Empowered: More FLAWs than an Uncelebrated HERO

If nothing else, Empowered, Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business has given the world several new FLAWs (four letter acronym words). At last reckoning there were three: HERO, IDEA, and POST, but one of these was introduced in an earlier book, Groundswell.

Empowered has given the world a lot more than that. My title is unfair perhaps, because I liked this book, and the further I read the more I liked it. You cannot read a business book these days that doesn’t introduce a new acronym, and I have come to see it as a proxy for strong knowledge or good writing. Fortunately Bernoff and Schadler are both knowledgeable and good writers, so I wish they wouldn’t resort to gimmicks.

The best part of the book is the specific examples of real companies doing real projects, mostly Forrester customers. Empowered ties together many trends that, although I was aware of them individually, was not seeing them so closely interlinked. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn), mobile computing, project management, information security, and the traditional roles of customer service are among the topics that are addressed. The hero of the story is, of course, the HERO, or highly empowered resourceful operatives who are dragging companies, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

HERO means more than it seems. Imagine a 2-dimensional matrix forming a quadrant—yes this quadrant is in the book, but not until chapter 8. On the X-axis (from left to right) is empowerment. On the Y-axis (from bottom to top) is resourcefulness. At the bottom left of the quadrant are disenfranchised employees who are neither empowered nor resourceful, making approximately one-third of most companies. The next one-third of employees are those who are locked-down—empowered but not resourceful. The smallest percent, maybe one-eighth, are those who are the rogues who are resourceful but not empowered. The rest are HEROs. The goal of organizations, then is not to expand that quadrant as big as possible, but to get the best people into the HERO roles and to get the organization behind them. Easier said than done, but there is a lot of  substance in Empowered to help on the journey.

The book is divided roughly in half. Part one discusses HEROs and HERO projects in detail, including how they have saved organizations and how the lack of a HERO has led to substandard responses and embarrassing situations. Prominent here are the realities of social media and mobile technologies. Part two discusses actions organizations can take to enable the HERO. Similar themes run through the book, and this is not a collection of random blog posts.

Part one did turn me off in many places. The author seemed to target me, an IT professional and my colleagues as the chief disablers of HERO behaviors. I hope that we can be forgiven. We understand as well as anyone the complexity behind modern businesses, and how frail it really is under the hood. We are the individuals whose heads get beat whenever a server crashes or data is compromised, regardless of whether we had anything to do with the initial implementation. We’ve been SOX’ed, mandated, legislated, and audited to death. A little more respect would be nice.

Fortunately, the book delivers some more of that in part two. It recognizes some of the issues faced by IT and provides some guidance for IT professionals. It spends time on a couple IT leaders who have reached out to other business units to build creative and innovative solutions. Ultimately this is not about IT, but about the business leaders understanding the borders of the organization are no longer around its physical premise and its high-walled data centers. The borders around the organization are around its people. Employees and customers are using Twitter and YouTube, and the conduits for leakage is unfathomable. Employees have to exercise common sense and be professional. The emphasis of the Information Security office has to migrate from applying technical band-aids to engaging leaders and employees. It will happen, and I predict IT will be leaders in this process, not inhibiters.