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From Human Resources to Human WE-sources

February 19, 2009

How often do you quantify and reflect upon your personal philosophy? My guess is not very often. Most of us are too busy living life to think much about why we are living it the way we are. The irony of course is that in failing to consider and proactively define our core philosophy and principles, we often fail to lead the lives we can and *should* be living. In the absence of philosophy, we’re able to believe in many things, a number of which may be contradictory.

We see this in politics all the time: Republicans tell us we can have the freedom to make decisions about our own money, but not moral or interpersonal freedom. Democrats espouse the opposite opinion: be free morally and interpersonally, but not monetarily. Yet, if either party really believes in freedom as a concept, then it’s valuable of its own merit and therefore should pervade all aspects of their platform, not select planks.

Unfortunately, both political parties are really more about what they want to control than they are about what they want to be free. Republicans want to control our morality and Democrats want to control our wallets. So each election it really comes down to a matter of choice between which freedoms matter less to the voters at that time. Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that the country seems deadlocked each election cycle.
Businesses are now facing a similar challenge. As Web 2.0 technologies and social networking solutions have begun to permeate the workplace, we are beginning to see these same battle lines forming. Traditional management structure is about hierarchy and control. It’s also a complete throwback to a manufacturing era when people were just cogs in an assembly process and management truly represented a central source of expertise.

Today’s economy is quite different. We have long since evolved from a manufacturing economy. We’ve also now evolved beyond the knowledge economy. We are now in a WE economy where the most successful companies are the ones who have learned to tap the collective wisdom of their employees, partners, customers, and even the public at large. We are in an era where openness and transparency leads to greater success rather than greater risk. Where the connections between people matter more than intellectual property.

This transformation has been coming for some time. Traditional hierarchical management models didn’t really work for the knowledge economy of the 80’s and 90’s; hence all the books and focus on learning and workforce improvement. For the last decade, we have been ceaselessly trying to improve our employees through training and TQM and this process and that process.

The basic premise went something like this: if we are in a knowledge economy, then the more knowledge we cram into workers’ heads, the better. Never mind that we never asked them what they needed or what they knew already. We just needed them to know what we thought was relevant. Companies were still focused on what was good for the company, instead of what was good for the employees. What was good for ME vs what was good for WE.

As bad as this fit was, the real pain is emerging now. A traditional management model layered on a knowledge economy? Painful, but workable. But a traditional management model layered on a WE economy? Ouch. Traditional management is about control, hierarchical structures, hierarchical decisions, information partitioning, expertise from above… We’ll tell you what you need to know. In short, it’s about ME, not WE.

But now some savvy companies, like Procter & Gamble, Dell, Gold Corp., Intel, Cisco, Whole Foods, just to name a few, are starting to see that this model doesn’t work in a WE economy. And all of them are seeing phenomenal results. When the economy and corporate valuations are driven by intellectual capital, innovation, expertise, and knowledge, traditional management models are worse than useless – they are actually an impediment to real sharing, real collaboration, and real connections, in other words, the very drivers of the new economy. What we need is a transformation of management and corporate culture that will reflect what WE need. The longer we wait, the more sparks are going to fly.

Some of these sparks are going to be generational:

  • Millennials who blog about company plans and then run afoul of HR or legal boundaries
  • Millennials who bounce innovation ideas off of their own personal inner circle (who may not even work at the company) and annoy the hell out of their direct supervisor who may not be included
  • Millennials who look for feedback from their peers and co-workers to a greater extent than their “boss”
  • Millennials who store files on external systems like Box.net to avoid email limitations or file type restrictions and who thus violate all sorts of IT rules

But many of these sparks will come from the friction between those who understand the enormity of this cultural shift and those who are still wondering where their cheese went:

  • Internal leaders who work toward consensus vs those who make decisions unilaterally
  • HR teams that rely on 360 degree reviews vs manager-driven reviews
  • Managers who actively seek out feedback and conversation with co-workers vs those who try to control and shape the discourse
  • Executive teams who care about the Voice of the Employee vs those who think the “customer is always right…”
  • Peer-to-peer and user-generated content models vs subject matter experts and trainers who want to “control” learning
  • Sales people, customer support, and marketing that is authentic and real vs colleagues who want to deliver highly messaged and artificial communication
  • Leaders who are comfortable presenting something that is not fully baked in effort to spur discussion or socialize a concept vs those who polish the message and delivery before it goes to others
  • Managers and leaders who are comfortable operating in a world of creative chaos vs antiseptic org charts that reflect nothing of how real work gets done

These distinctions lead us back to philosophy. There is no doubt that we are now fully immersed in a WE economy. The valuations of Google, Amazon, and Facebook are sufficient validation by themselves. These are all WE companies.

So the question is not whether WE is here. The question is why are we still managing our companies as if we’re in the 1950’s? And more importantly: how do we rethink corporate structures and cultures to reflect our new socioeconomic model? The answer is to define our core philosophy and core beliefs. And the basic question is: are we a ME company which fundamentally believes that expertise and authority derives from an “anointed few” or are we a WE company which fundamentally believes that expertise and authority derives from the collective many? Is the model: “I think therefore I am” or “WE think therefore WE should…”
These are hard questions to wrestle with and there are many barriers in the way of this change, not least of which is entrenched management practices and the impending collapse of fiefdoms. But this is a debate that is inevitable, if only because the companies that “get it” will force the adaptation in those that don’t. Companies must realign their business to remain competitive. First, the articulation of a WE philosophy; second the development of WE-based core values; third, the rigorous and sometimes painful adherence to these values even when we are tempted to fall back on bad habits. How might a WE philosophy be articulated as Core Values in HR? Check out this excerpt from Whole Foods. The title of this page on their site is Our Core Values. This section is about their people. I bolded some key phrases that sound really WE-ish, (which was really hard since this whole section is a manifesto on how this should be done):
Supporting Team Member Excellence and Happiness

Empowering Work Environments
Our success is dependent upon the collective energy and intelligence of all of our Team Members. We strive to create a work environment where motivated Team Members can flourish and succeed to their highest potential. We appreciate effort and reward results.

Self-Responsibility
We take responsibility for our own success and failures. We celebrate success and see failures as opportunities for growth. We recognize that we are responsible for our own happiness and success.

Self-Directed Teams
The fundamental work unit of the company is the self- directed Team. Teams meet regularly to discuss issues, solve problems and appreciate each others’ contributions. Every Team Member belongs to a Team.

Open & Timely Information
We believe knowledge is power and we support our Team Members’ right to access information that impacts their jobs. Our books are open to our Team Members, including our annual individual compensation report. We also recognize everyone’s right to be listened to and heard regardless of their point of view.

Incremental Progress
Our company continually improves through unleashing the collective creativity and intelligence of all of our Team Members. We recognize that everyone has a contribution to make. We keep getting better at what we do.

Shared Fate
We recognize there is a community of interest among all of our stakeholders. There are no entitlements; we share together in our collective fate. To that end we have a salary cap that limits the compensation (wages plus profit incentive bonuses) of any Team Member to nineteen times the average total compensation of all full-time Team Members in the company.
Good stuff right? This is how a WE company defines itself and its commitment to its employees. And in case you are wondering, Whole Foods is now ranked #5 among the Best Companies to Work For in the US. This is now their 10th consecutive year in the top 100, which makes them just one of 18 companies to make the cut every year since the list’s inception. As you might imagine, success has followed:

  • Revenues now exceed $5.6 billion.
  • Whole Foods was named ‘World’s Greatest Food Retailer’ by the British trade magazine The Grocer in 2006.
  • Supermarket News ranked Whole Foods No. 23 in the 2007 “Top 75 North American Food Retailers.”
  • Whole Foods was included in Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine’s annual “100 Best Corporate Citizens” list for 2007, ranking No. 54 out of 1,100 U.S. public companies surveyed.
  • In the 2006 Harris Interactive/The Wall Street Journal ranking of the world’s best and worst corporate reputations, Whole Foods placed 12th overall and received the best score of any company for social responsibility.

So how does your company stack up? Are you a WE company, realizing WE benefits? Mine’s still getting there. We’re still in that stage where the sparks are flying. But we’re working through it and struggling at all levels to cross the chasm from ME to WE. We’ll get there, and I think sooner rather than later, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s going to be easy. It requires a commitment to a core philosophy and a willingness to see it through to real actions and practices. But it’s worth the effort. As we can see from the Whole Foods story, when it’s done right, it can catapult a company to greatness.

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