the office of the future

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 3:34 pm

a colleague of mine, ruth kaufman, recently wrote a thoughtful piece on the impact of social networking in the enterprise. i responded with a pithy tweet, everyone – individuals and enterprises – is a brand working in their own self interest. at its best the relationship is symbiotic yet what did i mean? how did i come to such a conclusion? and what does it suggest for the future of employment?

david brooks, of the new york times, appears weekly on the pbs newshour in a segment entitled “shields and brooks”. brooks is an opinion writer, and i follow him for his opinion. whether i read him in the times or hear him on pbs, it is brooks that i am interested in and therefore he that is creating value. the times, pbs, and others benefit from his presence and have their reputation enhanced by it. brooks is a brand and this is reflected in the segments title – shields and brooks. the situation is not unique to him. celebrities are brands. athletes, actors, and writers all receive opportunities outside of their specialty because of who they are. this is not new. what is new, is that the internet has created a long tail of celebrities. blogs, social networks and open source projects have created affinity groups around heretofore obscure topics, and the individuals who excel in these topics have become local celebrities.

it has been a long road to employee empowerment. the industrial revolution was dominated by the priciples of scientific management put forth by frederick taylor in 1911. until the early eighties, when japanese “just in time” principles empowered individuals to stop the manufacturing line when some process had gone awry, assembly line workers were essentially mindless, powerless, drones whose every movement and output was measured and rated for efficiency. today, this situation is turned on its ear, with employees judging their employers. how can my inbox be full when gmail offers me nearless infinite storage they ask? when they can’t access their email or files and don’t have vpn, they’ll forward their email to a home account or signup for cloud storage and store thier files there. for employers, these improvisations not only create fickle employees, but create security concerns, as customer records and secrets are potentially exposed to the public. consequently, employers must react quickly or lose face with their employees and customers.

with regard to employee retention, employers are threatened by blogs, social networks, and open source projects. while consultants have always been able to establish a personal brand with a client such that their services are requested for subsequent engagements, today’s online services offer many more individuals the opportunity to establish a reputation which can then be parlayed into better working conditions. and for consultants, the opportunity is even greater. establish a reputation, strengthen that brand on a blog or social network, attract your clients as followers and you’ve created a virtual business card. clients no longer have to reach you through your parent agency, they can contact you directly, wherever that may be.

so how should a modern enterprise react? first employers must recognize that these trends are beyond their control. policies that attempt to corral workers and prevent them from doing their jobs better (from their perspective) will prevent them from retaining their best and brightest employees. want a company wiki? create a means for your employees with blogs and social network identities to contribute in the course of their regular online activity. don’t ask them to cross post, or create a new identity, it likely won’t happen. second, harness your employers ambition to your advantage. zappos, an online shoe company, has nearly 200 twitter users. they’ve transformed customer service representatives into consultants. instead of off-shoring this important business function to individuals they’ve never met, zappos has created a way for employees to bolster their own reputation (which they may someday parlay into greater opportunity) and in so doing help them sell more products. moreover, the company pays its employees to quit. in a much publicized story, it was revealed that potential zappos employees are offered $1,000 not to work for them. in the process of empowering workers, they’ve created committed ones. lastly, and this is an idea i want to explore further in a post, employers must create a workplace more compelling than the home office. google does this with services: food, on-site dentists and physicians, daycare facilities. while this makes employees lives easier, it doesn’t help employees do their jobs. think about an employee’s home office. it likely won’t include advanced collaboration tools and emerging technologies. providing access to these types of tools gives employees insights and ideas, and the means to discuss them with each other. enabling these ideas to percolate and blossom will ultimately benefit customers and should create engaged employees as well.