Learning from Twitter?

It seems like we are daily (even hourly) hearing stories about the turmoil at Twitter. As I write this, one of the more recent (and revealing) stories is about workers being fired via tweet. I have to admit that I don’t know all the details but this sounds like a classic example of what we used to call “the low-road strategy.” (The low-road strategy sees workers as a cost to be managed; the so-call “high road” strategy treats workers as an asset to be cultivated. For an example of a company taking the “low road,” see my old posting on Circuit City.)

The downside of such a strategy should be obvious. As a commentator in a recent story on NPR noted:

“Creating an environment where workers are afraid to flag problems with the product for fear that they’ll be fired by tweet in the middle of night is not going to encourage people to want to work there,” Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, said. “It’s not going to encourage those who are there to want to give their all to the job or to raise questions about whether there’s a better way that something could be done.”

In other words, it is directly opposite the way that a dynamic, resilient company should be run (for example Toyota). As I noted in an earlier posting, the top-down command-and-control model of management is firmly engrained in the U.S. economy. The debate over Theory X (top-down control) versus Theory Y (worker engagement) is many decades old, as are descriptions of high-performance work organizations. It seems to me that the best we can do is continue to point out a simple truth: workers matter.

Interesting, just last week articles in two major business/management publications have addressed the issue. In his article in the Harvard Business Review “CEOs Have Lost Touch with Frontline Workers,” Bill George (former CEO of Medtronic) calls for increased CEO contact with front-line workers. He notes that such contacts help both the CEO and the workers:

“First, because paying more attention to frontline workers brings critical motivational benefits. In Medtronic’s R&D labs I got many valuable ideas for new products and new medical therapies. In visits to its factories I realized that it was the assembly workers — not the quality department — who made the difference in the quality of our products. Second, my time with customers taught me about the company’s product challenges and demonstrated the value of our frontline technical sales and service people.

That time helped me be a better CEO, both because I learned what I needed to do to support our employees and because my decision-making was infused with firsthand understanding of our customers and operations.”

He argues that the payoff to the company’s bottom-line is clear: “Companies can benefit through improved employee engagement, reduced turnover, and increased customer satisfaction — which in turn will power revenue growth and higher levels of profit.”

The second article is from INSEAD Knowledge: “The Really Simple Steps to Creating an Innovation Engine.” INSEAD Professor Ben Bebsaou argues that frontline workers are a key source of innovation as they are in the best position to listen to customers and non-customers. This is especially important in listening to silent customers – those who are not telling you what is wrong or how to make things better.

It is clear that a couple of articles by academics isn’t going to light a fire under the seats of those in the C-Suites. But watching the turmoil at Twitter may give some business executives an incentive to see if there isn’t a better way. In looking around, they may just find that there are ways they can make that old trope “our people are our most important asset” a reality rather than simply rhetoric.

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