Monday, December 05, 2005

Corporate Blogs as Media of Empowerment? Three Criteria To Assess a Company's Culture of Empowerment

Much has been made of the potential for corporate blogs to empower their authors, largely due to the fact that blogs have the potential to give employees a voice and an audience they might not otherwise have available to them. For example, in Edelman & Intelliseek's excellent report entitled "Talking From the Inside Out: The Rise of Employee Bloggers"* (link opens PDF in new window) their first paragraph reads:

The rise of the blogosphere has the potential to empower employees in ways not unlike the rise of labor unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although more subtle than those fundamental shifts in the labor-management dynamic, employee bloggers, in many cases, have tipped the balance of influence in their favor to establish levels of credibility that many CEOs can only dream of. (p. 3)

This excerpt sets the bar very high. How do we know if corporate blogging is reaching that potential? What criteria can be used to determine whether or not blogging is really helping employees to feel more empowered? These two questions were recently discussed in our Advanced Organizational Communication class at Northeastern University. We would like to propose that there are (at least) three criteria to use in order to assess whether or not employees are really empowered. We invite bloggers in organizations to ask these questions of themselves and their companies to determine if they are really empowered through their blogging efforts. The three criteria are: 1) autonomy of judgment, 2) level of authenticity, and 3) level of subordination.

To assess autonomy of judgment employee bloggers can ask: How much freedom do I have in the content and style of my blog posts? How rigid are our guidelines or policies about what can and cannot be said? Does my company trust me enough to make these decisions for myself, or do my posts need to be screened before they are allowed to become publicly accessible? We hypothesize that greater autonomy of judgment leads to greater feelings of empowerment. We also acknowledge that companies do have legitimate needs to constrain or otherwise prohibit certain types of blogging activities, such as not disclosing company secrets, not allowing harrassing behaviors, etc.

To assess level of authenticity employee bloggers can ask: To what extent do I feel like I am speaking with my own voice? Do I feel like I have to change how I speak in order to fit the style of how my company wants me to speak? We hypothesize that greater levels of authenticity lead to greater feelings of empowerment.

To assess level of subordination employee bloggers can ask: To what extent am I made to subordinate my own needs to the needs of my employer or my audience (such as customers, clients, colleagues or other stakeholders)? To what extent are my perspectives as an employee made subordinate to management interests and decision-making (for example, if my voice needed to be heard in order to right an organizational wrong-doing or injustice, would my voice be heard)? To what extent am I involved in decisions that affect my blogging activities? We hypothesize that lower levels of subordination lead to greater feelings of empowerment.

In our humble opinion we propose that employees, and their companies, that want to foster a communication climate of empowerment would do well to reflect on these three criteria -- autonomy of judgment, level of authenticity, and level of subordination -- and design guidelines and policies accordingly.

Please comment on our three criteria, critique them, praise them, suggest additional criteria or alternatives. We would love to hear what you think!

If you are interested in this theme of empowerment, you may also be interested in our postings (1, 2, and 3) on using the phrase "synthetic transparency" to call out corporate blogging practices that do not hold to the ideals of blogs as media that facilitate openness, honesty, and clarity.

* We read the Edelman & Intelliseek report in our class as an assigned reading. I would strongly encourage other classes to do the same, as well as any individual or company who wants an engaging and accessible introduction to this fascinating topic.


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