We're about to find out if companies mean what's in their mission statements

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Manonamission.blogspot.com 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.

This article was originally posted on the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), an open innovation project aimed at reinventing management for the 21st century.

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.

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Principal Research Scientist, Center for Digital Business, MIT Author, Enterprise 2.0 of Center for Digital Business, MIT


While employed at a large telecom and working towards my MBA I had the need to review my employer's Mission Statement as part of a project. What struck me most was the thought that though the message was a lofty speech on how employees were regarded.
In practice it was clear to me the impression that the statement evoked did not reflect reality. At that time, I had been an employee for about 7 years. During that time and since (I'm told) the company had continuous layoffs sometimes numbering in the thousands.
When new ideas or new methods of doing things were thought up, most often (at least in the business unit I was involved in) the implementation was discouraged at best. Instead, that method developed by the manager was to be implemented. Whether it would work or not. Why? Because this insured the manager's stamp on the operation was evident. So as to provide evidence of the manager's worth. There was no regard about efficiency of effort or use of resources. It was about internal politics.
Now as predicted, it is obvious this company remains willing to sacrifice its knowledge base in order to meet its quarterly projected numbers. Even with all of the advances in technology all change is resultant on the people.
If people as decision makers are not willing to explore, adapt or even evaluate the potential of new ideas, methods or practices without regard to ego (and such), the true full benefits of advancement are lost.
I don't miss that former employer at all.
Naturally I view all mission statements with a sense of suspicion. Hopefully one day my company SolidHostDesign will be fortunate enough to hire employees and allow them to grow.
RB www.solidhostdesign.com

Great article.

Companies that want to use their mission statement to show they're empowering their people have a great place to start: the mission statement itself.

If you want to give your employees a voice, actually give it to them. Open up the process of writing the mission statement. Exchange ideas out in the open.

You might want to give them a framework to provide leadership and direction for their thinking--but then share this work with them. Give them a forum to exchange ideas: Internal mailing lists. On a company blog. In town hall-style meetings. (Or even your customers in a public forum?)

Let them speak about what is most true about who they are and who the company is. Show them their ideas matter. Allow the best ideas to emerge.

Chances are, you'll find the language people in your company use are less likely to be the stock phrases, "the leader in this and committed to that..." Which stands a better chance of sticking in people's minds so they'll remember and repeat it.

After all, the goal of any mission statement is to inspire people and help them guide their everyday actions. And if you want to inspire people with a statement of empowerment, start at the phrase itself. You'll give them a statement they can actually get behind because they'll have had a hand in creating it.

No matter what the outcome, you're going to learn a lot about who your company really is along the way.

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