Category Archives: innovation

5 Tips for Managing Employees in a Post-PC Era

Make no mistake: Your employees will use their own mobile devices to do their jobs. Here’s how to ensure your data stays safe.

Intel executives probably wish they could have just stayed in bed. The company’s stock has continued its downward trend since the company announced Friday that its revenue for 2012 will be lower than expected. It’s a no-brainer, many observers observed. Intel serves the PC market pretty much exclusively. And personal computers are rapidly losing their relevance.

Intel’s woes are just one more sign that we are entering the post-PC era, where everyone who can will choose a smartphone, tablet, or other device to do the stuff he or she used to do on a desktop or laptop. This has major implications for your marketing strategy, of course. But you may also need to rethink how you manage your employees in this new era where computers are old hat.

Here are five things you should already be doing to manage a workforce that–no matter what industry you’re in–increasingly wants to be mobile.

1. Create a BYOD policy. – “BYOD” stands for “bring your own device” and this widespread trend has tech execs at large corporations all in a tizzy. Make no mistake: You want your employees bringing their own devices. Research confirms what you’ve probably noticed already, that employees who can work on mobile devices tend to do work more. A recent study by the global wireless provider iPass found mobile-enabled employees report putting in up to 20 more hours online per week thanks to the greater flexibility mobility provides. And if you don’t have a BYOD policy, chances are employees will use their devices for work anyway, whether you want them to or not.

2. Protect your data. – One of the first requirements in your BYOD policy should be the ability to remotely wipe all data off a mobile device if it is stolen or lost. Otherwise, everything from your new product design to the balance in your business accounts could become public knowledge if a smartphone falls out of someone’s pocket, or gets forgotten in a bar as famously happened to Apple–twice.

Remote wiping capability is “IT Security 101″ according to the iPass report. Yet only 55% of employees in the survey said their companies require it. Does yours?

3. Make it easy to comply. – One important feature of your BYOD policy is that it should be painless for employees to follow. Why? Because if it’s not, they’ll circumvent it. Twenty-four percent of smartphone users and 35% of tablet users in the iPass survey say they’ve used an unauthorized workaround to gain access to corporate information on mobile devices, most often because they need to do something quickly and working with IT to gain access takes too long. Avoid this security risk by making sure employees have secure and hassle-free mobile access to your company’s systems before they need it.

4. Make sure your internal systems work in a mobile world. – You already know you need mobile versions of your websites and/or apps that customers can quickly and easily use from anywhere. The same goes for your internal portals and systems. Not only will this make it easier for employees to do their jobs better, it will avoid security risks from forcing them to borrow other people’s computers. Would you rather a sales rep accessed your internal financial information from a tablet with your approved anti-virus software installed, or by logging in remotely from a desktop in your customer’s office?

5. Consider redesigning your workplace. – Here’s a question that might blow your mind: If employees are fully mobile, do they need a fixed work space anymore? Some companies have taken mobility all the way, letting employees do everything by smartphone, laptop, or tablet–and then eliminating assigned cubicles or desks.

The advantage of a more fluid workspace is that people who need to work together temporarily on a project can sit together for as long as they need to and then disperse. Gathering for a meeting becomes a more seamless process. Employees get to know everyone else in the company, not just the people who happen to sit next to them.

In some companies, decorating one’s work space with family pictures and children’s art projects is very important, and if yours is one of them, this may not work. But for the right company, an approach like this could might make for a more dynamic, nimble, and cohesive work force.


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The Future Isn’t About Mobile, It’s About Mobility

While the globe grapples with uncertain economic realities, “mobile” appears to be gold.

Facebook is expected to announce their uniquely targeted mobile advertising model before the end of the month. Amazon is talking to Chinese manufacturer Fox Conn with ambitions of building their own mobile device to serve as a compliment to Amazon’s considerable digital ecosystem of products and services. China itself has surpassed the US as the world’s dominant smartphone market with over a billion subscribers and roughly 400 million mobile web users. Advisory firm IDC predicts that by 2014 there will have been over 76 billion mobile apps downloaded resulting in an app economy worth an estimated thirty five billion in the same year. Mobile business will become big business in the not so distant future.

However, there will be blood as the business world pursues the mobile gold rush.

We’ve seen this movie before. In the early days of the web, it was the website that created a browser-fueled gold rush — until organizations realized that maintaining a website that provided real value was more difficult than launching something quickly. The same story is now playing out in social — getting something launched on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest is easy, but building an engaged and meaningful following isn’t. And the same will happen in the rush to mobile if companies take a “channel” approach vs. a behavioral approach. In short, it’s not about mobile as much as it is about understanding mobility.

In the early days of digital, the core behavior we needed to understand was that people wanted information at their fingertips and the convenience that came with digital transactions. In the social era it was all these things plus social connectivity. Mobility means information, convenience, and social all served up on the go, across a variety of screen sizes and devices.

Mobility is radically different from the stationary “desktop” experience. In some cases, mobility is a “lean back” experience like sitting on a commuter train watching a video. In other cases it can be “lean forward” — like shopping for a gift while you take your lunch break at the park. And in many cases, it’s “lean free” when your body is in motion, or you’re standing in line scanning news headlines or photos from friends while you wait for your turn to be called.

Mobility trumps mobile. The difference between mobility and mobile is like the difference between hardware and software. Mobile is linked to devices — it is always one thing, wherever it is. But mobility changes with context: cultures incorporate mobile technologies differently. For example, in Africa, SMS technology helps farmers pay bills electronically. In America, it helps teenagers keep up with their friends — an average of 60 times a day. Mobile itself is the nuts, bolts, and infrastructure, while mobility is the context which determines if it all works together or doesn’t.

To avoid “bloodshed” in mobile, learn from past lessons in Web, digital and social. Improve your understanding of the nuances of mobility and mobile behaviors before you ramp up your investment in mobile. Resist the temptation to rely too much on a guru; hiring a guru will only take your organization so far. Many of the organizations who brought in “social media gurus” learned this lesson the hard way. A single individual cannot scale. However, if the organization is willing to put real teeth behind their mobile efforts, a single smart person can help form a center of excellence. Establishing a center of excellence that puts mobility at the core, and integrates it with other business initiatives, can get a business thinking about mobile more strategically.

Secondly, realize that going mobile is not the same thing as having an app. In fact, avoid the temptation to “app everything.” A lot of content — whether video or text-based — can easily be optimized for mobile consumption. Popular apps such as Flipboard or Pulse point to a future of consumer “appgregation” — using one app to aggregate many sources of content. Instead of creating a whole host of apps that few are likely to download, invest in making your “digital ecosystem” more mobile-friendly.

Lastly, don’t put mobile tactics in front of strategy. In the early days of the web, every site seemed to have an animated GIF or a clunky site-counter. In the early days of social, companies spent millions on costly Facebook apps with cute gimmicks but no real utility or sharing value. Today, companies are scrambling to come up with something “mobile” whether or not it makes sense for their long-term business goals, and whether or not users will actually want it. The outcome is the same in across all of these examples: a low number of visits/installs/downloads and ho-hum business results. Tomorrow’s winners of today’s mobile gold rush will boast significant (and sustainable) usage numbers due to the value of their content, whether it’s sheer utility or impossible-to-ignore entertainment value.

Today’s mobile realities are stark. Competition is fierce and users are demanding. If your company wants to put out a fitness app, you’re competing not just with Nike FuelBand or Run Keeper, but with dozens of other apps put out by scrappy start-ups.

Before doubling down on mobile, any business should first ask themselves if they really understand mobility as a behavior and lifestyle, followed by tough questions about the role mobile plays in their business. From there, a strategy for mobile, built on an understanding of mobility, can take root.

Build on the expensive lessons learned from past bubbles and there will be less “blood” all around.


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7 Tips On Building Your Business With Better Metrics

Measuring and managing with metrics is essential to keeping your business on target. It’s critical to choose the right parameters – and then to know how to use them. Measuring with the wrong metrics can do more damage than good. Getting too obsessed about the numbers can lead to bad decisions and make you forget about the human element, that you’re managing people, not robots. And not measuring on at least a weekly basis can leave problems undiscovered until it’s too late to course-correct. But, when you leverage metrics properly, they can be one of the most powerful ways to propel your business to success. I’ve found an effective metrics-based management strategy that strikes the proper balance.

1. Measure before you manage – Accountability is fundamental to effective management, but it’s impossible to achieve it without tracking each department and individual progress against very specific, measurable goals and objectives. Every element of your business should be measured – marketing, support, operations, sales, finance, engineering, employee performance, and so on. You first need to determine the right metrics and then make sure you have all the tools you need for measurement.

2. Choose the right metrics – Using metrics is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it can just as easily send you off track as it can bring you greater focus. The key to effective measurement is knowing what to measure. First, you have to really know your business, starting with your core values, vision, and company mission. Ask questions like:

  • What five things will most impact the business in the next 12 months?
  • What are specific revenue objectives, both for the year and for each quarter?
  • What are the “subjective” criteria for success in the next 12 months?

Then pick your metrics based on what matters the most to your business. Set yearly and quarterly company and departmental goals, from which individual objectives are created.

3. Avoid common metrics pitfalls – I’ve learned from past mistakes that metrics must be extremely clear. A broad goal like “provide better customer support this quarter” can leave everyone, at the end of the quarter, with very different ideas on whether or not that goal was met since there were so specific metrics tied to it. Other common pitfalls avoid include:

  • Metrics with inaccurate or incomplete data
  • Metrics that are complex and difficult to explain
  • Metrics that complicate operations and create excessive overhead
  • Metrics that cause employees to not act in the best interest of the company

In brief, metrics should be so clear that an outside person could come in at the end of the quarter and check whether the objectives have been met.

4. Invest in tools that deliver real-time feedback – To make metrics really effective, you need real-time feedback. Whenever possible, invest in measurement tools that put your metrics at your fingertips. Today’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications make it easier than ever to quickly and frequently pull data that provides measurement against objectives. You might use Salesforce reports to track sales activities and leads. Or HubSpot for Website rankings and inbound site links. QuickBooks, Excel and other office applications you’re already using can be set up to collect and analyze current data.

Whatever measurement tools you use, be sure to connect and automate them as much as possible so you don’t spend all your time on number-gathering. At Axcient, some programming from our engineers and in-house Salesforce experts allows us to feed numbers and charts from more than a dozen measurement tools into “Departmental Dashboards.” Using the dashboards, management is able to quickly view the status of every group in the organizational weekly meetings.

5. Share metrics with employees – One of the most important and often missed reasons to track metrics is cultural. At Axcient they share metrics and results not only with management, but with every employee. At all-hands meetings, they go through slides that Axcient shares with the board of directors. A large screen in the common area shows weekly highlights – and challenges. Maintaining transparency and celebrating big wins leads to a culture of success, where everyone is on the same page and motivated toward unified goals.

6. Remember that accountability starts at the top – Business leaders don’t always recognize how closely employees will follow their example. But if you want your workers to take goal-setting seriously, you should be prepared to share your own goals – as well as how you came out on delivering on them at the end of the quarter. Such transparency shows your team that you are in the trenches with them, making every effort to achieve what you set out to do – even if your targets were off.

7. Continually question, reevaluate, and refine – Keep in mind that you will need to reevaluate and adjust your metrics as your business priorities change. Every week, month, and quarter is a new opportunity to test and refine your ability to set and track metrics that will drive growth. When you invest time and thought into setting, monitoring, sharing, and refining your metrics, you’ll be amazed at how much more in tune you are to the state of your business, and how much more easily you can make the critical decisions that can catapult your business’ success.


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6 Ways to Stay on Top of Social Media

To be successful in social media and community management you need to keep track of the constant changes to that ecosystem. That’s because everything you know about Facebook, Twitter, and other social spaces today will somehow be different in six months. Layouts will be altered, features will be added or removed, and new social networks may pop up.

So how should you keep track of all these moving parts? Here are six tips for staying on top of social media.

1. Blogs – There are hundreds of blogs focused on social media. Keep it simple by signing up to RSS feeds and spend twenty minutes every morning catching up on your social media news. Stick to blogs that are updated daily and focus on providing content in social media and technology.

Consider adding these blogs to your RSS feed to get started: SocialTimes, Social Media Examiner, TechCrunch, and SocialMediaToday.

2. Webinars – Webinars are often offered by agencies and make for good social media resources. You can find webinars by searching on Twitter or registering on directories that list the week’s webinars. You can also attend paid webinars that go beyond the basics. In either case, you can find a good starter list at webinarlistings.com.

3. Trending Topics – Yes, reading your blogs in the morning is effective but information travels fast so pay attention to what’s trending on Twitter, too. First, make sure that you check your Twitter trend settings. Certain settings will spit out tailored trends, which you should probably avoid.

Also, if you don’t understand why a certain word or phrase is trending you can check out whatthetrend.com for explanations.

4. Newsletters – Not all newsletters are spam. Some are actually worth signing up for. If you’re OK with getting a daily newsletter, check out SmartBrief. If you prefer a weekly roundup then take a look at SocialFresh. These newsletters curate the best social media content from the web and create original highly informative articles as well.

5. Meetups and Tweetups – Whether in person at a meetup or virtually at a tweetup, chatting with like-minded individuals will keep you on your toes, help you predict what’s coming next, and teach you new things about how others are behaving in social media. To find a group of social media fanatics near you check out Meetup.com.

6. Training and Certification – If you are serious about educating yourself in the social space you may consider signing up for a training program or certification course. Whether you are looking for a six-week crash course or an ongoing education program, resources are available. To start, you can check out WOMM-COM and HootSuiteU.


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The social side of strategy: crowdsourcing your organization and process

Crowdsourcing your strategy may sound crazy. But a few pioneering companies are starting to do just that, boosting organizational alignment in the process. Should you join them?

In 2009, Wikimedia launched a special wiki—one dedicated to the organization’s own strategy. Over the next two years, more than 1,000 volunteers generated some 900 proposals for the company’s future direction and then categorized, rationalized, and formed task forces to elaborate on them. The result was a coherent strategic plan detailing a set of beliefs, priorities, and related commitments that together engendered among participants a deep sense of dedication to Wikimedia’s future. Through the launch of several special projects and the continued work of self-organizing teams dedicated to specific proposals, the vision laid out in the strategic plan is now unfolding.

Wikimedia’s effort to crowdsource its strategy probably sounds like an outlier—after all, the company’s very existence rests on collaborative content creation. Yet over the past few years, a growing number of organizations have begun experimenting with opening up their strategy processes to constituents who were previously frozen out of strategic direction setting. Examples include 3M, Dutch insurer AEGON, global IT services provider HCL Technologies, Red Hat (the leading provider of Linux software), and defense contractor Rite-Solutions.

While such efforts are at different stages, executives at organizations that are experimenting with more participatory modes of strategy development cite two major benefits. One is improving the quality of strategy by pulling in diverse and detailed frontline perspectives that are typically overlooked but can make the resulting plans more insightful and actionable. The second is building enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction—a critical component of long-term organizational health, effective execution, and strong financial performance that is all too rare, according to research we and our colleagues in McKinsey’s organization practice have conducted.

Our objective in this article isn’t to present a definitive road map for opening up the strategy process; it’s simply too early for one to exist. We’d also be the first to acknowledge that for most organizations, “social” strategy setting represents a significant departure from the status quo and should be experimented with carefully—whether that means trying it out in a few areas or creating meaningful opportunities for participation in the context of a more traditional strategy process. (For more on intelligent experimentation, see sidebar, “Collaborative strategic planning: Three observations.”) Nonetheless, we hope that by sketching a picture of some management innovations under way, we will stir the thinking of senior executives eager to benefit from experimenting with such approaches. If you’ve ever wondered how to inject more diversity and expertise into your strategy process, to get leaders closer to the operational implications of their decisions, or to avoid the experience-based biases and orthodoxies that inevitably creep into small groups at the top, it may be time to try shaking things up.

Lessons from the fringe

The best way to describe the possibilities of community-based strategy approaches is to show them in action. Two examples demonstrate the lengths to which some companies have already gone in broadening their strategy processes, as well as the degree to which the executives who participated are convinced of the benefits.

Rethinking planning at HCL Technologies

HCL Technologies, the Indian IT services and software-development company, had enjoyed rapid growth since its founding, in 1998. With growth, however, the company’s business-planning process had become unwieldy. Vineet Nayar, HCL’s chairman and CEO, along with his top team, were providing input to hundreds of business unit–level plans each year. Nayar realized that he and his team had neither the expertise nor the time to deliver all the detailed feedback that each business plan deserved, so he challenged his colleagues to use three key principles to revamp the planning process: make peer review a core component of strategy evaluation, create radical transparency across units, and open up the conversation to large cross-sections of the company.

The solution was to turn the company’s existing business-planning process—a live meeting called Blueprint, which involved a few hundred top executives—into an online platform open to thousands of people. The new process, dubbed My Blueprint, was launched in 2009, with 300 HCL managers posting their business plans, each coupled with an audio presentation. More than 8,000 employees (including several members of the teams that had submitted plans) were then invited to review and provide input on the individual blueprints. A surge of advice followed. The inclusive nature of the process helped identify specific ideas for cross-unit collaboration and gave business leaders a chance to obtain detailed and actionable feedback from interested individuals across the company.

This exercise quickly began yielding business results. One HCL executive we spoke with credited the new process with a fivefold increase in sales to an important client over two years. The key, the executive explained, was the detailed comments—from more than 25 colleagues, ranging from junior finance professionals to software engineers—that together highlighted the need to reframe the business plan away from an emphasis on commoditized application support and toward a handful of new services where HCL had the edge over larger competitors. The employees provided more than good ideas: several even helped assemble the materials the executive needed to deliver the successful proposal.

The high degree of transparency increased the quality of insights, not just their volume. As Nayar notes, “Because the managers knew that the plans would be reviewed by a large number of people, including their own teams, the depth of their business analysis and the quality of their planned strategy improved. They were more honest in their assessment of current challenges and opportunities. They talked less about what they hoped to accomplish and more about the actions they intended to take to achieve specific results.” At the conclusion of the inaugural My Blueprint process, there was broad consensus that participatory business planning had been far more valuable than the traditional top-down review process.

Red Hat’s new road map

Red Hat is the leading provider of open-source software. In 2008, its leadership team began taking a new approach to strategy development. After defining an initial set of priorities for exploration, Red Hat’s leaders formed teams devoted to each priority. To boost the odds they would stretch toward new solutions, the company ensured that the team leaders—all members of the company’s C-suite—were far removed from their areas of responsibility. The company’s chief people officer, for example, was tasked with analyzing its financial model, while the CFO explored potential operational enhancements.

The teams used wikis and other online tools to generate and organize ideas and made these “open” so that any Red Hat employee could respond with comments or suggestions. The idea generation phase lasted five months and included company-wide updates and online chats with the CEO. Over that period, the best ideas coalesced into nine strategic priorities.

To ensure accountability for developing the priorities further and for making them actionable, the company tasked a new group of executives to lead teams exploring each of the nine areas. These leaders were senior functional ones whose responsibilities put them a level or two below the C-suite. Each of their teams fleshed out one or two of the most important strategic initiatives and was empowered to execute the plans for them without further approvals.

This effort has reshaped the way Red Hat conducts strategic planning. Instead of refreshing strategy yearly on a fixed calendar, the company now updates and evaluates strategy on an ongoing basis. Initiative leaders use customized mailing lists and other tools to receive input continuously from employees and communicate back to them via town hall–style meetings, Internet chat sessions, and frequent blog posts. The company maintains its annual budget process, which is informed by the evolving funding needs of the initiatives.

The fresh perspectives generated by the new planning process have been instrumental in spurring value-creating shifts in the company’s direction. For example, a respected Red Hat engineer used the new process to make the case for a significant change in the way the company offers virtualization services for enterprise data centers and desktop computer applications. The changes led to the acquisition of an external technology provider—a move that would have been unlikely in the days when the company used its old, less inclusive planning process.

Red Hat’s vice president of strategy and corporate marketing, Jackie Yeaney, cites three key benefits of the company’s new approach: first, the process generated “more creativity, accountability, and commitment.” Second, “By not bubbling every decision up to the senior-executive level, we avoided the typical 50,000-foot oversimplification” of issues. And third, “We improved the flexibility and adaptability of the strategy.” With the responsibility for planning and execution now in the hands of the same people doing the work, responsiveness to new opportunities or shifts in the market has increased dramatically.

Closer to home

Some leaders may wonder about borrowing approaches from Red Hat, Wikimedia, or other companies that consider crowdsourcing a part of their institutional DNA (and for which confidentiality issues may be less pressing than they are for many organizations). For these executives, we would note the experiments of more traditional companies, such as 3M, AEGON, and Rite-Solutions. A look at how these organizations are introducing a social side to strategy can help senior executives determine how much further they want to go in their own companies.

Market-based strategy at Rite-Solutions

One way of experimenting with more open strategic direction setting is to create internal markets where legacy programs and new perspectives compete on an equal footing for talent and cash. Rite-Solutions, a Rhode Island–based software provider for the US Navy, defense contractors, and first responders (such as fire departments), is pioneering a game-based strategy process whose foundation is an internal stock exchange it calls Mutual Fun.

Would-be entrepreneurs at Rite-Solutions can launch “IPOs” by preparing an Expect-Us (rather than a prospectus)—a document that outlines the value creation potential of the new idea—as well as a Budge-It list that articulates the short-term steps needed to move the idea forward. Each new stock debuts at $10, and every employee gets $10,000 in play money to invest in the virtual idea market and thereby establish a personal intellectual portfolio. The money flows to ideas that are attracting volunteer effort and moving steadily from germination toward commercialization. A value algorithm revalues each stock, based on the number of Budge-It items completed, inflows and outflows of employee money, and opinions about the stocks expressed in an online discussion board. When an IPO gains momentum and breaks into the company’s Top 20, the initiative is funded with seed money; more is awarded depending on the ability to meet various stage gate milestones. What’s more, when ideas help Rite-Solutions make or save money, those who have invested intellectual capital and contributed to the idea’s realization receive a share of the benefits through bonuses or real stock options.

The internal market for ideas has bolstered the company’s pipeline of new products, and the 15 ideas the company has thus far launched as a result now account for one-fifth of Rite-Solutions’ revenues. Some of the blockbusters were generated in unexpected places—including Win/Play/Learn, a Web-based educational tool licensed by toy maker Hasbro. The source of the idea: an administrative assistant.4
Improving market analysis at 3M

In April 2009, 3M decided to reinvigorate its Markets of the Future process—a critical input to the company’s strategic planning. Previously, says Barry Dayton, the company’s knowledge-management strategist, this process had “consisted of a small group of analysts doing research [about] megatrends and resulting markets of the future.”5 The company invited all of its sales, marketing, and R&D employees to a Web-based forum called InnovationLive, which over a two-week period attracted more than 1,200 participants from over 40 countries and generated more than 700 ideas. The end result was the identification of nine new future markets with an aggregate revenue potential in the tens of billions of dollars. Since then, 3M has held several additional InnovationLive events, and more are on the way.

The alignment advantage

Spend a few minutes talking with the senior executives involved in any of the initiatives described earlier, and it’s immediately apparent how powerful it is when thousands of people are deeply engaged with a company’s strategy. Those employees not only understand the strategy better but are also more motivated to help execute it effectively and more likely to spot emerging opportunities or threats that require quick adjustments.

Reviewing the data

Research we’ve conducted using McKinsey’s organizational-health index database suggests that none of this should be surprising. That database, which contains the results of surveys collected over more than a decade from upward of 765,000 employees at some 600 companies, facilitates analysis of the nature of organizational health, the factors contributing to it, and its relationship with financial performance. One thing we and our colleagues have seen over and over again through our work is that many organizations struggle with strategic alignment: even at the healthiest companies, about 25 percent of employees are unclear about their company’s direction. That figure rises to nearly 60 percent for companies with poor organizational-health scores.6

Similarly, we’ve found that the actions companies can take that are most helpful in aligning individuals with the organization’s direction are moves like “making the vision meaningful to employees at a personal level” and “soliciting employee involvement in setting the company’s direction.” If that’s right, it suggests that making more employees part of the strategy process should be a powerful means of aligning them more closely with the company’s overall direction. The payoff for such cohesion is significant: companies with a top-quartile score in directional alignment are twice as likely as others to have above-median financial performance.

Mobilizing middle management

Of course, adopting social-strategy tools doesn’t automatically create alignment. Companies must create it actively, particularly among middle managers, who as the guardians of everyday operations bear the brunt of making any company’s strategy work.

One airline saw its efforts to mobilize the workforce impaired by the silent noncooperation of middle management in several departments. Closer inspection revealed that middle managers didn’t disagree with the discussion that was under way but felt they deserved a bigger voice in it—and should have been included earlier. They also felt uneasy with the level of transparency in a dialogue involving some 2,000 people, accustomed as they were to managing on a need-to-know basis.

The Dutch insurer AEGON sidestepped problems such as these by breaking its strategy discussion into manageable topics related to everyday operational practices. That allowed middle managers to assume responsibility for the discussion and contribute their expertise. In the words of Marco Keim, CEO of AEGON The Netherlands, “We started a digital-networking platform called AEGON Square and got the conversation going. People gathered in communities of practice and started sharing ideas on how to make the new strategy work. Dialogue really helped in fostering organization-wide alignment.”

Ultimately, middle managers were among the effort’s most enthusiastic supporters—both as contributors themselves and as active recruiters of participants. (In the end, 3,000 employees, 85 percent of the total, participated over 12 months.) Keim acknowledged, though, that building this alignment required a significant cultural change toward more openness, which took time to take hold and required regular reaffirmation by senior executives.

The evolution of strategic leadership

It takes courage to bring more people and ideas into strategic direction setting. Senior executives who launch such initiatives are essentially using their positional authority to distribute power. They’re also embracing the underlying principles—transparency, radical inclusion, egalitarianism, and peer review—of the Web-based social technologies that make it possible to open up direction setting.

Taking these principles to their logical conclusion suggests a shift in the strategic-leadership role of the CEO and other members of the C-suite: from “all-knowing decision makers,” who are expected to know everything and tell others what to do, to “social architects,” who spend a lot of time thinking about how to create the processes and incentives that unearth the best thinking and unleash the full potential of all who work at a company. Making this shift doesn’t imply an abdication of strategic leadership. The CEO and other top executives still have the right—indeed, the responsibility—to step in if things go awry, and of course they continue to be responsible for making the difficult trade-offs that are the essence of good strategy.

But it also may be increasingly important for strategists to lead in different ways. For example, to convey the message that the contribution of employees is of vital importance, top executives should constantly confirm that it is and set the example themselves. This approach requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows. For a mass digital dialogue to succeed, people need to express themselves openly, which may leave some participants feeling exposed. Leaders can help by demonstrating vulnerability as well—peeling off the layers of formal composure.

Another important element of social-strategy leadership is honestly assessing the readiness of the organization to open up and, in light of that, determining the best way to stimulate engagement. This sounds simple, but overlooking it can be costly. As part of a new strategy dialogue, the leaders of one mutual insurance company enthusiastically called upon its workforce to share reflections on an innovative, soon-to-be-launched life insurance product. Despite the leaders’ expectation that the open call would generate a torrent of endorsements, it was met with a deafening silence. Closer inspection revealed that people were acutely aware of the strategic importance that senior management attached to this innovation. And nobody wanted to wreck the party by openly sharing the prevailing doubts, which were widespread. The doubts proved well founded: within a few months of being launched, the new product was declared a failure and shelved.

This cautionary tale points to a final element of strategic leadership: figuring out ways to encourage dissenting voices. Enabling employees to communicate through ambient signals instead of relying on words and elaborated opinions is an effective way to lower the threshold and still catch the prevailing mood. Familiar examples of ambient dialogue include polls, “liking,” and voting—simple functions that allow participants to express an opinion without being exposed. More powerful and sophisticated forms of ambient dialogue include prediction markets (small-scale electronic markets that tie payoffs to measurable future events) and swarming (the visually aggregated representation of the emergent mood or motion within an organization).

Consider how a prediction market might have helped the mutual insurer. The opening market quotation for the new life insurance product would probably have taken a steep dive, revealing the negative assessment of the internal market. This would have immediately alerted managers to potential weaknesses, without exposing the employees who had the courage to reveal the problems.

While these are still early days for social strategy, its potential to enhance the quality of dialogue, improve decision making, and boost organizational alignment is alluring. Realizing that potential will require strategic leaders to flex new muscles and display real courage.


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