How to Capitalize on Collective Intellect

Even if you don’t work in the financial services industry, you can’t have missed the various occupy movements across the nation. While the movements on Wall Street get the big headlines, what’s interesting is how many smaller grassroots movements have sprung up to bring attention to rising income inequality and the role company pay systems play in that trend. Will it be long before we see generic protest signs stating “Occupy ”?

There is some statistical justification for the impression of widening income and social inequality. In October the U.S. Congressional Budget Office published “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007.” It reported that after-tax income for the highest-income households grew more than it did for any other group. Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by:
• 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households.
• 65 percent for the next 19 percent.
• Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent.
• 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

In an earlier column, I wrote about the emergence of collective performance management, in which technology and social networks may create a real-time virtual conversation about leaders’ competencies and performance. A broader example of the emerging requirement that leaders understand the collective can be seen in the Occupy movement. Will there be a long-term effect from the movement?

This movement is striking not only because of its success in distilling social discontent into a simple theme — income inequality — but for how it illustrates the emergence of a new kind of collective in talent management and employment relations.

Classic HR and industrial relations thinking often treats employees’ collective voice as though it emanates from formal institutions like labor unions. Yet, the lines between grassroots movements like Occupy and traditional unions are blurring.

A Nov. 8, 2011, story by Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times reported that, “Union leaders, who were initially cautious in embracing the Occupy movement, have in recent weeks showered the protesters with help — tents, air mattresses, propane heaters and tons of food. The protesters, for their part, have joined in union marches and picket lines across the nation.”

The story shows union leaders embrace this trend: “The Occupy movement has changed unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “You’re seeing a lot more unions wanting to be aggressive in their messaging and their activity. You’ll see more unions on the street, wanting to tap into the energy of Occupy Wall Street.”

As a talent manager, the collective voice that requires your greatest attention may not be the labor union that represents your employees or the works council at your plant in Europe. The voice that matters may be the one emerging from collective conversations in the actual and virtual hallways, and Occupy sites that focus on your organization. The Occupy movement recognized the elegance of income inequality as a lightning rod for the frustration of global workers. Are you listening to the buzz that surrounds your organization?

The collective need not be seen as a threat or nemesis. It can be harnessed by organization leaders to create valuable insights about the future of work. Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, used the collective intellect of IBMers worldwide to get a handle on how IBM’s talent and employment systems could be improved. He created an Internet “jam session” inviting any employee to email him with ideas about how IBM needed to improve, and he used the information as a call to action for a globally integrated workforce system.

For talent managers, this drumbeat is deafening. Are you in tune with the emerging collective voice of your employees, potential employees and other constituents? Do your leaders know how to tap the collective for insights and ideas? Can your talent management systems recognize the leaders of the new collective when they emerge?

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and author of Retooling HR: Using Proven Business Tools to Make Better Decisions about Talent. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.