Zappos, Nestle, Social Media and How All Workers Are Knowledge Workers

I just read a brilliant and inspirational blog post on the Harvard Business Review site entitled, "Are All Employees Knowledge Workers?"  The authors, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, explore the "artificial distinction" that businesses create in their workforce between the haves (so-called "high potentials," creative talent, and knowledge workers) and the have nots (everyone else).  The writers suggest we need "to redefine all jobs, especially those performed at the front line (or, in an image, that reveals our prevalent management mindset, the 'bottom' of the institutional pyramid), in ways that facilitate problem solving, experimentation, and tinkering."

Early in the Web 1.0 era, companies asked what the Web could do for them.  It was the wrong question, because soon the Web was doing something to them--changing consumer expectations, forcing investments in technology, altering the way companies recruit, disrupting sales channels, changing company culture and breaking old models of the employee-employer dynamic.  (Remember when communicating with a boss at a certain level used to mean asking his secretary for time on his calendar rather than a real-time dialog via email or IM?  I do.)

Today companies are asking what Social Media can do for them, and while it can do much for marketers, the more interesting question is what Social Media is going to do to organizations.  Not long ago, no letters, memos, collateral material, advertising or support documentation were distributed outside the organization without levels of review and approval.  Today, a single employee can speak to tens of thousands of partners, customers and prospects in real-time without supervision, approval, or moderation. 

If you still don't think your front-line (or "bottom of the pyramid") employees have big voices and a big impact on your organization's reputation, take note of how one individual at Nestle turned a modest problem into a significant PR crisis.  Facing Greenpeace-sparked protests on the Nestle Facebook page, the administrator's annoyed and sarcastic tone only incited more attention and protests. 

Every employee matters because every employee is a knowledge worker. That is the legacy that Social Media will leave with business.  Whether it's a great McDonald's drive-thru employee whose enthusiasm and care results in a fan page or an intern who creates a PR disaster by spamming tweets, every employee can spark social media buzz, every employee is a knowledge worker, and every employee matters.

The companies that get this will win.  The companies that hesitate will find themselves at a disadvantage.  Social media success doesn't start with a strategy;  it doesn't even start with an understanding of the audience.  Social media success starts with company culture. 

Executives study Zappos' success looking for policies and procedures to emulate, but how many of those executives are willing to add to their core values ideas like "Create Fun and A Little Weirdness" and "Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded"?  How many are willing to allow employees to tear up the floors of meeting rooms in order to create a better work environment?  How many will pay new employees $2,000 to quit?  And how many CEOs are willing to tweet, "Breaking news: After an intensive manhunt lasting 30 years, police have finally arrested Video for killing the Radio Star"?   ("Delivering Happiness," the new book by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, will be a must read for anyone seeking to replicate a portion of Zappos' magic.)

Zappos success didn't start with policies and procedures. It didn't even start with their brand, business model or social media.  It began with corporate culture and people.  As the HBR post states, success will come when "even the most unskilled worker will be viewed as a critical problem solver and knowledge worker contributing to performance improvement."

 And that is what social media will do both to and for your organization over the coming years.


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Corporate Culture

Excellent post Augie.

Many companies will pretend that if they don't participate in Social Media, it won't have any effect on their business. They don't realize that conversations are already happening.

Still others assume that if they just put some savvy social media intern in charge of things that they won't have to worry about it. Obviously disasters happen with that tactic as well...

When it comes down to it, the culture of a company is what really makes Social Media work, not merely having a presence. There needs to be more of a focus on weeding out the stifling, bureaucratic culture of old school business and replace it with creativity and open-mindedness.

Thanks Nate, while I agree

Thanks Nate, while I agree with you, I must in fairness to highly regulated industries point out that some organizations still need their "stifling, bureaucratic culture of old school business" (or some portion of it). Highly regulated industries need to embrace more transparency in a slow fashion to avoid missteps. So, not everyone can be Zappos. But many organizations can if they try hard enough!

The problem is that some companies adopt a single idea they get from Zappos rather than seeing that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. You can't see a forest and want to duplicate it back home by planting a single tree!

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate the input!

Reactionary thoughts on corporate culture and SM

I thought your blog post was better than the HBR post that inspired it.

First, "Remember when communicating with a boss at a certain level used to mean asking his secretary for time on his calendar rather than a real-time dialog via email or IM? I do." I do too. I miss those times, and I'm speaking as a 50-year-old line employee, not as a manager. On the whole, I think that productivity, corporate culture, and even corporate morale benefited from the structure, order, and process that chains of command entailed.

Second, whenever I've encountered the belief that "everyone is a knowledge worker," I've usually thought, "What about the guy who fixes my car?" By which I meant, he's not sitting in front of a computer in an ivory tower all day, thinking and blogging and interacting with co-workers and customers over the Internet. He actually works for a living.

But I hadn't thought of "knowlege worker" in the context of someone like "Mary" at McDonald's inspiring a fan page on Facebook. And specifically about auto mechanics, my wife's cousin runs the local body shop, and he makes excellent use of Facebook to promote his business, its work, and its employees. Perhaps social media is the potential catalyst for finally turning any traditionally front-line worker into a knowledge worker.


Thanks for the interesting comments, Frank.

It's funny--maybe the definition of Knowledge Worker just needs to be redefined. You mentioned your mechanic, and it reminded me of a story from long, long ago.

When I was a kid, my dad got a brand-spanking new car and we immediately went on a long driving vacation from Milwaukee to Quebec. One morning, in the heart of Quebec, our car wouldn't start. So, we called the local mechanic, got towed to the garage, and watched as several workers poked around under the hood with quizzical looks on their faces. Problem was, they'd never seen electronic ignition before! The repair took a long time while the mechanics figured out technology that was new to them.

So yes, I suppose mechanics are knowledge workers. I imagine cars, engines, and auto systems change a lot over time, and mechanics' abilities to remain relevant and provide services depends on their willingness and capability to be a Knowledge Worker.

Of course, that doesn't mean everyone is a marketer, but with social media everyone can affect (positively or negatively) a brand. That's how I think of Knowledge Workers.

I'm glad you found the blog post interesting and took the time to share your thoughts. Thanks for sharing the perceptions.