BOSTON -- In five years, employees will be running much of the show at many companies, and executives should plan to get out of their way as much as possible.
That's the message Sara Roberts, president and CEO of Roberts Golden Consulting, told an audience at the annual Enterprise 2.0 conference here on Wednesday.
In an interview prior to her keynote speech, Roberts said that enterprises are facing a sea change, as important daily decisions are increasingly made by non-executive workers taking advantage of emerging Enterprise 2.0 tools that provide direct access to important information and key corporate contacts.
"When I say, 'Employees will be running your enterprise in five years,' I'm sure a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, come on. That's a bit of a stretch.' Actually, five years is [a conservative estimate]," Roberts told Computerworld.
"Employees are running a lot of enterprises now, she said. "The old way of managing has cracks and fissures."
Depending on the situation, it could take three, five or even 15 years for corporate managers to realize that the traditional corporate hierarchy no longer works, as younger, tech-savvy workers increasingly call for and use enterprise-level social collaboration tools.
"People think things have changed because of the economic downturn," and they're asking, "When are we getting back to normal?" Roberts said. "There's going to be a new normal -- we just need to get out of employees' way. We're going to have to equip employees to make decisions every single day so we can move quickly."
Roberts did stress that she's not advocating for leaderless companies. Instead, managers should create ways for employees to push through an operational shortcut or jump on a competitive advantage when they see it.
"Employees are no longer sitting back," Roberts noted. "We have to recognize that employees are resourceful and collaborative, and that they will do what they need to do to get a job done. This is the first time in our history that we have communications technology that can make a big company feel small, [offering] the human benefits of small companies that can help encourage creativity and collaboration."
Roberts told the story of a Fortune 100 retailer with a big, extensive bureaucracy that in the past required workers to seek out managers for information to help them make decisions.
Today, employees at that company use social networking software to query multiple colleagues, which can allow them to, for example, quickly find out who's the distributor for a product or to get a list of best practices for a particular problem.
"They're taking matters into their own hands to extend out from their peer group," said Roberts. "These tools enable them to go get information quickly and then act on their own."
Roberts noted that Generation Y workers are entering the corporate world with a very different digital background than even recent predecessors and thus have a whole new set of expectations.
Since Gen Y grew up using the Internet to share information on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, they expect to use social-based software on the job to connect with anyone in the company, whether it's a member of a project team or a senior executive six rungs up the corporate ladder.
"We have to recognize that they're born of a different generation. Some of these attributes shouldn't be squashed," said Roberts. "Social tools are ingrained in what they do. They expect to feel and work like they are part of a corporate community. Enterprise 2.0 tools help do that."
While empowered employees can be more productive, some more old-fashioned executives are giving this trend some real pushback.
Those managers, said Roberts, believe that the new employees don't seem to "know their place" or are "overstepping" when they seek to communicate ideas directly to top management.
Such executives aren't yet collaboration-ready, and they will need help to get over their fears so their companies can open up the social spigot to more productivity and business flexibility.
To ensure that the process can move smoothly, companies should come up with a plan before deploying social networking tools, Roberts suggested.
"They need to understand what a collaborative organization really looks like. They need to give an appropriate amount of resources and attention to changing the way they were doing things in the past," she added.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.