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

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.

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  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.

Gary Hamel, from Silicon Valley, has been called the world's "most influential business thinker" by the Wall Street Journal and "the leading expert on business strategy" by Fortune. His landmark books have appeared on every management bestseller list. He is also the author of 17 articles for the Harvard Business Review and articles for the WSJ, Fortune, and the Financial Times. He is on the faculty of the London Business School and consults with many of the world’s most influential companies. He is director of the Management Lab and is leading a pioneering effort to “crowdsource” the future of management.


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

  1. This is really a good list. However, expectations are not reality. Function & practices of the entrenched business world will not bend easily.

    I think it will take another couple generations to see these changes become more commonplace in the Fortune 1000 business world.

    The change will be gradual & is already underway nextgen side projects/startups manifesting & being sold off to traditional businesses.

  2. @ Gary: Thank you. I hope your book does well. The Web (WWW) is NOT the World or Work (WOW). In the WOW (beneath a veneer of rationality), the GAFI Principles of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence based on power rule most organizations, or to be less inflammatory: hidden/not so hidden cognitive biases usually overrule our rational impulses. Until we learn to recognize and work (Behavioral Recruiting- the application of behavioral economics and neuroscience to Recruiting) with these unconscious biases, those who expect organizations to evolve of their own accords from their present dysfunctional states to wonderful “Cities on the Hill” filled with empowered, “shiny, happy people” are due to be sorely disappointed.


    Keith “Grew Up in the ’60’s and ’70s and was an Adult When it All Went Backwards in the ’80s” Halperin

  3. This is a touching post.

    The hope that “the web” can/will somehow alter the basics of human nature seems a bit wishful to me. Each of the 12 points have easy counterpoints; well funded ideas are more equal, credentialism is ever present if not increasing, dissidents are easier to identify and weed out, IP lawsuits are vastly increasing, users complain and the complaints turn into harmless, expected noise, sites make major changes and users have to lump it: what will you do, stop using Google and Facebook? Good luck with that….

    No, the truth is that the web is an amplifier. It amps human nature: for good and bad, and in similar ways as human nature has expressed itself since the beginning.

    Yes, some balances and expressions of that nature will be changed; both for good and bad. No, there is no social revolution as described above; to think so is nearly childlike if you know much about human history.

  4. @ Martin: Well-said.
    Anyway, according to many of the same folks touting the web as panacea (how 1999!)are assuring us in ~35 years that the Singularity, aka, “Techno-rapture” will whisk us all into a wonderful new and empyrean plane of existance…and maybe my hair will grow back then, too….


  5. Nik, Martin and Keith – are you really so sure of yourselves? I would agree that Gary’s list of 12 may be a bit too long, but do you think that the work culture will not evolve to include some of these Internet learned attributes. When hours are spent everyday using these characteristics, its only a matter of time before they leach into the employment Zeitgeist…

    You mention the lack of historical context for such a thing and I would point you to the recent historical workplace conflagration caused by the introduction of Gen Y. Ask any one my age (one of the last Boomers) about the influence of this group in the workplace and they will go on and on describing how they have up-ended things and changed how work is getting done. Then take a look at companies that were founded by Gen Y people like Facebook and thousands of others and you will only see the Gen Y type of corporate culture – what this hasn’t spread? For earlier examples look at the change in the workplace during the Enlightenment, Introduction of Unions or after the Civil War, WWI or WWII – all had big cultural workplace changes.

    In the Boston suburbs where I live, 8-10 year old girls are spending all of their time Video Chatting – no Facebook, no regular texting and definitely no voice only – just Video Chatting and nothing else…it is an epidemic and will soon over take their older siblings and probably spread like wildfire throughout society…won’t these changes effect he workplace too?

    Changes are happening all around us everyday as we evolve – and those that don’t change with the times get left behind and become outcasts to some extent. How about that foot stomping, order giving, screaming CEO – see him being interviewed on CNBC lately…15 years ago he was prevalent and today its hard to find that type of CEO.

    The characteristics that Gary lists in this post and in his book in my view are no different either, and I actually would be surprised if they DIDN’T become part of the workplace…

  6. I side with @kc.

    Case in point for some of the most important work performed, ever, on the streets–the “offices”–of the Arab Spring:

    * Contribution counts for more than credentials.

    * Hierarchies are built bottom-up.

    * Tasks are chosen, not assigned.

    * Groups are self-defining and self-organizing.

    * Power comes from sharing, not hoarding.

    * Mediocrity gets exposed.

    * Dissidents can join forces.

    What employee in the Mideast won’t integrate the “productivity” of the Arab Spring movement into his or her own?

    All this doesn’t apply if you want to keep this conversation limited to the U.S. …or does it?

  7. Lets see: in Libya we see radical islam, including the usual anti-women Sharia BS. In Syria 10,000 dead and proxy conflict with Russia and Sunni Islam playing big roles, Facebook, not so much. In Tunisia, Al-Ghannushi (way pre-internet) may or may not be a new strongman. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized and most-influential group post-Mubarak. How that plays is to be seen. Productive? Maybe, maybe not.

    The essential character of revolution is not changed by the Internet, nor the essential nature of most work. The Internet is an amplifier, but the signals arent changing very much as a result.

    I stand by the idea that the web WILL not change human nature in substantial ways, although it may speed the pace of other cultural changes that modern life stimulates.

  8. @ K.C.:
    I’m not sure of most things, except I do have a stronger belief than when I was a 14 year old campaigning for George McGovern that it takes a lot more than rational beliefs to make meaningful change occur, that the the status quo will fight back hard to maintain control, and that sometimes you can go backwards for awhile. As far as companies founded by Gen Y or any other folks, I typically see the same old GAFI Principles (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Incompetence) running things, just dressed up in trendy new clothes…

    @ Rita:
    I’ll believe that there’s a new wind blowing when I see a bunch of the “bankstas” who wrecked our economy and have gotten off scot-free with billions serving hard-time, 20 years-to life sentences, and a bunch of the a*****e founders and CXOs of some of these Gen Y (and other older) companies are broke and working as graveyard-shift security guard for minimum wage because of these “12 Realities”. Don’t see these “12 Realities” scaring folks like the Koch Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_activities_of_the_Koch_family) or Grover Norquist(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist) very much, either.



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