The Egyptian Revolt, the American Workplace and Social Media

Did social media fuel the open revolt that’s taking place in Egypt as I write this post?

Observers and pundits are making some interesting points about the power of social media in the popular uprising in the world’s largest Arab nation. I tend to agree with blogger Mathew Ingram at GigaOM, who writes:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Networked communication has indeed changed the world. It has changed the way in which, and the speed with which, information flows. It has put more power in the hands of the masses, so those in power have no choice but to pay more heed to the people they lead (or over whom they rule).

When I read Ingram’s analysis, my mind immediately leapt to the closest thing to an autocracy I know: the American workplace. I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to compare the workplace to Egyptian society. People are led by someone they didn’t choose to lead them. The elite are only as benevolent toward the masses as they have to be. When the people perceive too much of a disparity between their own circumstances and those of their leaders, they tend to make some noise and, if not satisfied, to openly revolt.

There’s another similarity that business leaders ignore at their own risk. Employees have access to networked communication — until the elite shut it off. Even then, employees find a way to stay networked (using the Internet at home, for instance).

I laugh every time I hear of a company imposing a social media policy on employees — especially one that seeks to govern or even restrict what employees do on their own time with their own electronic devices. Future court cases may prove me wrong, but I believe it’s foolish for a company to think it can totally control employees’ social media activities — to keep them from complaining about their bosses, talking about the new benefits plan, discussing the company’s stock performance or giving their opinion about the latest product. I believe after things shake out a bit, we’ll see that companies can provide guidance, that they can advise employees about what are and aren’t appropriate topics of discussion on social media, but unless trade secrets are being revealed or slander is being broadcast, companies won’t have much of a legal leg to stand on when it comes to controlling social media in the off-hours.

Companies can either decide to engage with employees on social media — just as they should with customers and other stakeholders — or they can continue to live in the dream world that says they have the ultimate power when it comes to communication.

The real power is in the networked communication itself, to paraphrase Ingram. To try to control it is a mistake.