I interned for IBM in the summer of 1983. It was the best summer job imaginable–fun work, smart people, good pay, and of course better resume fodder than my prior work experience (the hardware store).
My first month, though, I didn’t have much to do. Everyone was busy, and it was hard to ask busy people to find me an assignment (this problem got solved, but that’s another story). So I read a lot. In particular, every week or so a packet of information came through the interoffice mail, consisting of pages and pages of photocopied newspaper and magazine articles relating to IBM and its business.
I looked forward to each packet and read every article. I may have been the only one in the office to do so. But I was really curious about the business and it was great to have all that information in one place. I kept that curiosity, about the company I worked for, its markets and the macro environment, after that, and that may be why I later gravitated to outward-facing roles like marketing, sales and strategy.
At any rate, it’s 25 years later, and there’s more information about a company, its markets, and the outside world than in 1,000,000 article packs available at the click of a mouse. Yet companies continue to act as if they have no idea what’s going on outside their walls.
Harvard Business School’s John Kotter, in his great 2008 book “A Sense of Urgency,” blames an insulated culture for companies’ inability to sustain their change initiatives–he urges companies to “bring the outside in.”
Here’s how Kotter describes the importance of sharing information that allows employees to experience a broad view of the company and its prospects:
I can still remember a visit I made to a company ten years ago as if it happened last week. The firm had been exceptionally successful in the middle part of the twentieth century. But by the time of my visit, market share had been steadily eroding for twenty years. The company was in a war, badly wounded, some would say bleeding to death. Yet when I opened the door to corporate headquarters, I entered a visual fantasy world.
Nowhere was there a single sign that the company was struggling, had been struggling for two decades, and was continuing to be beaten again and again in the marketplace. Nowhere was there a sign that the technology affecting its products was changing faster, offering it wonderful opportunities to leap ahead of competitors. The huge waiting room was pin-drop quiet and had the air of an antechamber outside the king’s throne room.
In total contrast, I once visited a successful firm that seemed to have its entire outside world hung on the walls of its waiting room. There were pictures of customers, of its own products, of its manufacturing plants, office buildings, competitor products, recent articles from industry publications, and comments (mostly good and some bad) from customers. There were a few prototype sketches of products to come. There were two big charts, one showing margins over the previous two years (which made the firm look good) and one that showed stock price (which made the firm look not so good). The entire effect was somewhat like a teenager’s room, especially the picture of a competing CEO with a mustache drawn on it!
The second company’s waiting room walls provided employees and visitors with a multimedia picture of the outside world every day. It reminds me of the article packs I read during my tenure at IBM.
Imagine the wall, virtualized, visible on every employees computer desktop via the intranet. Imagine that any employee can post items: news articles, blog posts, Tweets, rumors, video clips, etc. Other employees could vote on the items, comment on them, point out patterns.
In other words, a living, breathing, interactive, multimedia, ubiquitous version of those waiting room walls.
The technology to do this is ubiquitous and fairly cheap. Most companies have the basic plumbing to do it already. All they need is the framework, the processes, and, perhaps most challenging of all, the will and courage to do it.
Companies have to decide whether they want to be more like Kotter’s first example–the fantasy world, or the second–immersed in the real world, in all its messiness, complexity and contradiction.
(Photo by stevendamron via Flickr Creative Commons)