Trust your staff to use Web for company gains

Instead of withdrawing Internet access from office workers, companies should be encouraging them to learn first-hand about the digital revolution.

Back in 1811, some Nottingham hand weavers took the law into their own hands and started smashing mechanical weaving machines in the big new industrial “mills”. The “Luddite” movement spread and the industrial “revolution” was soon nipped in the bud. Britain led the rest of the world back to the agrarian idyll we all live in today.

All right, the second half of the story didn’t happen. History shows that when powerful technological and societal forces are unleashed, individuals can rarely swim against the tide. Or if they do, they’ll probably drown.

So how come some companies are withdrawing Internet access from their office workers?

The stated reason is that people are surfing the Net, booking holidays, sending friends e-mails and so forth. It uses company time and company money. People are abusing the tools they have been given.

To me, cutting people off from the Net seems as foresighted an act as smashing weaving machines. The difference here is these managers are doing it to their own businesses.

Does it make sense to try to cut workers off from knowledge? Does it make sense for workers to have a less information-rich environment at the office than at home? Is it possible to freeze-frame your working methods at one point of technological development when the rest of the world is accelerating ahead?

I suppose there is a management philosophy that says all that is absolutely fine. Perhaps these are the same fellows that cause tele-centre workers to go out on strike, protesting against oppressive monitoring practices. But if you give people full access to these new tools and trust them to use them well, advantages will accrue. People will find new ideas and information, and will create smarter ways of working of their own accord; people will be more relaxed and productive as they can integrate their non-work life seamlessly into their office life; people will have a greater understanding of the implications of the digital revolution, as they experience it first-hand and will be able to contribute positively to your company as it changes.

To all untrusting managers, I say: put away those sledge hammers and let your people weave away on this new Web. You never know what they may make for you.

Jon Leach is a partner at ad agency HHCL

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