Both Elias and Nigel are absolutely correct -- and their suggestions very helpful -- but opening up your company is a lot harder than it looks.
Trust me on this.
Companies Are Like People
Companies, like people, take on unique behavioral traits based on all sorts of things: the personalities of their founders, the markets they compete in, and so on.
Just like people often erect barriers between their dialog inside and their external engagement, companies frequently do the same thing.
Much like a medieval castle, companies frequently "wall off" the outside world -- thus creating only a few, narrow and guarded passages for thoughts and ideas to pass between the inside world and the outside one.
These walls, ostensibly erected to protect the interests of the company and thus its employees, frequently turn into the cultural equivalent of prison walls.
Great ideas and great thoughts have to work hard to escape the defensive perimeter. And, if you're stuck inside, you'll often miss a lot of what's actually going on in the world around you.
Strange cult-like behaviors can frequently emerge behind the wall: paranoia and inherent distrust of others, difficulty in accepting incompatible thoughts and perspectives, and plenty of corporate kool-aid that must be shared, consumed and regurgitated on demand.
In larger companies, you can have castles within castles within castles: one group doesn't always trust another. People, information and knowledge don't flow freely. You work mostly with your immediate team, and that's about it.
To any outsider, it's pretty obvious that this sort of behavior is Not Good -- not good for the company, not good for its employees, not good for its customers, and not good for the industry it serves.
People who are open and transparent bring more to the party than people who are not; the same can be said for companies as well.
Opening Up Is Hard To Do
I, as well as many others at EMC, have long believed that (a) being open, transparent and engaging is in EMC's best interests, and (b) like most large companies, it is not in our natural inclination.
As a result, we have collectively been on a long journey of "opening up" EMC in as many ways as we can. There has been no explicit corporate mandate or even unambiguous executive direction to do so. Just a lot of people like me across the organization who think it's really important, and continually work steadfastly in that direction.
We can celebrate many, many victories. But, at the same time, we sometimes despair on how much more we have to do. We are continually at war with an undeniable force of human nature that causes people, groups and organizations to instinctively erect castle walls and divide the world into "us" vs. "them".
How To Get Started
Some may naively think that all it takes is a nice memo or speech from a member of the executive leadership to change this. That always helps, but it's never enough. Our social behaviors -- especially at work -- are not only deeply ingrained, but largely modeled and driven by those we work with.
We instinctively want to fit in, conform to the observed social norm, and be accepted and endorsed by our tribe. It's a behavior that's evolved over tens of thousands of years, and it takes a lot of concerted effort to overcome.
Personal story: as a child, we often went to church as a family. Behavior at church was subject to strict social norms as to what you did and didn't do while there. As an adult, though, I once visited a church that was very different in the expected norms: people freely conversing and chatting, upbeat music -- more like a celebration than a somber occasion. Needless to say, it took me a while to get comfortable with all of that -- but it got me thinking ...
Occasionally, EMC makes a serious error in judgment and hires a crazy non-conformist like me. People like me tend to seek out like minds in the organization -- and there's more than enough of them here now.
When I find them, I strongly encourage them to resist the temptation to conform -- we've got enough people doing that already, thank you. Together, we often rally around many of the same concerns and priorities, but don't find much official organization support for what we think needs to be done.So we agree to work together to do what we can do to change things. We don't need a mandate, or budget, or official approval. We see something that needs to be done, and we start working in that direction.
If you want to open up your organization, you're also going to have recruit a "coalition of willing" from across the organization. Some may be senior people, some may not. Individually, no one has much power or authority, but collectively they can make amazing things happen.
Some of these EMC non-conformists you can see in the blogosphere each and every day: people like Polly Pearson, Steve Todd, Chad Sakac, Mark Twomey, Len Devanna, Barry Burke, Gina Minks, Chris Kusek, Kate Winkler and too many more to list here. They're all authentic voices with something to share. And we need more like them.
Getting The Conversation Started
One of the bigger initiatives I led a while back I called "social media proficiency" -- teaching our organization to engage internally -- then externally -- in an attempt to open up our company and culture.
Polly calls it "creating the networked organization". Others have called it simply learning to converse with people who aren't in your tribe. Indeed this new focus on openness, transparency, learning to collaborate in new ways is very popular on the management agenda these days in many industries.
Indeed, our experiences around our internal efforts (known as EMC|ONE) and our various external efforts (such as ECN) are increasingly popular topics with customers. My blog on the subject ("A Journey In Social Media") still gets considerable traffic, even though I haven't posted there in a very long time.
Polly and I would agree: get the conversation started, encourage people to share, collaborate and encourage each other -- and that's when the magic starts to happen. But it's not a self-sustaining process -- it turns out to require continuous energy and passion, otherwise people and organizations tend to default to their prior behaviors.
We Have A Lot To Point To Already ...
If you're reading this blog post, you're probably active on-line and are aware that literally hundreds of EMCers are out and about with their own blogs, Twitter activity and whatnot. We could celebrate that as progress, but against an employee base of over 40k, we still have a ways to go :-)
Sure, we engage around EMC products and solutions -- but there's lot more to it than that. Every function at EMC has the ability and the potential to engage with like functions at other companies, if we choose.
Our IT organization's transformation. Our growing sustainability efforts. Our drive to delight customers with our TCE program. Our passion in making EMC the best place to work on the planet. How we do customer support. How we handle things like HR, and Legal and Finance and Marketing. Our growing roster of unique consulting engagements.
The EMC list can potentially go on, and on, and on. Just about every part of the company has the potential to "open up", engage externally, and bring value to the conversation and the community.
Actually, doing so is technically easy. Anyone at EMC can fire up a blog or Twitter account, and have at it. The challenge in doing so, though, is largely within ourselves. Nobody can do it for you.
We Have Our Bad Days
Despite our considerable progress, there's so much more we could be doing.
Right now, we've got tons of cool content we'd like to get outside the firewall, but they're apparently locked in a byzantine process flow and frequently stamped "CONFIDENTIAL" as a likely CYA move. Many of us are on a campaign to now require a cumbersome process to use that designation -- the default should be "free to share".
Another challenge: the organizations who support our collaboration platforms tend to think of the technology, rather than invest in engaging in how people are actually using them to create business value. That's a hard leap for many to make.
Several of our amazing corporate initiatives still don't have a voice, and aren't engaging externally. For example, our TCE (total customer experience) journey is amazing, as has been our strategy around COEs -- global centers of excellence. Or how we manage innovation globally. Or how we are redefining our concepts around of "education" and "learning". Or the new definition of "career".
And there's about 5-6 others like that on my personal list.
I meet so many people here who have something important to say, but don't feel encouraged enough or supported enough to take the plunge. Where's the approval process and the review committee? Where's the official corporate mandate?
These people are looking for traditional and familiar highway signs in a world that's now using nav systems to get where they're going.
Another painful issue: you'll still find managers here (not leaders) who make it clear that blogging, Twittering, conversing, engaging, etc. is goofing off -- you're not getting your work done!
Welcome to the new definition of "work". In the knowledge economy, engagement matters.
The New Leadership Mandate?
All that being said, I feel we're making progress here at EMC in becoming the open, transparent and engaging company many of us think we need to be going forward. Hopefully, your company is starting to make steps in the same direction as well.
But there are strong signs that the need to accelerate this transformation is bubbling up to the exec team and the board of directors. Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group has honed in on this in her book "Open Leadership". Frankly, it's the book I wish I had written :-(
But, let's not forget, leadership is a role we play, and not a title. Each and every one of us can help show the way in our respective worlds.
Back to the original comments on HDS -- or just about any other company, for that matter -- they're right.
But being open can be a damn hard thing to do.