People Are Not Your Greatest Asset

Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald
December 6, 2011

From Harvard Business Review

Many of us in business have heard the popular aphorism, "People are your greatest asset." Some of us may even believe it. But is this sentiment reflected in our corporate cultures and the way our leaders lead? For the most part, no — and there's a reason for that.

People are not your greatest asset. Even great people are not your greatest asset. In fact, great people can be your greatest liability. If Enron wasn't enough evidence of this, the 2008 financial crisis has now given us plenty more. What about Lehman Brothers, AIG and Countrywide? Arguably, these companies employed some of the smartest business people not only in the room but in the world, and yet those same folks took their firms to ruin (or near it) and came close to causing a collapse of the U.S. economy.

So if it's not people, what is your greatest asset?

It's how you empower your people. Think about it. What is the primary purpose of a business organization? To assemble a group of people, who previously may have had no association, and empower them to accomplish productive work toward the organization's objectives. More effective empowerment typically equals more productive work. As leaders and managers, we are familiar with empowering people. We organize them into divisions, units, groups and teams. We provide goals and incentives to motivate them. And we enable them with authority, tools, resources and processes.

Social media ushers in new ways to enhance your greatest asset, because it is about empowering people to collaborate at unprecedented scale. With powerful implementations of social media, we motivate people to form communities around a meaningful and common purpose . We enable them with new technology, seed content, and guidance on desired participation. The aim is to facilitate "mass collaboration" and its accompanying behaviors.

For our book on the social organization, we studied hundreds of social media implementations and identified a set of key mass collaboration behaviors. Understanding them is critical to successfully engaging and empowering people.

Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the meaningful assembly of relatively small and incremental community contributions into a larger and coherent accumulation of knowledge. Collective intelligence is not new, but the mass collaboration enabled by social media provides it at scales never before possible. Even the most modest individual contributions can be tremendously valuable when meaningfully combined at scale. Wikipedia, YouTube and Flickr are all social Web examples of collective intelligence. Each Wikipedia article by itself is relatively insignificant, but a million articles collected and linked together is highly powerful.

Expertise Location

Expertise location involves seeking and finding specific expertise in the masses of people and the often-staggering amount of available content. One view of expertise location is almost the opposite of collective intelligence. It is "selective intelligence", where the goal is not to collect numerous small contributions from many, but to find just what is needed. Crowdsourcing is a well-known example of expertise location.

Emergent Structures

Emergent structures are structures such as processes, content categorization, organizational networks and hidden virtual teams that are unknown or unplanned prior to social interactions, but that form naturally as activity progresses. The goal of emergent structures is to gain a better understanding of the true "nature of things" to more effectively organize, guide or interact with a community or its efforts. Social media, applied with transparency, can surface these structures.

Interest Cultivation

Interest cultivation is the forming of communities around a shared interest, with the goal of indirectly deriving enterprise value. Social media facilitates the mass sharing of interests like never before. Enterprises often pursue interest cultivation with the aim of engaging customers to enhance product/service utilization and enjoyment, improve delivery and indirectly spur sales.

Flash Coordination

Flash coordination involves rapidly organizing the activities of a large number of people through fast and short mass-messaging, often spread virally. By effectively employing flash coordination, enterprises can more quickly marshal a powerful and sophisticated response to an important occurrence. We are now seeing the emergence of a new set of business sense-and-respond systems inspired by social-media-enabled flash coordination.

Relationship Leverage

Relationship leverage is the practice of effectively managing and deriving value from a prodigious number of relationships. Relationship leverage strives to maximize the strength of numerous weak ties and the power of unbalanced relationships. Facebook is all about relationship leverage. We can keep numerous people up to date on what we are doing and thinking with minimal effort. We only need to respond to those who choose to interact around something we exposed. We may sacrifice intimacy for scale, but that is the trade-off with relationship leverage.

Examine these behaviors in the context of your business goals, major collaboration challenges, core business practices, etc., to determine where and how mass collaboration might empower your people to deliver strategic value to your organization and enhance what is truly your greatest asset.

Anthony J. Bradley, group vice president, Gartner Research, and Mark P. McDonald, group vice president and Gartner Fellow, Gartner Executive Programs, are co-authors of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees. You can follow them on Twitter at @BradleyAnthonyJ and @markpmcdonald.