you have the freedom to link up with some individuals and ignore the rest, to share deeply with some folks and not at all with others. Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dimwitted associates.
  7. Resources get attracted, not allocated. In large organizations, resources get allocated top down, in a politicized, budget wrangle. On the Web, human effort flows toward ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun) and away from those that aren’t. In this sense, the Web is a market economy where millions of individuals get to decide, moment by moment, how to spend the precious currency of their time and attention.
  8. Power comes from sharing, not hoarding. The Web is also a gift economy. To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content. And you must do it quickly; if you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch and garner the credit that might have been yours. Online, there are lots of incentives to share and few to hoard.
  9. Mediocrity gets exposed. Online rating systems have become ubiquitous — for hotels, books, local businesses, and products of every sort. Though not every review is useful, in the aggregate they provide a good guide to what’s remarkable and what’s rubbish. In traditional organizations, employees don’t get to rate much of anything. As a result, one often finds a ‘‘conspiracy of the mediocre’’ — ‘‘I won’t question your decisions or your effectiveness, if you don’t question mine.’’ There are no such cabals on theWeb. If you’re inadequate you’ll be found out. The Web gives disgruntled customers a global soapbox. Few companies, though, seem eager to give employees an internal platform where they can challenge executive decisions and corporate policies.
  10. Dissidents can join forces. In a hierarchical organization (or political system), it takes a lot of courage to speak up. When communication channels run vertically rather than laterally, it can be difficult to know whether anyone around you is possessed of a similarly rebellious mind. Individuals who feel isolated and vulnerable are unlikely to protest. The Web, by contrast, makes it easy to find and connect with individuals who share one’s own dissenting point of view. Agitators who might have been marginalized in a top-down organization can rapidly mobilize like-minded confederates in the Web’s densely-connected ‘‘thoughtocracy.’’
  11. Users can veto most policy decisions. As many Internet moguls have learned to their sorrow, online users are opinionated and vociferous, and they’ll quickly attack any decision or policy change that seems contrary to the community’s interests. Only by giving users a substantial say in key decisions can you keep them loyal. It doesn’t matter who built the online community; the users own it and, as a practical matter, policies have to be socially constructed.
  12. Intrinsic rewards matter most. The Web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given, all the photos submitted to Flickr. Add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so are recognition and the joy of accomplishment.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass from What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation by Gary Hamel. Copyright (c) 2012 by Gary Hamel. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.