Opinion by Thornton May

The digital dissidents

How do organizations cope when any single super-empowered person can carry out far-reaching sabotage?

Opinion by Thornton May

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Most businesses today are thinking about digital disruption. Either they are trying to unleash it, or they are seeking ways to avoid being victims of it, rendered irrelevant. Some are involved in both activities.

Most of their employees are on board with all of this. Research that I have been involved in at Ohio State University and the University of California, San Diego, shows that in organizations seeking to disrupt or prevent being disrupted, 89% to 97% of the workforce backs the disrupt/prevent disruption program. 

Those are impressive figures. They suggest that just 3% to 11% of the employee population is not fully supportive of digital disruption initiatives. Call them the digital dissidents. But don’t let those low numbers mislead you. In today’s workplace, the dissidents can carry a disproportionate amount of power — and, ironically, it is to a large extent the digital revolution that has empowered them.

In fact, once you think about the implications of that super-empowerment, you realize that 3% is a very large number. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talks about that in his soon-to-be-released book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. We have to come to terms with what he calls the “Power of One.” If you think that is an exaggeration, read up on what a low-level contractor named Edward Snowden accomplished at the National Security Agency. Not long ago, it would have taken at the very least the director of the NSA to cause an equal amount of disruption. 

For businesses, the important question is what they can do to blunt the power of their digital dissidents. Remarkably, many employers would probably want to find ways to control them, perhaps with threats or negative incentives. I call this remarkable because we have amassed enough economic history over the past couple of centuries to show that this is ultimately a futile strategy.  

John W. Merriman, a professor of history at Yale University, sees the Industrial Revolution as an era when industrialists were able to induce workers to work the way they wanted them to work. 

Fine-china maker Josiah Wedgwood was an early pioneer in exerting industrial discipline over an extended workforce. Just before 1800, he thought long and hard about how to get all his workers to work the way he wanted all the time. He and his fellow industrialists were very concerned with preventing workers from wandering off and spending time enjoying themselves. Wedgwood’s ultimate objective was a pool of workers who would respond “as fingers on two hands” to his commands. 

He and other industrialists were highly successful, from their perspective, but at a great cost, from the workers’ perspective. Even in the 19th century, writers such as Dickens and Zola were portraying the inhumanity of the factory and the coal mine. Alienation was an inevitable result, as Colin Wingfield eloquently makes plain in his compelling video “Edward Hopper – Painter of Alienation”: 

“Just one thing mattered now — to keep up with the machine. … The psychological effect of lowering man to this machine-like thing was a three-fold alienation: man became alienated from nature. He became alienated from his fellow man and he became alienated from himself.” 

History also shows that employers’ attempts to impose control could have tragic consequences, most memorably in the March 25, 1911, inferno at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, where 146 garment workers, mostly women, died. The victims had been unable to escape because the doors had been locked to reduce absenteeism, unauthorized breaks and theft. 

Today, we might be tempted to congratulate ourselves that the methods of old have been left behind. And indeed, in much of the world the conditions of the workplace are stringently regulated. Employees work in clean, safe environments. But coercion is still a favored response for a lot of people. We live in a world of non-disclosure agreements, where a politician can rise to the top with talk of banning all Muslims from the country. Think about this, though: Firing all of your digital dissenters won’t quite advertise your company as a great place to work. 

Is there a better way? I believe there must be. The approach that seems to display the most humanity and to offer the best counterweight to alienation and possibly the greatest likelihood of working is simply this: In an age of super-empowerment, management needs to be asking, “What are my digital dissidents trying to tell me?”

In other words, communicate. One organization with a long history of success that believes in this is West Point, where faculty are told to make themselves effortlessly and informally approachable by cadets who want to discuss anything at all. This goes beyond having regularly posted office hours. It is part of creating a culture that says to everyone, “How you feel is important. If something is bothering you, we can talk about it.”

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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