How Technological Change Pushes Boundaries in the Workplace

By Laurie Bassi, Ed Frauenheim, and Dan McMurrer with Larry Costello

On February 12, 2008, a marketing manager at Yahoo lost his job.

That shouldn’t have been a big deal given the troubles of the Internet firm and the regularity of layoffs in the U.S. economy during the past three decades. But this particular pink slip caught the public’s eye.

The employee, Ryan Kuder, “twittered” his layoff. That is, Kuder used his micro-blogging account at Internet site Twitter to give a blow-by-blow account of getting the axe. Among his “tweets”:

  • Y! layoffs today, I’m “impacted.” I’m heading into work to pack my desk, get my severance paperwork and hand in my badge . . . more to come.
  • Ironic that I just got my PC repaired yesterday. Won’t be needing that anymore.
  • Walking around saying goodbye to some great people and good friends.
  • This is a serious downer. Trying to drown it in free lattes. Which I will miss.
  • Lots of whispered conversations. Like people are afraid to ask who’s gone.
  • I’m going dark in a few minutes. The HR guy is on his way over to confiscate my laptop.
  • Celebrating unemployment with a giant margarita at Chevy’s.

A “new form of literature?”

A variety of media seized on Kuder’s personal-made-public report, with one commentator calling it “a new form of literature.” Perhaps. But equally important was the way Kuder’s account, posted on the Internet, signaled the growing power of social media technologies to lay bare what happens inside corporations.

Among those who recognize the shift is business consultant Libby Sartain, who was head of human resources at Yahoo when Kuder lost his job.

“People tweet, people blog, people text,” Sartain says. “You are going to have a completely transparent workplace at all times. You can’t really spin it.”

The transparency Kuder created through Twitter is part of a broader way technological change is pushing companies to clean up their acts.

The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies in the past decade or so has enabled people to reward goodness and punish its absence. These technologies both foster a culture of disclosure and participation (which we’ll talk about more in Chapter 3) and make it powerful. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; interactive features on traditional media sites; and feedback sites like Glassdoor.com, Vault, TripAdvisor, and Yelp give people a platform for making negative and positive comments about organizations. Such comments or reviews typically stay on the Internet forever, visible to anyone searching on a Web browser.

Speaking up through technology tools

Many sites also have mechanisms for synthesizing feedback to give people a more comprehensive picture of an organization. Glassdoor.com, for example, provides average ratings for companies based on employee reviews. Yelp does something similar for ratings on restaurants and other local services. So does technology product review site CNET.com, which supplements expert commentary with user ratings.

Investors, too, are speaking up and out about companies through technology tools. The message boards at Yahoo Finance, for example, are full of people debating the merits of different stocks. These discussions aren’t only about the likelihood of gains and losses but also the social responsibility of publicly traded companies.

Not only do many sites summarize the “wisdom of the crowds” with rating averages, but features such as “rate this rating” allow the very best comments to rise to the surface.

Such interactive tools are being employed by businesses themselves on their own sites. Amazon’s release of its Kindle 2 digital reading device is a case in point.

As of late 2009, Amazon’s user review section showed that the device had an average rating of four out of five stars. But the third user review presented on the Kindle 2 page was from a customer who gave the product a mere one star. “BEWARE of the SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES between Kindle 1 and Kindle 2!” wrote Gadget Queen, who went on to provide a 15-point detailed critique of the device.

More than just opinions get posted

Although it was a negative review and far from the average rating, some 17,450 of 18,600 people found the review helpful. The first two user reviews — detailed but largely positive — also had thousands of “helpful” ratings attached to them. In essence, Web 2.0 feedback and meta-feedback technologies make it likely that problems at organizations will be made public; and the more legitimate the problem, the more likely it is that it will be made public in a prominent way.

Opinions aren’t the only things employees, consumers, and investors are publishing these days with the help of technology. They’re also posting photos, audio files, and video images that they can capture at any moment. Smart phones and other handheld devices are commonplace and capable of recording images, video and audio. It is increasingly easy for people throughout the world to upload this content to the Internet.

For years, organizations have had to worry about the possible theft of valuable data and contend with the prospect that embarrassing e-mails and other documents will be exposed by means such as litigation and government probes. Now, in this more interactive era, there are even more ways sensitive corporate information can be disclosed: in an employee’s YouTube video, through a tweet by a worker at a supplier, via a Facebook discussion page.

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Some observers dispute that the rise of Web 2.0 technologies pushes companies to behave better. They point to cases where workers have been fired for blogging about their firms and to policies banning the use of social media at work. More fundamentally, critics note that the democratization of media on the Internet is leading to the demise of newspapers and traditional media, which have been among the most important watchdogs of corporate activities.

But newspapers and magazines haven’t disappeared completely. And the increase in the amount and variety of information on the Internet — including government records and company documents — makes investigative reporting on companies by “citizen” journalists ever easier.

Continuing to push the boundaries

What’s more, social media tools like Twitter accelerate the distribution of noteworthy news about firms. Stories can go viral. A damaging report about a company’s pollution record that may have remained a regional story a decade ago now can spread across the globe rapidly as a forwarded link.

Despite the high-profile cases of employees fired for offensive blogs or tweets, workers continue to push the boundaries of what they can disclose. And the ability to post information anonymously through blogs or feedback sites gives employees at even the most draconian firms an option to speak their mind.

In effect, the rise of Web 2.0 and the ubiquity of digital recording devices are disrobing companies. Increasingly, company gaffes and missteps will be outed. They can only be countered with overwhelming evidence of goodness.

And they can be countered. The era of the naked company means that companies’ best sides shine through as well. As of early 2011, the top-ranked “most helpful” Kindle review at Amazon’s site gave the product four out of five stars.

Ryan Kuder’s twittered tale showed Yahoo to be a workplace on edge and a bit disorganized about its PC repair decisions. But what company wouldn’t be tense amid layoffs and imperfect in its coordination? The bigger message was that Yahoo had been a fun place, with nice perks and great people.

In Sartain’s view, Kuder’s account of his layoff was on balance positive for the firm.

“He didn’t say, ‘Yahoo sucks,’” she says.

Excerpted from the book Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era, Copyright (c) 2011 by Laurie Bassi. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA. www.bkconnection.com or 800-929-2929.

Laurie Bassi is the CEO of McBassi & Company, a leader in the emerging decision-science of human capital management. Since founding McBassi in 2001, she has been working with clients to help them unleash human capability within their organizations. Earlier, she served as VP for research at ASTD, the director of several U.S. government commissions, and a tenured professor of economics and public policy at Georgetown University. Contact her at lbassi@mcbassi.com.

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1 Comment on “How Technological Change Pushes Boundaries in the Workplace

  1. Great presentation of an issue we’ve covered on our blog: http://www.people-science.com/blog/google and http://www.people-science.com/blog/monster#transparency

    Transparency is the default in today’s corporate world. As much as companies might want to “control the message” it isn’t possible with today’s culture. It’s more important to give the public more reason to put out a positive message than spend your time focusing on “what about the negative.”

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