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We're About to Find Out if Companies Mean What's in Their Mission Statements

by Andrew McAfee on August 25, 2010


andrew-mcafee's picture

We're About to Find Out if Companies Mean What's in Their Mission Statements is a great collection of corporate mission statements. I recently used its search function to find examples of companies that prominently and publicly state something close to "people are our most important asset." Here's a partial list: Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Land O' Lakes, Danaher, Archer Daniels Midland, Valero, Performance Food Group, Norfolk Southern, and Border's Group. And here's a group of companies that similarly value "empowerment:" Caremark, Sara Lee, Heinz, Dow Chemical, GE, and Alcoa.

I don't mean to pick on these companies; they're just particularly clear examples of how all organizations talk about their people. I've never come across a modern enterprise that publicly states anything like "We want our people to put their heads down and do only the jobs that have been assigned to them. We want their thinking to stay 'inside the box.' When we want their opinions, we'll ask for them. Our machines and business processes are our most important assets; our people just keep them running." Instead, virtually all organizations stress the empowerment of their people.

We're at a very interesting juncture just now: we're about to find out how many of these companies really mean it.

I study information technology's impact on the world of business—how it changes the way companies perform and compete. In recent years I've spent a lot of time looking into the phenomenon that I call Enterprise 2.0 —the use by organizations of the Web 2.0 toolkit of emergent social software platforms like wikis, blogs, microblogs, social networking software, tagging systems, prediction markets, location-based services, and so on.

All of these tools share a few properties. The first is that they place very few rules or constraints on their users— no pre-defined workflows, differentiated roles and privileges, membership criteria, or standard operating procedures. The second is that despite this apparent fondness for chaos, they actually become pretty orderly environments; users can find what and who they're looking for, and patterns and structure appear over time even though no one's dictating them up front or from on high. Third, they deliver results that are impressive even to the most hard-headed pragmatist: Wikipedia is the world's largest reference work and its factual accuracy rivals that of the Encyclopedia Britannica, prediction markets do better than polls at predicting election winners, and strangers and friends alike answer each other's questions on Twitter. Fourth, these tools are pleasing and even addictive to their users. Humans are social and (at least somewhat) altruistic creatures, and we like well-designed technologies that let us interact and share with each other without mandating how we do so.

One final commonality, though, is less heartening: many organizations appear scared to death of Enterprise 2.0. They're worried that people will use the new tools and accompanying freedom to broadcast hate speech or porn, or harass each other. They're worried about secrets slipping over Chinese walls and firewalls. Or that people will be too critical or contrarian in public forums. That 'social' is too close to 'unproductive' or 'time-wasting.'

They're worried, in short, about what will happen when they actually do empower their employees with the digital tookit of Enterprise 2.0. They seem quite concerned about what will happen when they give demonstrably powerful tools to their most important assets.

Some of this hesitation is justified, at least for a bit. These tools really are something new under the sun, and it wasn't initially clear if people would use them maturely, and for productive purposes. But virtually all the evidence I've seen over the years convinces me that people (whether employees, partners, or customers) can be trusted, and do predominantly use the new social software platforms in ways that provide benefit and credit to the companies that establish them.

So I think the real reluctance comes from someplace else. I think it comes from a deep-seated desire to not give up control.

Executives these days feel like they have less and less control all the time, so it's natural for them to hold on to two areas where they still have a lot: what their people do, and how their business processes are executed. And at least in the latter area, they've been taught that control is immensely desirable and valuable. I used to teach operations management to MBA students, and if there was one mantra we drilled in to them, it was "if you want to control the outcome, control the process."

I still think that's the right mantra in some situations, but the successes of Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 have taught me another mantra. It goes something like "If you want a good outcome, back off on process and get out of the way of people. Let them come together and interact as they wish, and harvest the good stuff that emerges."

I admit that's a little bulky. I also admit that we (or at least I) don't yet have a clear idea when each mantra is appropriate. But I am certain that the latter mantra fits in perfectly with mission statements about empowerment and people as the most valuable resource. I'll be very keen to see how many companies come to share this certainty, and how quickly.

What's your experience? How much progress are companies and their leaders making in the difficult work of deploying the new digital tools, giving up control, and harvesting what emerges? How closely are corporate mission statements aligned with today's digital cornucopia? Are companies practicing what they preach? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Other links you may find helpful:
Andrew McAfee: What is Enterprise 2.0? (video)
Andrew McAfee: Have you mastered the art of getting out of the way? (video)
We Work in Public (blog post by Polly LaBarre based on a conversation with Andrew)

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dan-oestreich's picture
Hi Andrew
I think you are highlighting a core issue in this sense: how well do companies deal with discrepancies from their vision/mission statements?  Their core values?  Do they examine these sometimes embarrassing, awkward, or surprising discrepancies or do they dismiss them? Are they a source of information and learning, a possible competitive edge, or a reason to back up and defend the status quo?  I think that's the harder question implied in what you share here.  Most organizations I have worked with -- and the more famous they are the worse it gets -- see discrepancies as a problem, rather than a resource for the ongoing work of real alignment.  IF we are able to address that one, THEN -- whether it's Enterprise 2.0 tools, or the reality of how customers truly feel, or the actual  internal culture of organizations -- adaptation within the stated values set can occur.  I think what you are sharing is a symptom of a much more difficult problem, and thank you for doing it.  Every time we come face to face with the discrepancies, we have yet another chance to look -- at ourselves as much as our organizations -- and how we handle the problem of incongruence.  I believe our defensiveness, personal and corporate, is the most telling limit we place on innovation.
Best to you
elad-sherf's picture

Hi Andrew,

Interesting ideas!

I think both mantras are correct. Still the process is king, but it less a process of control and more a process of environment. I think the Zappos example is key. Just today I wrote a blog post inspired in part by something I read about that company (

The process today is about foundation of culture. The tools of control are less and less practical for things like human services and creativity (And see my No More Rules! Hack for more on that). When we were focused on mass production these things were enough. But today, service is about human connection and that does not come out of control.

I agree that companies are scared to lose the control they have (which is illusionary anyway, they don't control people as much as they think). Like Gary Hamel said in his webinar here on the mix, fear is only so good at keeping people from doing what these companies are afraid of. But culture, trust and practical wisdom are better tools at that and at creating work environments that are both more productive and creative. Work environments are changing and the first ones to realize it (like Zappos) will reap all the benefits!

Thanks for sharing!

waqas-ali's picture
Hi Andrew, really nice note. I agree with you on this
People (whether employees, partners, or customers) can be trusted, and do predominantly use the new social software platforms in ways that provide benefit and credit to the companies that establish them.

A good example is Zappos, their rep and employee are very free to use these social tool. Recently read their CEO interview, where he said that we do not want to have many policies for employees, they must feel free.
I've just started a small business, but luckily I have learnt from guys like you that it is very important to practically empower your employee.
I believe, you just need to have a clear philosophy, when you know your goal and the company philosophy, you automatically do what comes naturally, mean to be good to customers, so no worries over employee's so called extra power.