Are you ready for employee activism?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently on key near term trends in the future of work (I’ll post the full deck here on Management Disrupted soon).

As part of this, one of the really interesting trends that I think we’ll start to experience very soon is the rise of “employee activism”.

Social media has fundamentally changed all activism

Social technology dramatically changed political activism. As the Arab Spring showed, when citizens see something they don’t like, there’s more connectivity than ever before to rise up and organise around an alternative. People have always been able to protest. But they’ve never been so connected, so co-ordinated, and so effective.

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There’s plenty of examples here. On a smaller scale, change.org has made it easy to organise compelling petitions with 50k+ signatures, forcing politicians and businesses to respond quickly.

Probably the closest we’ve got to an enterprise version of change.org at present is Glassdoor. However it’s pretty low level and focused on the hiring process. That said I still know more than one Australian Chairman who actively monitors Glassdoor for a feel of what’s really going on in the workforce (as opposed to what’s being fed up through the chain of command).

What is employee activism?

I’m seeing employee activism as the ability for employees to make a very public stand about the direction and strategy of the company. Think of employee activism as a new and aggressive version of investor activism. The aim isn’t better wages, it’s better strategy.

It’s a higher level protest where knowledge workers are saying “we think this CEO is wrecking the company and needs to go”. The audience is partially other employees, but it’s also a direct appeal to investors and the board.

There’s no reason that this can’t happen on current social media and enterprise social networks. But I think there’s also potential for some anonymisation to really drive growth. Think about a change.org equivalent where any employee can start an anonymous petition to the Chairman. And all the signatures will be made public if the petition reaches 1000 verified employees.

Why employee activism now?

The enterprise adoption loop we’re seeing at the moment is it takes about 5 years after the mainstream rise of a consumer technology for the effects to fully hit the workplace. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s generally pretty accurate in the gap between mainstream consumer and enterprise adoption. Have a think about how long it took your company to move to smartphones. It was probably 4-6 years after you first had a smartphone for personal use. Or think about the gap between when you were using Facebook (founded 2002) and Yammer or equivalent (founded 2008).

Given the five year enterprise adoption cycle, enterprise social is effectively at the same place that consumer social was at in 2010. For some comparison on how the five year cycle translates here, the Arab Spring exploded across Facebook and Twitter in December 2010.

I’d caveat here that like in the case of political activism, connectivity isn’t the cause of employee activism. But it is a big enabler.  Connectivity is such a game changer in the enterprise setting because it’s easy to censor one dissenting employee. But it’s very hard to fire 100, or 1000 dissenting mid>upper level employees without having a major effect on the company.

Social and collaborative technology in the workforce has huge benefits. It empowers employees to work together and connect like never before. It’s just that in extreme cases some of that work may be coming together to change the direction of the company.

Censorship will lead to disaster (but will probably be the first response)

It’s interesting (and important) for management teams to think about is how you deal with employee activism. For many organisations, the first reaction might be censorship. But the connectivity of the workforce across every social network means that censorship is likely to only make the campaign stronger.

From an executive/board perspective, the answer is almost certainly engagement and pre-emption. But that’s not necessarily a toolkit that the executive and board have ready today. Businesses aren’t a democracy. But they’re about to get a whole lot more like one.

Expect to see a CEO toppled by their own employees, very socially, very soon

Maybe the tipping point comes in 2015, maybe it’s 2016. But expect to see a CEO toppled by their own employees, very socially, very soon. And once it happens once, it’s going to show millions of employees worldwide just how powerful they can be when they stand together.

Share your thoughts. Be kind & play nice.