Small Groups United by a Shared Purpose are Changing Big Tech Companies. Here’s How.


Brand promises to keep

This post is part of a new series on conversations worthy of attention.

There's a new form of communication that flies in the face of the story that companies lack internal engagement—the open letter from employees to the CEO. Recent examples of grassroots leadership at big tech companies demonstrate that people understand how to lead change.

Dear Sundar:

Dear Sundar

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” says an open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai signed by more than 3,100 Google employees. 

Like many organizations, Google has encouraged employees to share information and communicate with each other. Intranets, message boards, and internal communities are all useful methods to stay up to date on what's going on in an organizaiton, to collaborate, and learn organically from colleagues. 

When companies talk about engagement, they often focus on top down communication flows and overlook peer networks and internal word of mouth. Coordination is an important aspect of modern workflows where teams of specialists form to solve business problems.

Increasingly, they also compare notes about the internal obstacles employees and teams face as part of this spirit of cooperation. As the NYT reports#

Google employees have circulated protest petitions on a range of issues, including Google Plus, the company’s lagging competitor to Facebook, and Google’s sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Employees raised questions about Google’s involvement in Project Maven at a recent companywide meeting. At the time, Diane Greene, who leads Google’s cloud infrastructure business, defended the deal and sought to reassure concerned employees. A company spokesman said most of the signatures on the protest letter had been collected before the company had an opportunity to explain the situation.

This form of activism based on insider knowledge gets results. “We’re actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic,” said Google in a statement about the issue. The employees’ open letter to Pichai argued that being associagted with this kind of military work could alienate customers and potential recruits:

“This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust.” 

[…]

“The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.”

The lines have blurred between work and lifeemployees are also owners, investors, customers, and citizens. As people, they want to make a more enduring difference with their work.

Jeff Bezos and Board of Directors:

Jeff Bezos

Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis,” say 4,520 Amazon employees. They used the same Medium# the company's CEO used recently to communicate directly with the public about his private affairs.

The structure of the letter is familiar to the many who study the yearly letter Jeff Bezons writers to shareholders#—what happened with data to support it, why it happened, and what needs to happen next. It's the same memo format employees use to present ideas in meetings.

Company identity is a big part of how it does business:

We’re a company that understands the importance of thinking big, taking ownership of hard problems, and earning trust. These traits have made Amazon a top global innovator but have been missing from the company’s approach to climate change.

5 specific examples follow the statement. The same logic we've seen in the Google letters applies here—employees are people, too. Our customer obsession requires climate obsession.” Six prinsiples spell out the proposal of what Amazon should do.

The business' strategic direction and its mission to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company” should align. A call to action precedes numbered references and list of signatures to date. The signatures creates transparency, they make the document real.

Communication is two-way

When both parties engage, communication becomes a conversation. That's were we get things done. These are two examples of how after years of pushing communication from the top down, they're now starting to work their way from the bottom to the top.

It's more efficient than going through channels#, and more effective.

To make a difference in business we need to move the needle. This means:

  1. finding something concrete and tangible we want to achieve
  2. aligning different stakeholders—in this case employees are also investors, customers, and citizens
  3. proposing one change that everyone can agree on—in both of these examples, the change is “on brand,” it reflects what each company set out to do, and likely how everyone measures results in their day-to-day

In the past, these kinds of negotiations were happening across the table between a few representatives, or not happening at all. Public is the nature of today's conversations. And it's not a spectator's sport.

 

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