I just read a brilliant and inspirational blog post on the Harvard Business Review site entitled, "Are All Employees Knowledge Workers?" The authors, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, explore the "artificial distinction" that businesses create in their workforce between the haves (so-called "high potentials," creative talent, and knowledge workers) and the have nots (everyone else). The writers suggest we need "to redefine all jobs, especially those performed at the front line (or, in an image, that reveals our prevalent management mindset, the 'bottom' of the institutional pyramid), in ways that facilitate problem solving, experimentation, and tinkering."
Early in the Web 1.0 era, companies asked what the Web could do for them. It was the wrong question, because soon the Web was doing something to them–changing consumer expectations, forcing investments in technology, altering the way companies recruit, disrupting sales channels, changing company culture and breaking old models of the employee-employer dynamic. (Remember when communicating with a boss at a certain level used to mean asking his secretary for time on his calendar rather than a real-time dialog via email or IM? I do.)
Today companies are asking what Social Media can do for them, and while it can do much for marketers, the more interesting question is what Social Media is going to do to organizations. Not long ago, no letters, memos, collateral material, advertising or support documentation were distributed outside the organization without levels of review and approval. Today, a single employee can speak to tens of thousands of partners, customers and prospects in real-time without supervision, approval, or moderation.
If you still don't think your front-line (or "bottom of the pyramid") employees have big voices and a big impact on your organization's reputation, take note of how one individual at Nestle turned a modest problem into a significant PR crisis. Facing Greenpeace-sparked protests on the Nestle Facebook page, the administrator's annoyed and sarcastic tone only incited more attention and protests.
Every employee matters because every employee is a knowledge worker. That is the legacy that Social Media will leave with business. Whether it's a great McDonald's drive-thru employee whose enthusiasm and care results in a fan page or an intern who creates a PR disaster by spamming tweets, every employee can spark social media buzz, every employee is a knowledge worker, and every employee matters.
The companies that get this will win. The companies that hesitate will find themselves at a disadvantage. Social media success doesn't start with a strategy; it doesn't even start with an understanding of the audience. Social media success starts with company culture.
Executives study Zappos' success looking for policies and procedures to emulate, but how many of those executives are willing to add to their core values ideas like "Create Fun and A Little Weirdness" and "Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded"? How many are willing to allow employees to tear up the floors of meeting rooms in order to create a better work environment? How many will pay new employees $2,000 to quit? And how many CEOs are willing to tweet, "Breaking news: After an intensive manhunt lasting 30 years, police have finally arrested Video for killing the Radio Star"? ("Delivering Happiness," the new book by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, will be a must read for anyone seeking to replicate a portion of Zappos' magic.)
Zappos success didn't start with policies and procedures. It didn't even start with their brand, business model or social media. It began with corporate culture and people. As the HBR post states, success will come when "even the most unskilled worker will be viewed as a critical problem solver and knowledge worker contributing to performance improvement."
And that is what social media will do both to and for your organization over the coming years.