How to Manage Empowered Staff and Customers

Your employees already know how to solve the problems of empowered customers. The question is, are you ready to let them?

Some 37 percent of information workers (employees that use computers in their jobs) are harnessing consumer technology without your permission. Many are using do-it-yourself consumer technologies—mobile, social, video, and cloud—to talk directly to customers. Their motivations are pure: They mastered the technologies at home and see how to use them at work. They are solving problems they can't solve in any other way.

Take the sales rep who talks to her customer onFacebook. Because that's where they talk. Or the insurance underwriter who uses her personal iPad (AAPL) to work with customers in the field without the artificial barrier of a laptop screen. Or the marketing project manager using to organize a global marketing campaign with an agency partner, sharing video files and keeping everyone on the same page. Or the lawyer using Google Docs (GOOG) to share litigation documents with clients.

Call it the consumerization of IT. Call it bring-your-own smartphone. Call it software-as-a-service. It's all the same thing: Employees are harnessing readily available technologies to solve customer and business problems. It's your empowered workforce.

how to deal with risky innovators?

They—and the problems they're tackling—are begging for a better strategy than the brakes-on, one-off, reactive approach you've probably got in place today.

We call these employees HEROes—highly empowered and resourceful operatives. They feel empowered to solve customer problems and they act resourcefully, using new technology to do so. HEROes are your most innovative employee—the problem-solvers. Are you ready for the covert innovation of HEROes? Or are you worried you won't be able to control the chaos that could ensue?

If you're a business manager, the correct choice should be clear: Unleash your employees to harness new technology to engage directly with the empowered customer. If you're in IT, the choice is harder. How do you empower employees and business managers to use new technology without unleashing a thousand demons that embody business risk, irresponsible technology choices, and innovation chaos?

The strategy for managing an empowered workforce to serve the needs of empowered customers starts with a new agreement. We call this the HERO Compact. HEROes are trying to do the right thing. They know what customer problem needs to be solved. They know what technology to use. Like Sunbelt Rentals' John Staddick putting an ordering application onto the iPhones of 1,000 sales guys in trucks who call on construction sites. Like Marty Hollander turning Microsoft's (MSFT) "I'm a PC" campaign into a viral success for Windows 7 by tapping ordinary consumers. Like insurance stalwart Lloyds of London's Peter Hambling putting iPads into the hands of underwriters out in the field.

set boundaries for good behavior

The HERO Compact defines a new set of responsibilities among employees, managers, and IT. HEROes are responsible for knowing what customers need, experimenting with technologies that solve customer problems, and operating within the safety principles established by IT and managers. Managers are responsible for making customer-focused innovation a priority, establishing the governance structures to support HEROes, and working with IT to manage the business risk posed by those technologies. IT is responsible for supporting HEROes with technology innovation, giving leaders the tools to manage risk, and expanding successful solutions.

This agreement sets the stage for a responsible, methodical approach to information security. It makes it possible to create a governance council to prioritize new technologies. It provides a framework to engage the human resources and legal departments in defining a social media policy. It sets the boundaries for good behavior. It's the starting point for a fresh strategy to manage your company during an era of empowered customers. It won't be easy to get all parties to understand the new set of responsibilities.

You can't go on reacting to every new customer-empowering technology or employee-led technology choice. You have to make the mental shift to set the pace for empowering customers to your advantage rather than keep struggling to react to the demands of empowered customers. The HERO Compact is the starting point for that shift.

Its impact could be huge. After all, you can engage customers with technology they prefer, in ways that earn their loyalty. Or you can stand on the sidelines as a competitor engages your customers and takes them away.

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