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Empower Workers with Information They Can Act On

Gates leads by example, inviting anyone in the organization to send him an email at any time. And he doesn't want just the good news—he wants bad news even faster (another Gates principle is, "Bad news must travel fast"). In today's fast-changing business environment, anyone, anywhere, can get a paradigm-busting idea, and organizations that do not listen to all employees—particularly those who are closest to the customers—risk being overtaken by more nimble competitors:

Smart people anywhere in the company should have the power to drive an initiative. It's an obvious, commonsense policy for Information Age companies, where all the knowledge workers should be part of setting the strategy.

Management's willingness to listen to everyone in the company is only the first step. If employees are to have "the power to drive an initiative," they need far more than email. If they are to contribute to the maximum possible extent, today's employees need access to all sorts of information: sales reports and data, customer information, market analysis, the latest product instructions, and so on.

Giving the workforce easy access to all this information was nearly impossible before the Internet, but today, there is almost no excuse for organizations not to provide this information to their employees. Gates feels that this shift to a knowledge-based economy will make many of the "old economy" jobs obsolete, and he argues that every worker is potentially a knowledge worker. Armed with all of this "instant knowledge," workers can (and must) do more than ever before:

You very quickly start to get the knowledge workers more empowered and, in turn, get more value out of them. You can redefine customer service; you can redefine how you plan products and get lots more input and feedback along the way; you can respond more quickly when you perceive the marketplace telling you to do something.

Gates describes the transformation of old-economy clerical workers into more sophisticated value contributors as "shifting knowledge workers into higher-level thinking." It's the middle managers and employees, says Gates, who need accurate data the most, since they're the ones who are doing so much of the work. Gates urges companies to abandon their habit of hoarding information, and instead to teach their employees how to interpret, analyze, and act on that information.

Gates is convinced, however, that there is still much to be done in this area. While e-commerce is a reality for most corporations, its applications are often far too limited. In practice, he concludes, most organizations do not take advantage of the full potential of e-commerce. "In any meaningful sense, it has not happened," he declared in the spring of 2002.

In other words, e-commerce has not lived up to its potential. In part, this is because there is a great deal of inefficiency in sharing information, particularly between companies. As an example, Gates describes two companies that are engaged in an e-commerce transaction. If you examine the knowledge workers and systems in one company and the knowledge workers and corresponding systems in the other, you find mismatches and resulting inefficiencies.

Why? Because, according to Gates, few companies engage in purely digital transactions. In fact, the digital part of the transaction (in this case, a purchase order) is often only a minor aspect of the transaction. Gates says that in reality, workers are supplementing the digital part of the transaction with phone calls and faxes and emails, then updating systems to reflect the results:

Actually, there's more effort spent in just impedance, moving the information around, than there is in the real work itself; that is, the work of designing the products or doing good customer service.

Here are several ideas for improving your organization's information flow:

  • ENCOURAGE ANY EMPLOYEE OR CUSTOMER TO CONTACT YOU DIRECTLY VIA EMAIL. The truth is that in most large companies, no one would dare send an email to the CEO, particularly one delivering bad news. (Someone—either an intermediate supervisor or the CEO him-or herself—would be likely to shoot the messenger.) These companies are likely to be left behind in the digital revolution.

  • AIM FOR "PURE" DIGITAL TRANSACTIONS. Gates argues that there is still a great deal of inefficiency in most organizations' transactions. This is because there are few purely digital transactions. Encourage collaboration among your customers, your suppliers, and the key internal departments (especially IT) to work toward pure digitization of transactions (such as order fulfillment).

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