"Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses" for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it ..."
-- Herman Melville
Just as traditional media conditioned the audience to be passive consumers -- first of commercial messages, then of products -- the traditional organization conditioned employees to be obedient executors of bureaucratically disseminated work orders. Both are forms of broadcast: the few dictating the behavior of the many. The broadcast mentality isn't dead by any means. It's just become suicidal.
In contrast, the Internet invites participation. It is genuinely empowering, well beyond the cliché that word has become. And corporate intranets invite participation in the same way. There are strong reciprocal parallels between the open-ended curiosity of the new marketplace and the knowledge requirements of the new organization. The market-oriented Internet and workforce-focused intranet each relies on the other in fundamental and highly complementary ways. Without strong market objectives and connections, there is no viable focus for a company's Internet presence; without a strong intranet, market objectives and connections remain wishful thinking.
The same technology that has opened up a new kind of conversation in the marketplace has done the same within the corporation, or has the potential to do so. But many businesses, especially large ones, still refuse to acknowledge these radical shifts affecting internal workforces and external markets. They don't want to relinquish hierarchic control. They don't want to give up the tremendous economies of scale they enjoyed under the old-school broadcast-advertising alliance. It's what they know. It's how they made their fortunes. However, trying to keep things in the old familiar business-as-usual rut denies the ability of markets to respond to and interact with companies directly -- and this is what the Internet has brought to the party.
Why the denial? Could it be that companies are afraid the Internet and intranets will make people smarter? While no company would ever admit to it publicly, this is precisely what many fear. In the "good old days," consumers weren't expected to make suggestions or ask for new features. They were simply supposed to buy the product -- any color they wanted as long as it was black. In the same way, workers weren't expected to offer insights or suggestions, just to do what they were told.
Networks greatly facilitate the sharing of relevant knowledge within a community joined by like interests. As a result, the lowest common denominator of informed awareness tends to be much higher online than it ever was in the context of broadcast media. Plus, this informed awareness tends to increase much faster. This accelerated learning effect obviously applies to intranets as well -- it's where their primary value lies. But a lot can get in the way of this value before it has a chance to evolve and mature.
In 1995, Business Week ran an excellent cover story on intranets, just around the time the buzzword was emerging into general parlance. Several CIOs were quoted as saying they had so-and-so many thousand Web pages behind their firewalls. They were crowing about it. But my take was that this content didn't get created top-down by the organization. Instead, these pages sprang up overnight like a crop of magic mushrooms on a rich mother lode of corporate horseshit.
What does that mean, you ask? Well, look, when all this got started you had thousands of workers with easy access to free Web browsers and a smaller set of folks who had figured out how to set up Web servers whose only cost was download and tinkering time. These people soon figured out that HTML wasn't rocket science, and it was off to the races from there. Suddenly there was nothing to prevent the expression of their own ideas and creativity. Skunkworks wanted to build broader support for their projects, individuals wanted to be noticed for their technical savvy or penetrating wit or business insight.
But then the big-O Organization discovered what was going on, and often as not, brought all this self-motivated fever-pitch development to a grinding halt. Hey, way to go!
To be fair, there were a few high-level execs out there who truly understood the dynamics of how this stuff worked. And by dynamics, I mean more the cultural aspect of networking. For the technology, you could buy a book. Aside from this handful, though, most corporate managers were clueless in the extreme.
And, sadly, most still are. Too many have never spent any serious time online. Then, when they get charged with building a corporate intranet, the first thing they think about is reporting structures and where everybody will sit in some abstract org chart. But dictatorial directives -- "All Web pages must be formally approved by the Department of Business Prevention" -- throw cold water onto all that magic-mushroom enthusiasm.
The fact is, people at the bottommost tiers of the organization often have far more valuable knowledge than managers and corporate control freaks. If you kill off this enthusiasm, you can easily end up with a large, professional-looking, and very expensive intranet that nobody gives a damn about. The question companies should be asking themselves is: What if we built an intranet and nobody came?
Top management support needs to come in the form of funding, facilitation, and enough brains to get out of the way. It's gotta be more like rock and roll than strait-laced traditional business -- and that puts the Suits right over the edge. It's just not possible, they argue, to run a business by letting everybody improvise.
But companies function that way whether anybody wants them to or not. Nobody really runs them; no one writes the score. Corporate management is still largely unaware of what's going on in the marketplace. But their workers know, because they're operating there already. What's going on is the Internet.
Today, market expectations are solidly welded to Net-speed performance. Your software product isn't available for downloading? You don't have secure transaction processing so I can buy it when I need it? Hey, I'm gone! And so is a big chunk of your market share. If your company feeds me a ration of facile hype instead of answering my questions, I'm looking for another supplier.
And the expectation of getting quick, straight answers applies across the board to information of every stripe. It applies to ideas -- how to acquire them within the company and from the market, move them around, sort them, slice them, dice them, move them back out into the market as new products, get customer feedback -- then iterate, getting better as you go. Make mistakes. Debug on the fly. It's fast, it's furious. It's fun! If you want a rock-and-roll company, which is more important, adhering to procedure or knowing how to dance?
The fervor that produced the first wild-oats crop of intranets surely didn't come from the CIOs who got quoted in Business Week. Workers have had it with repressive management that just gets in the way. Markets have had it with hyperbole-laden corporate rhetoric that's 99 percent hot air. The next huge opportunity for business is to bring workforce and market together. And companies smart enough to realize this start instigating a potent form of internal anarchy.
Unfortunately, such companies are rare exceptions. Most are hanging on for dear life to the one thing they think they can't live without: control. But they only think they're in control. Feeling their real abilities and contributions have gone unappreciated, many employees simply do what they feel like doing anyway, giving as little as possible to the company. They punch the clock and that's it. The relationship is adversarial as hell. If you look into it closely, though, the company has almost invariably set things up this way -- by not trusting people to take the initiative, to be engaged, motivated, intelligent, creative, innovative. It's a long, sad story with roots that go back to the early industrial era.
Corporate intranets represent a prime opportunity to turn this scenario around, but only if there's genuine awareness of where the real challenges lie. Too much of intranet development is focused on whiz-bang technology and not nearly enough on the cultural revolution all this implies and in fact demands.
In healthy intranet environments, work gets coordinated via cooperation and negotiation among colleagues. But these things happen very fast, not in committee meetings. This is why employees need more power in organizations -- not to lord it over others, but to make intelligent decisions on the fly and not see them overturned two days later by managers who don't know the territory. Without getting into the politics of it, the biggest complaint of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam was that the war was being fought from Washington. Again without getting into the politics of it: the U.S. lost. This is a big clue as to how many intranet initiatives are playing out. Top-down command-and-control management has become dysfunctional and counterproductive.
Imposed infrastructures hinder more than help. Most so-called empowerment initiatives are embarrassingly paternalistic, to the point of backfiring entirely. Real authority is based on respect for knowledge and the two are inherently intertwined. Also, both grow bottom-up. When arbitrary "management" takes over what was initially a handcrafted intranet, the individuals who championed and created it often feel betrayed and disenfranchised. You see the same thing in what happened to craft and the individual voice during the course of the Industrial Revolution. We're making some very old mistakes here.
Take another example much closer to the present. The autonomous PC challenged the hegemony of mainframe computer systems and enabled the development of quick solutions that could end-run the infamous MIS-bottleneck -- the fact that it could take months for computer applications to be created and executed to deliver needed information. Then IT management discovered the LAN, which delivered another layer of utility. However, instead of leveraging this new resource for the benefit of "users" -- even that word is an artifact of the mentality -- the IT department largely used the LAN to reestablish control over information access and work environments.
Now, many companies are doing the same thing again with the intranet. You get this rule-book mindset -- the corporation's common look and feel, logo placement, legal number of words on each Web page. Whatever. It's all so cramped and constipated and uninviting. Dead. The people who actually built the intranet -- created the content that makes it valuable -- bail out, looking for another, more open system. And today that's easy to find.
Remember the context for all this. Twenty years ago, or even five, only corporations could provide the kind of resources needed to process even modest volumes of information. The cost of such systems was a significant barrier to entry for new businesses that might become competitors. But today individuals have this kind of power in their rec rooms. And they can get all the Internet they can eat for a few bucks a month. If the company doesn't come through with the kind of information and delivery that turns them on -- provides learning, advances careers, and nurtures the unbridled joy of creation -- well, hey, they'll just do it elsewhere. Maybe in the garage.
This sort of thing has already been happening for a while now, of course, but there's more on the way, and not just from the usually suspected quarters. To understand what's really happening on the Internet, you have to get down beneath the commercial hype and hoopla, which though it gets 90 percent of the press -- is actually a late arrival. From the beginning, something very different has been brewing online. It has to do with living, with livelihood, with craft, connection, and community. This isn't some form of smarmy New Age mysticism, either. It's tough and gritty and it's just beginning to find its voice, its own direction. But it's also difficult to describe; as the song says, "It's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll." And it's next to impossible to understand unless you've experienced it for yourself. You have to live in the Net for a while.
At this level, things are often radically other than they appear. A new kind of logic is emerging, or needs to. I call it gonzo business management -- paradox become paradigm. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and we might as well get used to it. There's a huge opportunity here for individuals to keep their day jobs but at the same time to indulge their natural human bent for self-expression.
Companies that try to prevent this sort of creativity within their firewalls need to have their collective heads examined. Conversely, companies that foster and encourage it will win big. The best software, design, music, graphics, writing -- elegant, artistic, fantastically interesting and valuable content -- are coming out of places where people feel their creativity is valued. Places where inspiration is paramount and posturing means nothing.
Great intranets come from corporate basements, not from boardrooms. How do you know where the next big thing is going to come from? You need great radar today, and that means a wide-awake workforce that's constantly tinkering, exploring, and figuring out new ways to have fun.
The long history of distrust between workers and management didn't start with Karl Marx or the AFL-CIO. It's based more on fallout from the ideas of people like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, ideas like "scientific management" and Theory X. Underlying these questionable principles that have done so much to shape the assumptions of business-as-usual is the premise that workers are lazy, unwilling, even stupid. Today, this premise translates into the near-certainty that employees are pilfering company time, collecting a paycheck while hanging out on the Web all day. They probably are. But that's a symptom, not a cause.
The people who built the first intranets put in ridiculously long days. They worked like soldiers rebuilding a bridge. You had to be there to believe it. But many now managing Internet or intranet projects were not there and they don't believe it. It all goes back to fear of losing control. Whatever the motive, the mentality has to go. Right now these fear-driven corporations are spending millions on market research, the whole point of which is to find out who their customers are. They don't know anymore. They've barricaded themselves in their executive suites, and now they've erected firewalls on top of that.
Sure, data security is necessary and needs to be done well. However, many corporations are desperate for firewalls because they don't want the market to see they have nothing worth stealing inside them. That's not security, it's paranoia. You can't identify best practices without sticking your neck out -- but if you don't, you risk premature death. You can't invite customers to contribute design ideas by holding them at bay.
And unless your industry is very "mature" -- which really means ready for the bone yard -- your market isn't wearing pinstripe suits anymore, either. Many companies are currently doing market planning today using straw-man models of the customer that constitute a bad pastiche of Eisenhower-era sitcom outtakes and those throwback Human Resources manuals that haven't been edited in thirty years. Was anybody ever this straight or this stupid? Are they now? If not, what does this say about current approaches to online marketing? In many cases, your workers are your market. Come out of the bunker once in a while, see what they're up to -- it could be your future.
But for that to happen, you've to get beyond the firewall. The Internet/intranet dichotomy reinforces the "not invented here," syndrome that has damaged so many companies. Corporations have long understood that they have to tear down the internal walls that prevent necessary cross-functional communication. Now they have to tear down their external walls as well. The survivors will be left standing naked -- the stuff of nightmares for many companies. But they'll be left standing naked in the middle of a thriving marketplace. For businesses capable of grasping the ramifications, this is an enormously promising paradox.
In a networked market, the best way for a company to "advertise" will be to provide a public window on its intranet. Instead of putting up slick images of what they'd like people to believe, corporations will open up so people can see what's really going on.
Sometime soon, companies will have to open up significant portions of their intranets -- while still protecting their few genuine secrets -- in order to create relationships with their markets rather than barriers against them. Otherwise, they're saying in effect: "We know everything we need to know. Why should we look beyond our own borders?" That's just plain wrong, and everybody knows it -- especially your workers and your customers.
Companies that are actually communicating with online markets have flung the doors wide open. They're constantly searching for solid information they can share with customers and prospects via Web and FTP sites, e-mail lists, phone calls, whatever it takes. They're not half as concerned with protecting their data as with how much information they can give away. That's how they stay in touch, stay competitive, keep market attention from drifting to competitors. Such companies are creating a new kind of corporate identity, based not on the repetitive advertising needed to create "brand awareness," but on substantive, personalized communications.
The question is whether, as a company, you can afford to have more than an advertising-jingle persona. Can you put yourself out there: say what you think in your own voice, present who you really are, show what you really care about? Do you have any genuine passion to share? Can you deal with such honesty? Such exposure? Human beings are often magnificent in this regard, while companies, frankly, tend to suck. For most large corporations, even considering these questions -- and they're being forced to do so by both Internet and intranet -- is about as exciting as the offer of an experimental brain transplant.
But the future looks dismal only to companies that are spooked by the prospect of coming in out of the cold. Those at highest risk aren't wonderful places to be working in at any level today. Their future could be very bright if they'd just decide to stop being prisons with nasty wardens. If they choose not to stop, I don't have much pity. Companies that are harming themselves out of ignorance can, with a little humility and a lot of hard work, begin to learn and change. I've seen it happen, and it's an impressive thing. On the other hand, companies that are harming the people who work for them out of cowardice, greed, and willful stupidity richly deserve whatever fate may have in store.
Giant companies tend to look only over the tops of the trees at other giants they consider worthy competitors. Few bother to look down at their feet. If they did, many would see their foundations being nibbled away by competitors many times smaller, yet fiercely committed to do battle for even a tiny slice of this new territory. Some little garage operation can only take away, say, .001 percent of market share from one of these monster companies. However, a hundred thousand garage operations can take it all -- and given the new business dynamics the Internet brings to bear, this can happen overnight. The Net will cause radical discontinuities, catastrophic breaks in the already crumbling façade of business-as-usual.
Companies currently have a lot of motivation to get serious. And to get really serious, they first have to get a sense of humor and relax -- yet another pretzel-logic paradox. They need to relax to break the obsessive-compulsive control habit. They need to understand that employees already know how to do the work far better than the company could ever hope to dictate. Corporate intranets could unleash the potential energy of the corporation, but to nourish and grow that potential, companies have to relinquish their addiction to management. Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said, "To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture."
At some point you've got to break down and trust people both inside and outside "your" organization -- and the Web is responsible for those quotation marks. It is radically blurring the boundaries of what's inside and outside, yours and theirs. The only way companies can sound authentic to new online markets is to empower employees who actually have the knowledge to disseminate it on their behalf. And from here on out, that's always going to mean a two-way street between workplace and marketplace.
Copyright (c) by Frederick Levine, Chris Locke, David Searls, and David Weinberger. Reprinted by permission of Perseus Books. All rights reserved.