Book Excerpt: Empowered

Rachel Nislick and Robin Saitz just wanted to find a new way to reach out to customers. It wasn't their intention to transform their company, but that's what ended up happening.

Rachel is an energetic young woman who runs the Web site for PTC, one of the largest providers of CAD (computer-aided design) and PLM (product lifecycle management) software in the world. In late 2007, she conceived the idea of creating an online community for PTC's customers. Communities have significant benefits, including helping customers to get support, opening up an environment to sound out new product features, and surfacing enthusiastic customers who can become valuable company advocates.

So Rachel brought her idea to Robin, her boss, who is an ex-engineer, a senior vice president in PTC's marketing department, and a twenty-year veteran of PTC. Robin was a believer in the power of the groundswell, so she was receptive to Rachel's idea. The idea percolated for a while. By 2009, the two of them had even picked out a vendor to build the community—Jive Software. Nearly everything was in place except for one important element: buy-in. As the project became more visible, executives from all over the company expressed concerns.

For example, Paul Lenfest, the head of customer service, knew much of the company's revenue came from maintenance contracts, and wondered what the community might do to that revenue stream. Steve Horan, who was PTC's CIO at the time, foresaw problems, too. From his experience with PTC projects in other departments, Steve was worried that the marketing team hadn't fully scoped the requirements for IT personnel, support, and funds.

With these organizational dynamics, Rachel and Robin knew they would get nowhere unless the whole organization could come together behind their plan. Here's how they did it.

First, they decided to stop guessing about the customers and ask them. Results of the survey: PTC's customers were overwhelmingly ready to embrace a community. I (Josh) presented this information to many of PTC's senior managers at a meeting at the company's Massachusetts headquarters. The executives asked a lot of questions, and the data helped calm some of their concerns. But the plan wasn't out of the woods yet.

PTC's IT and marketing groups collaborated to create detailed community requirements and a deep technical review of the technology platform, Jive. They looked at alternatives that might fit better with PTC's other technology priorities. In the end, Jive won out, but the difference was, the important technical decision makers at PTC had now bought in on that decision, and the company had a more rigorous perspective on what the software would have to do—and how the value would be measured.

This technical review also gave Robin and Rachel time to win over others in the company. Importantly, they won over Jim Heppelmann, the company's president and COO and a highly respected leader with both customers and staffers. As they geared up to launch the community, momentum was clearly building; product managers who had previously been skeptical started to ask when their products could be included, too. The CMO, CIO, and head of customer service all came on board because Robin had done the work to prove the plan was solid and would have a positive impact on PTC's business.

Between Rachel's original idea in 2007 and the community's launch in 2010, the conception of the community hadn't changed all that much. What had changed was PTC itself. In 2007, Rachel was just a woman with a cool idea for customers. In 2010, PTC was a company that knew how to align all of its contending groups behind a couple of HEROes. Both the project and the company were stronger for it.

The two things your company needs to make HEROes effective

The story of what happened at PTC is typical. HEROes don't just get an idea, line up support, and implement it. They can succeed only with the company behind them. Empowered workers are not enough; they can succeed only in a culture that encourages them and supports them with resources. At PTC, the resources were there, but the culture—the leadership—needed to come around to support and guide the ideas Rachel and Robin had started with. At other companies, the encouragement and guidance is there but the resources are locked down. Either flaw can stop HEROes from contributing effectively.

So we have identified two key dimensions of readiness—workers feeling empowered and acting resourceful. We created an instrument to measure them. Using our survey of 4,364 information workers in U.S. companies, we analyzed workers by company, by industry, and by job description on these two dimensions:

1. Do you feel empowered? We asked workers whether, when it comes to technology at work, they agreed with the statement, "I feel empowered to solve my own problems and challenges at work." Because most people were inclined to respond positively to this statement, we counted someone as feeling empowered only if their response was eight or higher on a ten-point scale.

2. Do you act resourceful? Allowing employees to use devices, applications, and sites that aren't sanctioned by the company is a key prerequisite to their ability to act resourceful. So we measured whether individuals had downloaded and regularly used at least two unsanctioned applications to their PCs or regularly visited at least two unsanctioned Web sites requiring a login.

These two dimensions give us a unique view into the capabilities and frustrations of the potential HEROes within companies. Together, they generate four possible states of mind for an information worker within companies:

Disenfranchised Employees are neither empowered nor resourceful. The 34 percent of all information workers in this quadrant don't use unsanctioned applications and don't feel empowered to solve problems. They just try to do their jobs. While every company needs some workers who just follow orders, very little innovation is going to come from these ranks.

Rogue Employees act resourceful, but don't feel empowered. This quadrant, which includes 14 percent of all information workers, includes people who are running unsanctioned applications even though their company doesn't support their creative efforts to solve problems. Creative energy is better than complacency, but these unsupported efforts are less likely to contribute to the company's useful work. If these people are to contribute in a useful way, they need support from their company.

Locked-Down Employees feel empowered, but don't act resourceful. This group of information workers is large, at 34 percent. People in this quadrant are pulling along with the company to solve customer problems, but since their technology is locked down by the company, it's unlikely they'll come up with technology solutions that will actually benefit those customers. To get more out of this group, companies need to provide them with technology resources so they can act on their creativity.

HERO Employees feel empowered and act resourceful. Here is where technology innovation comes from—the 21 percent of information workers who are using new technologies and know the company wants them to help customers. This is where HEROes come from. All of the employee HEROes we've met so far—Rachel Nislick at PTC and others — came from this quadrant.

If you want to build a HERO-powered business—if you want customer-focused innovations to arise, get supported, and become part of what makes your company succeed—then your job is to create a culture and a set of resources that pull as many of your best thinkers as possible into the HERO employees quadrant.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler. Copyright 2010 Forrester Research, Inc.

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