I was reading a piece by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the emerging situation in Egypt. After a brief intro he made the jump from Cairo to Silicon Valley, saying that without the invention of the microprocessor’s predecessor (the transistor) Egypt and Tunisia would not have happened. The chip has allowed for Twitter and Facebook, along with so much more, and these programs are the basis of communications for protesters on the streets.
Henninger makes the point that this is the end of what he calls “stability”, where governments can control their people via the control of information. Whereas a few people would gather in the past in Cairo to quietly chat over who had been arrested, now such information is blasted across the ether to everyone around the world. As he says “instability is the new status quo”.
From this, I got to thinking about work and engagement, and the effect of Twitter and Facebook there. If such things as happen in Cairo happen in the workplace, what will be the effect? Revolutions at work? Maybe yes, perhaps not so dramatic, but significant nonetheless. Here are the reasons:
–Social media are a very democratic form of communication. Anyone can get an account and anyone can tweet. Such democracy is very welcome to some companies (Google comes to mind with its constant feedback programs and surveys for workers there)…but in some workplaces it is the last thing they want! I’m not going to say that some companies are run like a police state…but some aren’t so far off either, with high levels of fear as the driver. An ego-driven CEO will not tolerate democracy in his Kingdom! Heaven forbid that the peasants find a way to use Twitter to revolt! Yet revolt they will, if not on that company’s official intranet or corporate Twitter feed, then in other places over which the CEO and his communications staff have no control. As we see, voices want to be heard and they will be heard. Social media is their outlet.
–Social media are extremely engaging. That’s right, people love them so much they can hardly hold a normal conversation while holding a smart phone…(did someone say addictive? Let’s not go there this time, but you have a point). This engagement is the reason why most companies now reach out to social media users…to tap into this. So if Facebook and Twitter are opening us all up to communicating much more with each other and with the companies with which we do business, can we really go to work and experience something so radically different? Can we go from a heavily engaging experience outside work to something which feels like traveling back through time to the unconnected past? Trust me, as someone who has surveyed many people at work, many people do work under these conditions, even now. So the answer is that these organizations will survive in the dark ages for a while, but the pressure will build, as it built in Cairo and Tunis. This will require more than a shallow effort on the part of these organizations, but a fundamental shift to a level of workplace democracy and communication the likes of which many have never had.
So social media are a disruptive force indeed: not only do they allow for whole societies to try and grab freedom for themselves but they are also methods of engagement for the rest of us at a level which human history has never experienced. Organizations which do not reflect this level of engagement in how they treat their people will be Mubaraks of the working world….and like him, they will be hounded out of the marketplace.
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