Talking to Each Other

As companies become more fragmented and their workers more geographically dispersed, managers need a way to build a corporate culture. The Internet provides the means to do this.

At its most basic, the Internet is a wonderful way to communicate. Hit that “send” button and off goes the e-mail, trailing attachments, to everybody in the firm and beyond. No wonder companies find it a perfect way to talk to their staff. No wonder it is so useful — but also so dangerous — when staff want to talk to each other.

Over and over again, the Internet’s uses turn out to dovetail beautifully with current trends. As companies become more fragmented and their workers more geographically dispersed, managers need a way to rally the troops. In particular, they need a way to build a corporate culture: that intangible something that binds employees together and teaches them to understand instinctively the defining qualities of the business and the appropriate way to respond to any issue that confronts them. The Internet provides the means to do this.

In a stable, slow-growing and well-established company, a common culture may be easy to maintain. You take each year’s new recruits off to boot camp for a fortnight and teach them the company history. But few companies today can afford to be stable or slow-growing. Instability and speed make culture-creation harder.

In Silicon Valley, people count as old stagers if they have been with the same employer for much over a year. But rapid turnover is not the only difficulty. In many companies, the salesforce or the maintenance folk rarely come into the office. A quarter of IBM’s workforce, for instance, is now mobile — they spend at least 80% of their time off-site, usually working from home or on the road. Key people may be based in key markets abroad, a day’s air travel away from the main office. Mobility goes right to the top: Douglas Daft, chief executive of Coca-Cola, travels 80% of the time. He boasts: “The headquarters office is where I am.”

Add in mergers and takeovers, which create a need to proselytise a new bunch of employees and coax them to abandon one corporate creed for another. As companies outsource more and more activities, too, they look for ways to teach their subcontractors to share their values. And the faster things change, the more important it becomes to explain to employees what is happening, and why.

How to do it? “In a rapidly changing and geographically distributed organisation,” observes Michael Morris, a social psychologist at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, “you don’t have the option of the drink after work.” But you do have the Internet. More than any previous technology, it allows companies to ensure that every employee has access to the corporate news, views and vision.

Some companies use it to teach their employees (as well as suppliers and customers) their ethical code. Boeing, for instance, offers an online “ethics challenge” where employees can test their moral instincts on such delicate issues as “acceptance of business courtesies” and “the minister drops a hint”. Such applications are a way to spread a common approach throughout an organisation.

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