People power: why your employees are your greatest asset

As corporations seek to maintain competitive advantage, they may be failing to maximize the potential of the resource that they should value the most: their people

Crowdsourcing – technology journalist Jeff Howe’s term to describe how companies can bring fresh ideas to a problem by calling on enthusiasts in the general public to get involved in, say, creating new software – has gained currency in recent years. Commentators such as Clay Shirky, author of Here comes everybody, have highlighted the role of the internet in helping people work together to shape the world around them.

What works for customers could surely also work for employees, who have the potential to develop better, faster solutions in a collaborative way. Unfortunately, for many organizations seeking to unlock this potential, rigid corporate structures too often interfere.

“The reason why good ideas get lost is that many large organizations are still oriented toward command and control,” says Evan Rosen, author of The culture of collaboration. “A few people get paid to think, and everybody else gets paid to carry out orders. Command and control is a luxury we can no longer afford. We’re moving from hoarding to sharing, and from ‘need to know’ and ‘do as you’re told’ to ‘do it now together.’”

“Collaborative organizations involve and engage people across levels, roles and regions so everybody has a stake.”

Evan Rosen
Author of "The culture of collaboration"

Cultivating productive collaboration within organizations is important because the way we do business has changed, according to Charles Leadbeater, author of We-think: mass innovation, not mass production. “Most products we make are now built in networks,” he explains. “It’s part of the ecology of modern business: an important aspect of creating value is what you might call ‘relational’ rather than ‘transactional.’ Almost everyone is supplying something that needs to fit into something else. You can’t create value unless you share it to some extent.”

These ideas will not, of course, be equally useful to all companies. “If you’re a mining company, it’s going to be less important than if you’re service-based or knowledge-based,” concedes Leadbeater. “Increasingly, however, companies will have to earn the trust of customers and employees. For virtually any industry, it’s at least worth asking whether there’s a more open way to do things.”

The driver for change will in part be the bottom line. Leadbeater believes that having an open culture can help businesses “get better ideas more quickly and more successfully to market.”

In more collaborative companies, everybody understands how what they do fits into the big picture. “Information moves around the organization instead of from top to bottom,” says Rosen. “There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, which is killing companies. Collaborative organizations involve and engage people across levels, roles and regions so that everybody has a stake.”

Google’s weekly, company-wide meetings, its collegiate approach to new projects, and the freedom it gives staff to spend time developing their own ideas is a good example of a successful open and collaborative approach. “It’s a work culture that poses a huge challenge for traditional, top-down companies,” says Leadbeater.

Companies must also be wary of falling into the trap of only instigating collaborative practices at a virtual level. They might use wikis and social networking to get input from consumers and business customers, and be connected internally as never before. But all the instant messaging, voice, web and video conferencing in the world will not help if entrenched corporate organization stifles open collaboration.

“It’s only powerful if the organizational culture and processes encourage people to engage one another spontaneously, regardless of level, role or region,” states Rosen. “Frontline people and senior leaders must feel comfortable hashing out issues and making decisions quickly together. Tools and technologies extend and enhance collaboration, but they can’t create it.”

The article was written by:

  • Adam Hill

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