Social Media as Freedom Agent

Much has been written of the role that social media has played in the uprisings currently underway in the Middle East.  From inspiring protesters to organizing demonstrations to reporting on atrocities, social software has been an essential tool.  While social software is a weapon of choice in these recent protests, the basic element driving these movements is the universal human desire for liberty.  People across cultures have inherent desires to lead lives of self-directed happiness, free from violence or dictatorial fiat.  They wish for freedom of speech and association and for input into decisions that impact their future and well-being.  Societies that have a strong commitment to these rights and basic freedoms have happier and more productive citizens.

In the United States, much of these yearnings are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Universally, managers of American firms would describe these principles of freedom as essential and inviolate.  Therefore, it’s ironic that many firms are not run with these ideals in mind.  Traditional corporate structures and cultures that took hold in the 20th century have some of the same undesirable characteristics as despotic nations:

  • They are run in an autocratic fashion
  • Employees have little voice in departmental or corporate goals
  • Employees are strongly directed, with little control over their daily tasks
  • Penalties for non-compliance can be severe

As a point of clarity, as a strong believer in property rights, I recognize the inherent differences between governments and private enterprises.  Corporations are owned by individuals who can manage them in a broad variety of ways.  Short of violating labor laws, firms have no obligation to have progressive organizational structures or cultures.  There is also no requirement for many typical democratic freedoms to be extended to the workplace.  Alternatively, there is a compelling body of historical thought that states that governments and autocrats have no right to deny a society its basic freedoms.

But just because corporate policies and practices are within the bounds of labor laws, doesn’t make them sound and productive.  Management does have a responsibility to ensure shareholders that the organizational practices of the firm enable profitability, efficiency and growth.   The best way to reach these goals is to have a culture and set of organizational practices that lead to motivated and strongly contributing team members; at all levels of the firm.  In his book Drive, Daniel Pink spells out the most important factors that motivate people to perform at their best.  Pink’s conclusion, backed by significant scientific research, is that motivation is primarily driven by three key factors:

  • Autonomy – People want the ability to have control and self-direction over their work
  • Mastery – People want to be challenged and have the ability to improve their skills
  • Purpose – People want to feel that their work is connected to higher purpose.  In other words, that they are contributing towards broad (e.g. firm-wide) goals.

The elements that Pink lists as essential for motivation are missing in the old-style bureaucratic, traditional firm.  These elements are the hallmarks of newer progressive firms.  These forward thinking enterprises are more inclined to have flatter structures, distributed decision making and greater inclusiveness in the establishment and pursuit of corporate goals.

Which brings us back to social media.  Just as social media has acted as a catalyst for revolutions in despotic regimes, it can be a force for “creative liberation” in traditional organizations.  While social media needs a fertile seedbed (i.e. progressive cultural and organizational structures) to take hold, it can provide a strong element of “liberty” and motivation for corporate citizens.  Rather than having social media appear in the enterprise as a radical movement, executives would be better off acknowledging its benefits and sponsoring its implementation.  Those firms that ignore or resist these organizational “reforms” will be headed towards extinction.  Instead of being “overthrown” like recent Middle East dictators, they will be obviated by stronger, progressive-minded competitors.


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