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The New Citizenship Model Revisited:
Building on Lessons from Facebook and IBM

by Christopher Meyer on 08/17/2010

Building on a previous post, I advocate implementing a wider reaching set of mutual “citizen” obligations will increase competitiveness over traditional employer-employee cultures.

“When working across wider boundaries, it’s the citizens that rule.  The problem there is we think so much about leadership that we undervalue the role of citizens.  Working wider depends on a new model of citizenship.”

The above comes from a previous post where I called for a new citizenship model.  Since that time, I’ve been researching citizenship to understand how to tune and foster this new approach.  What I’ve learned is that increased citizenship within organizations enables firms to compete more effectively while remaining fast and flexible.  To see how this works, it helps to understand the foundations of citizenship starting with the ancient Greeks.

A Very Short History of Citizenship

Citizenship began in the city-states of Greece.  One was expected to be an active citizen of the community.   Fulfilling one’s obligations to community was a sign of virtue, source of honor and respect.   Note my emphasis on “obligations” as it captures the seriousness with which Greeks held citizenship as well as the potential for it holds for organizations.  Aristotle famously characterized this as “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”

Greek citizenship wasn’t perfect.  With the exception of Sparta, Greek women could not be citizens.  Greek citizenship depended on wealth, political participation and heritage.   Scholars call the Greek model the Republican form of citizenship.

The Romans changed citizenship from the Greek’s participative republican form to the representative model that dominates contemporary, constitutional democracies including the U.S.  They replaced the Greek’s obligation for participation with a set of rights that were protected by law.  Critically, citizenship became a legal status but no longer an obligation to contribute. Romans used this to legitimize their rule over conquered territories.

The passive Roman model imposes very few responsibilities on citizens.  For example, U.S. citizens have five responsibilities:  1) pay taxes, 2) obey the laws, 3) jury duty, 4) voting, and; 4) serve in the armed forces if called upon.  One could make a strong argument that even under the less demanding Roman model, most of us are not very good citizens.  We cringe when receiving a jury duty summons, our national voting turnout is weak and with an all volunteer army, compulsory military or national service no longer exists.

If I translate the Roman model to most companies, it basically asks you to do your job, follow policy, tell us what you think when asked and serve on task forces when assigned.  Pretty minimal — and hardly the stuff that inspires superior competitive performance.

I invoked the term “citizenship” in the opening quote to underscore the competitive need for a more deeply engaged, outwardly-reaching workforce that operates with a higher level of mutual accountability.  This reflects the original Greek republican model of citizenship but not our national or business experience. It is the only direction that makes sense given our increased knowledge, technology and the realities of global commerce and collaboration.

Before turning to implications for business leaders, I want to note that there is little written that describes any form of citizenship inside a corporation.  If you Google “corporate citizenship” the responses describe how XYZ Corporation contributes to society at-large.  People inside the corporation are referred to as employees.  This fits the classical organization hierarchy, legal constructs such as “employment at will” and is echoed every time frustrated leaders make choices amidst conflicting inputs by saying “this is not a democracy”.

Why Leaders Should Advocate a Greek-based Model of Citizenship

As the connections across groups within and between organizations increase in size, complexity and criticality, the limits of hierarchy become more evident.  Clear role definitions and authorities that clarify work within hierarchies don’t translate across internal or external boundaries.  For example, an Abbott employee’s internal position and power doesn’t deliver the same influence in joint Abbott-Genentech oncology partnership meetings.  Every partnership has to negotiate its internal roles, authorities and operating ground rules.

The same is true for fundamental work processes.  Sometimes regulatory requirements such as the FDA’s drug approval process provide a high level framework yet operating practices and areas of emphasis differ between companies.  For example, the Abbott-Genentech partnership team has to reach a common philosophy and operating model for how they’ll define, select sites and conduct clinical trials.  As Abbott’s Alliance Manager Richard Marshak said, operating success depends on fast and furious communication.  Details for conducting clinical trials will not be found in the formal partnership agreement.

Fast and furious communication depends on people proactively engaging with each other.  You can’t just be a lurker or responder.  In practice, this requires a sense of commitment that effectively becomes an obligation to the common cause.  As Aristotle said, not speaking out and engaging would be failing to meet your obligations.

The deeper problem is we have trained people, explicitly and implicitly, to be good employees rather than active citizens.  Early on we all learn it’s safer to bump a controversial decision up to the next level.  Although we showcase leaders who dare to go against the grain, they are the exceptions.  The legends we hear are about those that took a risk and won.  We don’t see as many headlines about those who lost.  By definition, smooth running organizations prefer people who stick to their assigned role.

Do not misconstrue that I’m arguing against routine, checklists and the habits of good process control.  I want my pilot and co-pilot to run through their pre-flight checklist with integrity.  What I don’t want is the co-pilot to be silent or defer to the Captain’s authority if he’s off course, wrong or in the worst case, incapacitated.  Good citizenship has an obligation to the mission above the role, position or person in it.

The problem is in a fast moving world, clearly defined structures and responsibilities are increasingly up-ended by facts on the ground.  Business plans are no different than battle plans where winners are those that respond quickly to counter-attacks, new tactics and surprises.  If failure is not an option, we need to cultivate engaged and active citizens who feel an obligation to respond intelligently, rapidly and directly.

New Citizenship Examples From Facebook and IBM

Based on employee reviews at Glassdoor, a website where employees rate their employers, Business Insider ranks Facebook as the best tech company for which to work.  Business Horizon uses a combination of reviews on the company and CEO to make their ranking.

“While Facebook doesn’t skimp on any of the perks normally associated with tech workplaces, the independence it grants employees sets it apart. Reviewers felt free from meddling middle management, office politics, and strict department distinctions and thanked the company for that freedom in their remarks.” (emphasis is mine)

The ranking correlates with conversations I’ve had with Facebook employees over the last year.  Collectively they describe a culture where the obligation for individual initiative and fast action are extremely clear and aligned.

IBM shows us how to scale citizenship.  One of the principle rationales behind the less participative citizenship of the Romans was that once the empire expanded, managing broad citizen involvement was deemed impractical.  IBM addresses this by combining technology with social interaction design in their “Jam” methodology.

Jams are electronically moderated, meetings that bring people and ideas together in an asynchronous “town hall” setting.  In 2006, they hosted an Innovation Jam that included more than 150,000 people from 104 countries and 67 companies.  In 2003, they hosted a 72 hour “values-Jam” that engaged one quarter of all employees in defining IBM values for the future – 100,000 people!

Conclusion

My confidence in the competitive power unleashed by implementing a new citizenship model continues to grow.  Why?  The alternative to command and control is certainly not going out of control or giving up the responsibility to lead.  It is clear that shifting these responsibilities closer to the where the knowledge, action and opportunity reside makes sense if and only if, they are embraced with mutual obligation.  For that, a new citizenship model fits the bill.

A new citizenship model cannot and should not stand on its own.  It’s a critical piece of a broader transformation that enables working wider including topics covered in previous posts.

I’m convinced that as effective as hierarchical models have been over the last fifty years, new knowledge and human aspirations whittle away at them daily.  These days, technological innovation moves very fast but it’s ultimately limited by the progress of social innovations such as the new citizenship model.  I invite you to comment and contribute your thinking.

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