The Impact of Freedom of Expression and
Social Networking on Organizations
Thirty years ago, John Naisbitt wrote his prescient book Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. In it he articulates broad sweeping political, social and economic trends within the United States and the world that will impact our way of living. Naisbitt predicted that as a nation we would move from one form of operating to another. These are shown below:
1. An industrial society to an informational society
2. Forced technology to a High-Tech/ High-Touch technology
3. A national economy to a world economy
4. Short term planning focus to a long term focus
5. Government centralization to decentralization
6. Institutional help to self-help
7. A representative democracy to participatory democracy
8. Hierarchies to networking
9. North to South
10. Either/or to multiple options
While not all of these trends have occurred at the same pace and extent, many have been realized.
We have seen in recent months the convergence of many of these trends and their impact on world affairs. The populous uprisings in the Middle East are partially enabled by high technology, global economic forces, decentralization of governments, and networking. Indeed, the Egyptian uprising was fueled by the ability of protesters to rally their supporters through FaceBook and Twitter.
In the business and organizational arena we have seen parallel events. Labor unions have collapsed in the private sector since the 1980’s, while they have grown considerably in the public sector. The recent events in Wisconsin with the state government barring unions from representing public sector employees and the citizen rallies in support of unions is a watershed event that again exemplifies how such trends as decentralization, high-tech, networking and participatory democracy have converged to enable such events to happen.
Implications for Organizations Today
The combination of the trends of networking, high technology, the desire for greater expression of thoughts and opinions, and multi option preferences has yielded a major challenge for organizations and their leaders. The major issue at hand is that social trends are moving faster than organizations responses to them.
An example of this is how organizations treat employees discussing their personal attitudes and opinions about their employer in on-line communities. Acting out of a traditional information management model in which all information about a company, including employees’ person thoughts and opinions are the organization’s property, organizations have taken a hard line on employees who write disparaging remarks about the company in such forums as FaceBook. Some of these cases have reached labor arbitration and the National Labor Relations Board and have been ruled in favor of both sides.
As more cases get decided, better guidelines can be developed. But for the time being extreme and inflammatory negative comments seem to be unacceptable expressions of opinions. This is evident in a recent case where an arbitrator found in favor of a company for dismissing an employee who wrote on FaceBook that the management team was like Hitler. This coupled with other disruptive behaviors on the part of the employee was enough to support the termination decision.
Threats and Opportunities
Organizations have mixed emotions about all this public sharing of information. Management wants to control information about their company, but in reality did they ever have control? The difference is the magnitude of impact it can have.
It used to be that satisfied customers would tell a few people of their experience, but a dissatisfied customer would tell 20 or more people. Today dissatisfied customers can instantaneously reach hundreds of thousands of people. Consider AOL when a disgruntled customer posted a video of his frustrating experience in getting his account cancelled. The video went viral and caused AOL considerable embarrassment, but brought to light a customer service practice that needed correcting.
While employees should be cautious about posting negative comments about their employers on FaceBook, there are anonymous ways of accomplishing this. The website glassdoor.com allows visitors to rate anonymously their current and past employers. This information is used by those conducting due diligence about prospective employers.
Employers can’t control the flow of this information, but they can control how employees view their company. Creating a “great employer” brand is more than a slick public relations campaign. It is fundamentally changing the organizational culture and climate to allow that brand to build organically. Again, glassdoor.com can become a powerful recruiting marketing tool for employers with highly satisfied employees.
Technology based social networking is taking the place of the water cooler. Now employees have the opportunity to share information across a wider network than those who hang out in a small office space. Rumors can be verified or squelched though posts to these “water cooler boards”. Similarly, finding people who have the right information or skill sets you need to solve a business problem can be easily found through social networking software as Yammer. This is akin to Twitter, but for internal use with an organization.
Taken together, the desire open communication, the ability to express oneself in public and semi-public forums, all enabled by technology, is just another step in the rapid decentralization and democratization of information. Like naturally flowing water, information will travel to seek its natural destination and any artificial means to block it will not prevail as alternative routes are found. Leaders need to recognize this and find ways to harness it for constructive use by the organization and its employees.