Internal corporate communities – making great music together writers Mike Schultz, Publisher, and John Doerr, Contributing Editor attribute words of wisdom to Benjamin Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.  In a conference for business leaders Zander said,

The job of the conductor is to get the best music out of the musicians. His role is to coach, encourage, support, and occasionally push. But the conductor never makes a sound.

That got me thinking about internal corporate communities. 

If handled correctly, internal corporate communities are one way for corporate executives foster communication, collaboration, and participation among employees.  And while the execs can be a voice to share corporate philosophy and well-earned knowledge, internal communities are also great opportunities to hear ideas from employees.

The question then becomes will employees speak up?  The answer to that has a lot to do with your corporate culture.


Online communities and corporate culture

If you foster a culture that inspires forthright discussion, then I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” If your corporate powers tend to punish folks that speak up or out, then look for a silent community.

If your company is in the latter camp and seeking to inspire more employee participation and collaboration, what can you do to foster it?  It all comes back to trust.

It’s not enough to simply give employees a voice.  Believe me, I once worked for a company that gave employees lots of opportunity to speak up in “brainstorming sessions” that then never went anywhere.  Guess what?  After a few months, employees caught on that it was an illusion of participation and lost interest themselves.

Thus, if a company wants to foster participation, management must be genuinely interested in acting on the voices– as well as reward those who are willing to speak up and out.

In terms of action, management must be willing to delegate trust and control to employees to carry actionable items forward on their own initiatives – even if it means that employees don’t always do things the way you would.

Trust also means rewarding employees for having the courage to speak up/out.  That doesn’t mean that you implement an idea just because someone is brave enough to offer it up.  Rather you reward the sharing behavior.  Reward it often enough and more folks will learn it’s safe to share.

I also think it means that you have to give employees the time to participate. 

Mailtrust, a division of Rackspace, is a perfect example.  As part of their corporate culture, they believe it’s important employees have time to brainstorm.  Translation, employees need time to set aside the daily grind of their job, with its ever-present time demands.   They may leave the office for an hour or so and have coffee with co-workers to trade ideas, or engage in some other form of creative, non-grindy play.  You know of the sort that leads minds to innovate interesting ideas that can lead to the next cool thing.


The value of employee participation

Why do I think it’s a good corporate practice to foster employee participation?  It comes down to corporate excellence.  Do you want your company to be the equivalent of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra?  The sort of company that creates fabulous new products or other innovative business ideas, or has an impassioned workforce interfacing with customers?  Or will you be satisfied with being the equivalent of the local high school band?

Online communities aren’t the only way to foster participation among employees.  Truth be told, if possible then personal, face-to-face contact is best.   However, for larger organizations with multiple locations, or even one location spread over multiple buildings, or folks facing differing time demands, online communities are a great way for employees to reach out to each other.

And make music.