The Rise of The Empowered Employee

Every major business era shifts sources of competitive advantage and displaces sources of power. The confluence of advances in social, mobile and cloud technologies has begun to shift economic power from large-scale institutions that dominated the industrial age through sheer size and economies of scale to self-organizing individuals and loosely governed networks. The ability to self-organize in order to produce and repurpose products and information has reduced the efficacy of long-standing business frameworks, processes and decision-making. Nilofer Merchant points out that Porter’s Model no longer works, and while we don’t need to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, we need to drastically shift our thinking.

In the industrial age, companies had the power, and employees and consumers alike were cogs in the giant machine. Dachis Group’s Dave Gray does a great job of juxtaposing the paradigms of “Company as a Machine” vs. the “Company as an Organism,” and I recommend you check out his work. As part of the “machine,” employees were hired for specific skills and for narrowly defined jobs, measured against the same objectives as their peers, and were easily replaced. As a recovering MBA, I can personally attest to this job “conveyor belt.” Businesses operated with the assumption that consumer demand could be predicted based on levels of advertising spend, but the social web definitely put a kibosh in that. Much has been written about the rise of the empowered consumer, but the notion of the empowered employee has been largely an afterthought until recently. While every company claims to be employee-centric, employees are often treated as costs and not assets, as noted by John Hagel of Deloitte.

Brands have sprung to external social channels for the fear of being left behind and losing control of brand conversations — a move that’s more defensive than it is proactive. By being defensive, we end up missing huge opportunities to really create something meaningful together — and you can’t create something meaningful without your employees. If your employees aren’t passionate and empowered to reach further in their jobs, how can you expect to give your customers the experience they need? While working with the empowered consumer is the low-hanging fruit, are we really harnessing the power and passion of the empowered employee?

In his book, “The Power of Pull” — which has been hugely influential to me personally, and focuses on the values that Yammer helps companies embrace – John Hagel talks about necessity of shifting from predictable outputs and inputs to activating the right resources and ecosystems at the right time. And guess who the biggest parts of this ecosystem are? People!

Who is this empowered employee and how did he / she become so empowered?

Employees have long been using social tools and communicating with peers, friends and family. The lines between consumer and employee are blurring and becoming more arbitrary. Social tools are erasing the rigidity between B2C and B2B, to the point where all socially aware businesses are embracing the Peer-to-Peer approach; first and foremost, people want to talk to other people in organizations. Employees have personal and portable networks they can tap in order to get work done, thus weakening their dependencies on company resources. By joining creation spaces and communities, individuals can now create products, content and even movements, based on their passions and find solutions that they wouldn’t find on their own. Instead of talking about the work they do in interviews, the empowered employee has a digital record, which acts as an online resume, making him / her discoverable and attractive to employers. The empowered employee doesn’t need approval to use the technology and devices he or she wants to use to get work done, and locking down access to sites at work is futile, as employees bring their devices to work.

To understand power shifts, you have to also look at sources of trust. Edelman Digital publishes its Trust Barometer every year, and the 2012 report has marked the largest shift yet — a huge increase in trust of “employees like me”:

Companies are slowly realizing that without the right employees and the right internal culture and environment, they will never be able to compete externally and deliver goods and services at the speed of today’s business. There’s no need to jump to complete anarchy where employees take over the company and abolish all process. However, the massive opportunity lies in a deliberate, collaborative and respectful partnership between the Company, the Employee and the Customer. To really capture this opportunity, we need to abandon our fear and figure out how we can work with our employees to harness their passions and their sense of power.

What’s in it for the employer?

  • First and foremost, access to star resources. Creating environments where employees can chart their career and growth by working on what they are passionate about is simply good for business. As speed of change is overwhelming all of us, employers are struggling to assemble the right resources at the right time to solve business problems that keep changing rapidly, and to service customers who expect more. Employers’ ability to get, retain and tap into the brilliance of their workforce is a definite competitive advantage in an age of uncertainty and change. Instead of industrial age rigidity of silos, employees need to operate in ways that are flexible and allow them to bring together and disband teams for particular projects. Employees tend to be more passionate about spaces that allow them to be themselves, and passion is one of the most underrated resources in business. It’s passion that helps people push for a goal bigger than themselves, be truly creative enough to solve difficult problems and simply do more and better.
  • Employee empowerment is also a key ingredient to becoming customer-centric. Our customers can now reach us in a few seconds via a simple tweet. The volume of conversations is only going to increase, and to deal with it all, employees must be empowered to solve problems. If you have to clear every action with the “powers that be”, you will fail to move at the right speed. To conduct business effectively and work with the empowered consumer, we need to become adept at exception handling, says Sameer Patel, and if you aren’t internally collaborative – good luck with that!
  • Employee advocacy is simply good business. On the social web, any employee can become an accidental spokesperson in front of customers, press and bloggers. Are you treating this as a liability or an opportunity to rally behind a unifying message? Do your employees even know what you stand for?

The key about employee empowerment is that it’s not something that we can decide to give to people, but we need to proactively listen and create environments for these kinds of behavior to sprout up. As Sara Roberts said in her Enterprise 2.0 keynote, we don’t get to bestow empowerment upon people. There are specific things we can do to create these environments for our employees, but that’s a topic for a whole new blogpost.

Photo source: Nathan E. Photography