Meritocracy, Pauline Ores and the multi-dimensional IT Professional

30 09 2008

Yesterday, I started reading “Crowdsourcing: why the power of the crowd is driving the future of business”, by Jeff Howe. I did not actually buy the book, it was given to me as part of the attendee package at the IBM Social Media event I attended 2 weeks ago at Ogilvy & Mather.

The book has good insights, covering the emerging reputation economy, where, contrary to conventional economics, rewards are often not measurable by dollars but by the desire to contribute to a worthwhile cause or just the “sheer joy of practicing a craft” and get some peer recognition for that. I like this quote in particular:

Crowdsourcing turns on the presumption that we are all creators – artists, scientists, architects, and designers, in any combination or order. It holds the promise to unleash the latent potential of the individual to excel at more than one vocation, and to explore new avenues for creative expression. Indeed, it contains the potential – or alternately, the threat – of rendering the idea of a vocation itself an industrial-age artifact.

Many years ago, I had a manager who told me that he could not give me a good rating in my annual assessment because I had done 3 totally different things that year: started as a Unix Admin, moved to a Performance Engineering role, and ended the year as a developer. According to him, you had to pick one role and stick to it, as nobody could do more than one thing really well. Needless to say, I couldn’t disagree more with the previous argument. It would be ok if he thought that I tried 3 different things and didn’t do particularly well in any or some of them, but saying that nobody can do that, and recommending anybody to be a one-dimensional professional sounds very Fordist to me.

Some people ask me why I blog about apparently non-work related subjects, such as vacation trips, soccer, or Moleskine Art. I wish I could blog even more about things not related to Web 2.0 or social media or conferences. We all have multiple vocations. I know IBMers who are great photographers, parents, writers, cooks, graphic artists, actors, athletes and scientists, and there is no reason for any of us to strangle those vocations to focus solely in our current professional role. In fact, both our careers and our workplace can greatly benefit from being more multi-dimensional. As work becomes more virtual, global and dynamic, and the pace of change accelerates, we all need to be more like Da Vinci and Marco Polo than assembly-line workers.

Furthermore, Web 2.0 and Social Media are leveling the professional playing field. Two quotes by Pauline Ores (who is the IBM personification of Social Media Marketing) during the O&M event caught my attention:

1) In the Social Media world, the most powerful person is the one who shares the most.
2) Control in Social Media is like grabbing water: the stronger you grab, the less you hold. There’s a right way to retain water, but not by being forceful.

Disclaimer: that’s my recollection of what she said, so don’t hold her accountable for the exact words 🙂

Not too long ago, knowledge workers had incentives to hold what they knew close to their chest, as a way of keeping their employability. The more they kept to themselves, the more their company and fellow employees would depend on them. This happened because the distribution of information was very inefficient, and the higher up you were in the food chain, the more channels you had to be known by others.

In the YouTube age, where everybody, anybody can broadcast themselves inside and outside of the firewall, the advantage of saying things from a higher hierarchical post had shrunk considerably. According to Howe, a meritocracy is now in place, where the only thing that matters is the quality of the work itself. If you believe you are the Subject Matter Expert in SOA, Internet Marketing, z/OS or Performance Engineering, you need to make evidence of that widely available. An increasing number of people won’t care much if your title says “The know-all see-all tech guru” or “Executive <something>”. If you know it, it should be made evident by the crumb trails you leave behind you. Your knowledge needs to be searchable and discoverable (not sure if those words exist, but you catch my drift).

Sacha Chua
is one of the best examples I see of that trend. I learned a lot from just observing her working habits over the last year or so. Ten years ago, a recent hire direct from University would be years away from being known and respected across the enterprise. By sharing what she knows and what she does to the extreme, she is arguably more influencial than others with many years of job tenure. This is not a generation Y thing, as I see her more as an exception than the rule even among her young cohorts, and there are many boomers and Xers like her at IBM and elsewhere.

The one line summary for this post: If perception is reality, you only know what you share.

Minor update: fixed a typo in the final quote.

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