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Not Far Enough from the Madding Crowd

Not Far Enough from the Madding Crowd

How the next generation is putting the “I” in teamwork

About a year ago our company decided to explore going green. An e-mail was sent to all employees inviting suggestions. Most were unremarkable, not in a negative way, but in that they were pretty much what you'd expect: things like turn off PCs, change to energy-saving light bulbs, and the like. One suggestion, though, was quite remarkable: eliminate waste bins. (In trying to reduce paper usage were we now reduced to throwing our other garbage on the floor?)

Well, so much for the wisdom of crowds.

I'm no fan of crowds (mild claustrophobia aside) because they have a tendency to resemble the torch-wielding peasants chasing Dr Frankenstein's monster over the Swiss countryside. Certainly history proves crowds largely incapable of anything even close to approaching wisdom. The French Revolution, the Salem witch trials, Nazi Germany, English football fans and the NSW branch of the Labor Party are in my book pretty good examples.

But this is the era of Web 2.0, social networking, communities and collaboration. The virtual crowd has cache in the enterprise - at least the usual assortment of pundits, observers and newly minted consultants say so. (If you're in doubt, read "Enterprise 2.0: What Is It Good For?", page 42.) Moreover Web 2.0 has given rise to the individual voice, even if it's not a particularly wise one.

The proliferation of blogs and sites such as Facebook and MySpace have enabled far too many people to tell us far too much about themselves. The idea of codifying the minutiae of one's life is nothing new; personal journals and diaries have been the medium since man first developed writing. But these were largely private (that is, unless your younger brother stole your diary), and if you devoted a page to some silly musings it was for your eyes only. Now Web 2.0 has opened the kimono on silly musings to the world.

But here's what I think has happened: enablement has evolved into a mistaken sense of entitlement. The (mostly) young people embracing Web 2.0 media believe everything they have to say is worthy or important.

Let me cite an example. Last month I was in the US visiting my family and we went out to dinner. My 16-year-old niece had turned off her mobile while we were eating, but as we were getting ready to leave she turned it back on and it beeped immediately. She looked at the screen and said: "James just texted me that he's at Walgreens." (Two things you need to know here: First, Walgreens is a chemist and, second, this kid was in another state.)

My sister rolled her eyes and said: "She got 8000 text messages last month." That's a lot of information sharing.

Back in the 90s much was written about knowledge management efforts, the idea of capturing and sharing intellectual capital and best practice within the enterprise. Most of these efforts failed because people were loath to surrender knowledge they viewed as giving them a competitive edge.

When the future generations enter the workforce the problem for employers won't be getting them to contribute, but getting them to shut the hell up.

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