Employee Engagement – a Core Goal of Enterprise 2.0 Adoption ?

By now, reams have been written about the possibilities offered by the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 capabilities.  The interest continues to grow as the daily use of the Web at work approaches ubiquity.

Also, reams have been written about why the engagement of knowledge-work employees is a central means of increasing productivity, effectiveness and the achievement of sustained high performance.

The greater engagement of employees has been a central aim of the work of organizational development (OD) professionals for at least the last two decades (and much further back if we are striving for precision).

In a recent Wall Street Journal blog post titled “Management’s Dirty Little Secret”, Gary Hamel brings us face-to-face with this fundamental issue:

How would you feel about a physician who killed more patients than he helped? What about a police detective who committed more murders than he solved? Or a teacher whose students were more likely to get dumber than smarter as the school year progressed? And what if you discovered that these perverse outcomes were more the rule than the exception—that they were characteristic of most doctors, policemen and professors? You’d be more than perplexed. You’d be incensed, outraged. You’d demand that something must be done!

Given this, why are we complacent when confronted with data that suggest most managers are more likely to douse the flames of employee enthusiasm than fan them, and are more likely to frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it?

Consider the recent “Global Workforce Survey” conducted by Towers Perrin, an HR consultancy. In an attempt to measure the extent of employee engagement around the world, the company polled more than 90,000 workers in 18 countries. The survey covered many of the key factors that determine workplace engagement, including: the ability to participate in decision-making, the encouragement given for innovative thinking, the availability of skill-enhancing job assignments and the interest shown by senior executives in employee well-being.

Here’s what the researchers discovered: barely one-fifth (21%) of employees are truly engaged in their work, in the sense that they would “go the extra mile” for their employer. Nearly four out of ten (38%) are mostly or entirely disengaged, while the rest are in the tepid middle. There’s no way to sugarcoat it—this data represents a stinging indictment of the legacy management practices found in most companies.

So why aren’t we scandalized by this data?


Effective (and/or increased) engagement of employees engenders leadership, organizational culture and the core requirement for management effectiveness at motivating, guiding and coaching employees.  These issues are NOT new.  However, they are all central elements to the whys, whats and hows of the productive adoption of social computing, aka Enterprise 2.0.

In a world of commoditized knowledge, the returns go to the companies who can produce non-standard knowledge. Success here is measured by profit per employee, adjusted for capital intensity. Apple’s profit per head is significantly higher than its major competitors, as is the company’s ratio of profits to net fixed assets.

[ Snip … ]

So what does all this have to do with engagement?

Just this: in a world where customers wake up every morning asking, “what’s new, what’s different and what’s amazing?” success depends on a company’s ability to unleash the initiative, imagination and passion of employees at all levels—and this can only happen if all those folks are connected heart and soul with their work, their company and its mission.

Let me break it down:

– In every industry, there are huge swathes of critical knowledge that have been commoditized—and what hasn’t yet been commoditized soon will be.

– Given that, we have to wave goodbye to the “knowledge economy” and say hello to the “creative economy.”

– What matters today is how fast a company can generate new insights and build new knowledge—of the sort that enhances customer value.

– To escape the curse of commoditization, a company has to be a game-changer, and that requires employees who are proactive, inventive and zealous.

– Problem is, you can’t command people to be enthusiastic, creative and passionate.

– These critical ingredients for success in the creative economy are gifts that people will bring to work each day only if they’re truly engaged. (Eric Raymond made this point way back in 2001 when he argued that in the new economy, “enjoyment predicts productivity.”)

Today, no leader can afford to be indifferent to the challenge of engaging employees in the work of creating the future. Engagement may have been optional in the past, but it’s pretty much the whole game today.

[Snip … ]

My conclusion from all of this: first, engagement is essential to the competitiveness of every company and every economy—and we need to be doing a whole lot better than we are.

We’ve got to get management’s dirty little secret out of the HR closet and into the boardroom. And second, if we’re going to improve engagement, we have to start by admitting that the real problem isn’t irksome, monotonous work, but stony-hearted, spirit-deflating managers.


Here’s my opinion about Hamel’s premise and how to address the issues he has raised :

As a generality, what companies (and managers) have not done well is acknowledge or understand that the fundamental responsiveness to customer or employee feedback comes from what people have always done well … what they, arguably, are designed to do or what is in their nature to do .. which is:

  • ask questions, and seek to understand
  • suggest alternatives, and watch or listen as they are *tried on for size*
  • clarify needs or desires, and find ways to deal with exceptions or delight the customer or colleague with a response that makes sense
  • fiddle with things to find out what works best
  • invent new ways, come up with good ideas, point out another possibility, etc.
  • decide together why and how to do something

In effect, these *social processes* have been suppressed or limited by the structures of most sizeable companies, with the attendant rules underpinning reporting relationships, spans of control, delegations of authority.  This is, colloquially, why so many people like to complain about *hierarchy* … there are often better ways available, or conditions which no longer suit yesterday’s (and today’s) bureaucracy, but all too often they are not permitted to enter into play.

These ruminations bring to mind the approach known as Participative Work Design (about which I have written before on this blog), known mainly to organizational development theorists and practitioners.

Participative Design was developed in 1971 by Fred and Merrelyn Emery. They developed the method as a faster and more acceptable alternative to the Socio-Technical Systems (STS) approach, where a multi-functional task force redesigns the organisation, usually taking a whole year to do so. A design created and then implemented in this way tends to be flawed, because it is based on an incomplete assessment of reality. Also, workers do not have ownership of the design, and this generates resistance to change. And, perhaps most significantly, the organisation’s underlying power structure remains intact.

The latter points … an incomplete assessment of reality, no or little ownership on the part of workers and an unchanged power structure … have only been exacerbated by the near-real-time (and accelerating) conditions of the interconnected environment in which we now work.

Whereas STS is based on what the Emerys call the ‘bureaucratic design principle’, Participative Design reflects the ‘democratic design principle’. This design principle asserts that:

  1. those who have to do the work are in the best position to design the way in which it is structured,
  2. effectiveness is greatly improved when teams take responsibility for controlling their own work, and
  3. the organisation increases its flexibility and responsiveness when people are capable of performing multiple functions and tasks.

The Emerys have also identified six basic conditions that need to be met if people’s work is to be productive and satisfying. There must be:

  1. Elbow room for decision making
  2. Opportunities for continuous on-the-job learning
  3. Sufficient variety
  4. Mutual support and respect
  5. Meaningfulnes
  6. A desirable future, not a dead end

The examples of human interactive behaviour while doing *work* are characteristics of the give-and-take of purposeful interaction. Working interactively using wikis, or purpose-designed blogs is a social process, and helps support, and make visible, engagement with an organization’s objectives

The lightweight, inexpensive, user-friendly tools are now available to let people interact, both with each other and with larger, integrated systems, and to integrate social processes into (existing) more static and more clearly defined work processes.

In my opinion, managers everywhere should look at using participative social technologies and processes to help them learn about, encourage and support …

1) how to encourage on-purpose engagement, and

2) how to increase results when engagement, responsiveness, creativity and innovation are the characteristics that support an organization’s sustained performance.

What do you think ?




It is a numbers gain. The more people you employee, the furhter down the engagement curve the average will be. (Dunbar and all that.)
So that means you can’t do anything – it is a weight of numbers and inevitable outcome.


That’s an interesting opinion, Dennis.

I assume you mean a numbers “game”, and not “gain” ?

Given your citation of Dunbar’s Number, I am assuming that you believe engagement depends upon knowing your peers well, and then extrapolating that core requirement across organizations both large and small ?

I suppose it would be useful to explore the definition(s) of engagement more deeply or carefully, but I am assuming that Hamel (and I, and other readers) have a decent sense of what is meant by improving / increasing “employee engagement” with the work they do.


As an enterprise community manager, I have read few articles which so eloquently state the case about the benefits derived from employee engagement within the context of Enterprise 2.0. Great job.

I have noticed that those who actively take to this form of employee engagement have a higher than normal level of altruism in their approach to work. The most reluctant seem to have an insular ‘me against the world’ approach. Any business should seriously consider which type of employee will deliver more to the bottom line. There’s your ROI case.

Interesting how career advancement appears to be moving towards advancing the careers of those who give the most of themselves to the employers they work for. And, concurrently, derive a high level of satisfaction while doing so.


Mike, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your encouraging comments. As a commmunity manager in a company of size that works with information and knowledge, I am sure you know what you’re talking about so I’ll accept the compliment 😉

Love your second paragraph, and I think that helping in the search for the first kind of employee is one of the purposes for which competency profiles were ‘invented’.

The orientation towards altruism can also be greatly affected, I think, by management styles and the organizational culture and climate. I’ll bet that you know way more than me about that, given your role.


As you are aware, acceptance for Enterprise 2.0 isn’t universal, with certain people having a vested interest in old KM and intranet 1.0 processes and norms. Let’s just say that Booz Allen aren’t the only ones making hay in the Enterprise 2.0 space. It’s just that we are a bit more circumspect about it.


It’s just that we are a bit more circumspect about it.

Probably not a bad thing at all.

Booz Allen being a consultancy, their high-profile use of collaboration appears to be a good publicity vehicle for them. But it’s also useful to have good use cases available for reference and guidance.


Good point about BA. That’s not my call. We’ll have to see what happens. I’ll be following your blog from now on. ‘Wirearchy’ – gotta love it.


‘Wirearchy’ – gotta love it.

Thanks .. I like it, too 😉

More seriously, the net and personal computers (and all the attendant issues therefrom) are ubiquitous, pervasive, and not going away.

There are only a handful of “archy” words that denotes the way things are organized in large social systems .. and to date there’s no “archy” word for the interconnected era in which we are all going to live out our lives.

I think (but I would, of course) that “wirearchy” and the definitions I and others have brought to it is useful for helping to make sense of much of the turmoil we are experiencing and watching.

Jon Thorne

a great article … and some great comments as well … so thank you all.

I guess my main comment … is how to use social media to engage people?

For me organisations are now geared towards meeting shareholder value or their policitian’s targets. Their people have been secondary for a while now. I am not making a judgement on this being good or bad … it is just the way it is.

So … I think the way to engage people with their organisation is to start to focus on using social media for people to help each other to do their own jobs … which I call little ideas.

big ideas tend to solve problems impacting the performance of big organisations.

Ideas often become big ideas when…

* They come from people who the wider population know and respect who have typically conducted some form of analysis; and
* A large group of people accept their organisation has a problem that needs to be solved.

When an idea becomes big it often needs leaders to drive the implementation across their organisation.

While there will always be a need for the next big idea … I specialise in capturing and sharing small ideas … which I call nuggets.

A “nugget” is a moment of personal clarity. It is something that is obvious once you see it. It is a personal opportunity to add water to a half empty cup.

As they are small ideas they need to be communicated in the opposite way to big ideas. This means in a way that: …

* Makes it hard for readers to feel as though they are being told what to do by someone they don’t know; and
* Without the reader having to accept they have a problem.

Leaders can calculate the organisational performance improvement by capturing the value of a nugget to an individual person and how many people have implemented a particular nugget. Multiplying these 2 values generates an organisational performance improvement.

RespectExchange.com provides some examples of nuggets and is my contribution to the world.

I hope this contributes to your great content

Kind regards



Jon H. This is a beautiful article and summary of the challenges. I believe there will be some magnificent ones. The “default” culture of many hierarchical organizations, though in theory based on industrial age views of efficiency and productivity, is in my view usually based on much deeper norms of purely social control and thus will be very hard to transform. Hence, we still have much blame and much talk about employee “motivation” and huge fears about the loss of control, often disguised within discussions about “accountability.” In a recent blog post (http://www.unfoldingleadership.com/blog/?p=1503), for example, I noticed a study of leadership deficits by a renowned training organization that stinks of this old paradigm thinking. The very concept of leadership within new environments must undergo a radical transformation, but like new forms of organizational structure, there are few great models for where we might be going. To me, the nature of organizational leadership, how it’s viewed, what people seem to want from it, is a vital question because it is part and parcel of the implicit, out of awareness side of the social system. For example, it is not unusual for a team I might be working with to both want more engagement, open relationships, and meaningful collaboration and at the same time want more from the leader in terms of decisiveness and willingness to intervene with abrasive or low performing members of the team or to handle conflicts when collaboration isn’t working out — all of which seems like a contradiction in terms to me. It’s at best a transitional time. Social networks, because they are human communities, are not themselves entirely positive animals. They have shadow sides, and this will have to be dealt with, too, in order to let go of the old world (see for example this post by my friend, Joe McCarthy: http://gumption.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/the-dark-side-of-digital-backchannels-in-shared-physical-spaces.html). Anyway, there is much work to do, I’m excited about it, and I’d enjoy more dialogue with you on or off-line anytime.

Olivier Amprimo

Hi Jon,

It’s always a pleasure to read you. I like your approach of digging into oldies to demonstrate that what is fashionable today is grounded on previous generations (the good and the bad). I also like the fact that you go to the essentials: trust. A topic discussed for centuries by political philosophy.

I will react today not specifically about your points but about the quotes you take from Gary Hamel. I have a huge respect for Gary Hamel as he was very inspirational to me with his works on learning in strategic partnerships, back in the early 90′.

That being said he gets down a road that Prof. Davenport takes too. A very bad one. I mean the way he writes demonstrates a clear ability to ride a wave and to turn his back to his past at the very same time. A form a selfishness that only great people can afford with no arm.

Today it is very trendy to be anti-corporate. Corporate America reaches historical lows in public opinion, so it is easy to be nasty making strong assimilations that are morally unacceptable.

However, Prof. Hamel has been a pro-eminent influencer as a teacher and consultant and confident of those people who are today considered so poorly mannered: senior management.
So this would call for a more low profile strategy … particularly when you (and I) know that most of the ideas contained in its latest best seller actually were available here and there well before he published.

Taking such a road is not helpful for everyone.

Finally, the “in a world where customers wake up every morning asking, “what’s new, what’s different and what’s amazing?”” is to be a bit out-dated, particularly in a time where loads of people are unemployed and stuffed by over-consumption. The miracle is gone … that is the reason why companies need to build true and long term relations with customers (as Quality Management teaches) … and why social media is essential.

Now to get back to the essentials, Trust, there is one blind element that no one really addresses in the current crisis: the selfishness of senior management. Back in the 80’s politicians have deregulated the capital market by dis-intermediating it. Before when senior managers wanted to have money, for most of them, it was compulsory to visit bankers. Bankers were lending money at a certain rate, for a certain time, for a certain risk. Bankers are not perfect but they are providing middle / long term visibility. Since deregulation senior managers issue shares of the company they run (and bankers are forced to design junk products to make a living ;-)). By doing so they transform their company in a commodity on a market and they face competition from all other listed companies, including those in more profitable industries. This creates a push toward relentless search for profitability. Either they align or they don’t get money, the shares drop and the company goes havoc. To make sure this does not happen, investors have incentivised senior management to deliver short term and high returns. They have denatured the role of management, that classically is there to secure the long term of corporations. To be successful senior management has set short term evaluation criteria, mostly on individual basis as this is the easiest ones to monitor. Some people buy it, some don’t and withdraw, demotivated by the absence of sense/long term vision. Either way this is the best way to kill collaboration or ‘engagement’, understood as an effective contribution to the company, the collective … This is precisely what social computing tackles, by connecting people and surfacing implicitly (i.e. making ‘publicly available’) their contributions. Smart social computing lets people be selfish (ego) yet deliver positive side effects for the group. As usual Technology is used to solve human and organisational issues. Because this goes against incentives systems and behavioural norms, it is a painful and time-consuming process to make ‘Enterprise 2.0’ happen (to get back to one strong line of your blog!) as long as we don’t fix the basics I mentioned above.

My 2 cents.
Stay well and enjoy the coming Olympics!


Disclaimer: my opinion here about Prof. Hamel’s contribution may well be due to to your selection of quotes 😉


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