The founder of School for Startups and School for Creative Startups on why limiting employees’ internet access is a foolhardy approach
The internet is transforming society on very subtle dimensions. Some of the biggest challenges that companies face today is that the world is moving digital at every point in the P&L statement. It’s not enough to think of how the internet connects with your marketing and sales – it connects with every point in your business. And it’s going to connect whether a large corporation wants it to or not.
The internet connects every time a person walks through your door, in one fashion or another. Every single person in a company is both a consumer – a social animal – and an employee.
As the consumer, they are relating to products and brands through the web, and doing so in a social matrix. So every employee is potentially an assassin of a brand or a promoter of a brand. If someone goes on the web and says, “Hey, I work for BP,” then people might attack them for where they work. That means as an employee they are called upon to either attack or defend the criticism, and the organisation itself.
The relevance of this is that all people need to be skilled in the digital world. Companies have to recognise that it’s no longer the case that their marketing message is confined to their marketing department. There are no more walls. So businesses have to market as aggressively internally to their own employee base as they do externally – if not more so.
Good marketers know you don’t sell someone on a message, you get them to buy into a message they also believe in. Companies that have a purpose and a mission are more likely to get employees to believe in them than those that do not. If you look at the best-performing companies, they tend to be ones where the employees believe in the vision of the business. So, for example, although Apple is by many accounts a very difficult place to work, employees love the vision and enjoy it, and it succeeds because of that. The same is often true for small businesses and start-ups.
But there are plenty of other businesses where the internal culture and message is very different from the external message. They could get away with that up until now. They won’t be able to get away with it for much longer. There’s going to be a challenge of transparency. Whether these businesses like it or not, everyone will be able to see inside the business, and everyone inside the business has a voice to communicate outside the business.
The challenge therefore is to make sure the internal and external voice of the business are the same, and make sure the company has a message and purpose people can believe in – so that when employees are inevitably called upon to advocate for the business, they choose to do so.
There is also the question of productivity in the digital age. The internet is both the greatest creator and the greatest barrier to new productivity. It is hugely distracting, it saps people away, it creates whole new types of work – so people become email managers rather than job managers, for example.
But it also permits far-flung groups to collaborate, for people to enjoy real-time communication, tighter group bonding, and so on. There are potentially lots of productivity issues the internet can solve. It’s not inevitable that the internet will solve those issues though. It needs smart thinking applied.
Simply limiting. It fails to discourage unproductive activity, because people carry phones and iPads and they have 3G. They will still access the internet. You’re not going to create a hermetic seal around your employees. There are just too many channels of digital communication they could be using.
Instead of trying to do that – in which you will fail – it is smarter to put people in a position where they can work more efficiently, so the inevitable declines of efficiency in being digitally connected are offset by inclines in productivity from being connected.
Companies and organisations need to leverage connectivity. They need to accept the fact people like to be multimode in their communication. Most of us have several ways we communicate digitally: email, phone-calls, voicemail, Skype, Google Chat, Facetime, group chats, group calls, text messaging, Twitter, DM’ing – it never ends. And every new mode of communication doesn’t replace a prior one, it just adds another way of communicating to that list.
People use them all, because they are all subtly different. They serve different purposes at different times. Part of making people productive is encouraging the right form of communication for the right task.
We know what it looks like when you don’t use the best mode of communication for any given task. Everyone’s been involved in some unbelievably awful seven-person round-robin email chain that drags on for weeks, when the issue could have been solved by one group conversation.
Using digital connectivity to make organisations more productive is about having the discipline to map out how people work together best. It’s about making sure there are internal sites for people to share information; that there are bi-directional conversations up and down the hierarchies; that peers have mechanism whereby they can share with each other. You need to make it fluid and accessible. You need to let people use the full range of communication modes, and pick the best one for any given situation.
That means decisions end up being made more efficiently, and there is more pressure to act quickly on shared projects. There is more accountability and transparency. The internet should open up opportunity for organisations – but they need to understand how best to use it, and make sure everyone at every level is educated in the right digital skills for our connected world.
More for you, from us:
The London Business Summit: Thriving in London, Tuesday 25 June 2013
Discover opportunity, explore innovation, drive long-term profits
Speakers include Martha Lane Fox, Alastair Lukies, Julie Meyer, Mike Butcher, Jo Valentine and many more.
Register for our free newsletter
For up-to-the-minute insights, news and gossip for London professionals and business leaders.