column for November 1994 issue of Internet World.

Power Rap

By Christopher Locke

People are talking. But then, people have always talked, whether around the neolithic campfire or the modern water cooler.

Mass-production has always discouraged talk among workers. Economies of scale were the driving force in the early industrial era, where making more widgets at lower unit cost was the Big Win. The worker who threads the lug nut on the wheel bolt, said Henry Ford, should not be same one who tightens it down. Division of labor was the key back then, workers repetitively performing some discrete task in an operation they were not expected to understand. Employees were treated like trained chimps, and even that training was pretty shallow. "Check your brain at the door" is still a common management expectation in too many companies. Nothing you have to say could possibly interest us. If you're talking, you're not working. Shut up and buckle down.

Work environemnets like this have destroyed much craft knowledge wherein individuals were once apprenticed to masters who imparted a holistic understanding of manufacturing processes. The neologism is "deskilling," and it refers directly to this degradation of craft and personal commitment to quality.

Not long ago, one company decided to cut down on idle chatter by setting up a production system that interspersed robots between workers on the line. One employee reported later that he and his buddies had at first deeply resented management's plan to keep them from communicating during the killing workday. However, he said, they were finally coming around to the idea. "Why, at lunch today," this fellow reported, "I even shared a Coke with my robot -- and John down there gave his a peanut butter sandwich!" After the plant lost several million bucks in advanced robotics, people are talking again. Deskilled doesn't necessarily mean stupid.

Mass-communication follows the same general pattern. The couch potato is the media analogue for the deskilled factory worker. As a consumer, you aren't expected to ponder, understand, question or criticize. Just take what you're offered through these channels -- and buy what you're told to buy. Don't talk back. In fact, you can't talk back; your television set isn't listening. Hey, take a tip from the factory dude: Coke's the one! Pour it into that set-top box for best results.

In effect, this is precisely what millions have already done. Plugging into the Internet is a political gesture with profound ramifications. It represents opting for enfranchisement in the global economy. Whether you use it or not -- whether you lurk or post -- the net offers you a voice in the issues shaping your own future.

The overwhelming majority of Internet traffic is not "content" in the sense this term has come to have in the big media monopolies. It is not carefully prepared in some glitzy studio for zillions of dollars, shaped to the supposed tastes of some demographic market profile, then beamed out to an unknown audience in hopes of driving an aftermarket in ancillary products. If you need an example, try Disney's recent offering, The Lion King. The merchandising will net far more than the film. It's a jungle out there.

In contrast, most content on the Internet is reader-generated rap: hip-shot, free-wheeling feedback on everything from Beavis and Butthead to the latest techniques in open heart surgery. Nobody is orchestrating it. Nobody is in control. Kinda like human knowledge overall, if you think about it (The Great Books notwithstanding). Everybody's talking and having a ball. Chaos and anarchy, sure. But something else is happening if you listen closely enough: passion. These folks care deeply enough -- forget about what, specifically -- to keep these conversations going. Consider the possibility that the noise level is high precisely because so many are shouting to be heard. They are staking their claim to piece of terrritory no other medium has ever offered them.

If this scares you as a company exploring Internet plans, then you should be scared. These are your future markets speaking, and they're tired of your slick four-color annual reports, sick of your hyperbolic cant and hysterical handwaving. What have you got to say worth listening to? What do you really care about? Answering "profits" is not enough. Where's your passion? If you're not quite sure, better think twice about making a quick buck off the net.

And it would be a mistake to blame this phenomenon on the net itself. If you think you can skirt this potential mine field by simply passing on the Internet, guess again. It is not an isolated phenomenon, unique in its strange culture and expectations. Instead, the Internet is a product of the global economy with which your business must grapple, whether it opts to be on the net or not. The Internet has been shaped by that same invisible hand carving out new realities in today's borderless markets. In Moscow, they had to topple the statue of Lenin; here, we just turn off the TV set. People are choosing choice.

But they're mostly just students you may argue. Imagine for a moment -- as Rod Serling used to say -- the General Motors Board taking a rare peek out the window of its 14th floor command post in Detroit, circa 1969. "Say Harry, what are those little cars down there?," says one. "Oh, those are just Hondas and Volkswagons, Burt," says Harry, "but only students buy those things." And, greatly relieved at this analysis, they drift back to the boardroom table to talk about the bigger gas tanks and taller fins on next year's model. In the next several years, Japanese and German auto makers will eat a substantial share of GM's lunch. That couldn't happen again, right? The question is: how much are you willing to bet? The ranch?

Manufacturing companies had to learn the hard way how to compete in a global economy in which markets fractionated into a million niches, economies of scope came into play, and product cycles had to accelerate to deliver just-in-time on a wide array of new and ever-changing products and services. Demanding that workers check their brains at the door became suicidally counterproductive for the simple reason that the knowledge component of these products and services suddenly became enormous. People had to know what they were doing -- and had to talk to others about what they knew. Concurrent engineering became the buzzword of the day: getting various functions to work in parallel instead of in linear fashion. Some managements finally realized that those chimps on the shop floor knew far more than they did about critical production processes. And on this realization was born the breakneck thrust toward employee empowerment and self-directed work teams.

Belatedly, service organizations are beginning to learn the same lessons. Maybe someday even the software industry will catch on: people already know a lot of stuff worth knowing. And if you say "please" and "thank you" enough, they might even let you in on it. This isn't about "kinder, gentler" companies, isn't based on some touchy-feely soft-headed management theory; it's about survival in the nanosecond Nineties. Companies cannot compete without an empowered workforce. And that empowerment primarily translates into the ability to access information from anywhere it resides worldwide and to exchange knowledge (i.e., rap fluently) with anyone who asks for it.

One of the sectors "asking for it" today is your market. What if you were to extend the notion of concurrent engineering to your customer base? Let clients and prospects co-design products and services? After all the lip service about "the customer driven company," here's an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is. But how? Well, the Internet seems a pretty obvious choice. Here is a giant "focus group" willing to give you a piece of its collective mind.

Powerful as this idea may be, there's just one little problem: in stark contrast to a controlled focus group, you can't conduct this discourse in private. If someone suggests that your product or service basically sucks, a goodly chunk of your market may be listening in. Who's going to answer that kind of charge? Your PR department? If your company has to loop such communications through six tiers of management to come up with official position statements, you'll be responding six weeks later. And meanwhile everybody has forgotten everything about you except that negative spin some lone Internet poster put out about you. If you're inclined to fear the Internet, forget about hackers and data security -- that has a technological fix. This fundamental shift in power relations doesn't.

To work with your global markets in this way demands that you come out from behind the corporate bunkers. You have to operate in the open to reap any advantage here. And it's going to take guts, make no mistake. The only "protection" that will do you any good is having been through the fire yourself. Companies that have been through a genuine internal cultural revolution will understand just how hot that fire can burn. Those that have smashed the notion of command-and-control hierarchies will have learned to listen. Those that have learned to listen to their own people -- and put what they've heard to work -- may be qualified to enter into a real discourse with their markets.

If your own people aren't rapping with each other -- with real passion and without fear -- don't jump blindly onto the Internet bandwagon. You might just get cut to ribbons out there. On the other hand, if your people truly understand what they're doing, genuinely care about their work, and are empowered to speak for themselves on your behalf, you could well become a major force in the business of the next century. Such high-performance firms are still all too rare, but those that do exist today will represent the first wave of sucessful commerce on the Internet. Look for them there.