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Book Review: 'Empowered' Illustrates IT Power Shift

Forrester analysts Bernoff and Schadler argue that IT will play an essential role in enabling companies to thrive in the era of social media-driven communication with consumers.
Empowered presents an evaluation system for looking at projects suggested by highly empowered resourceful operatives in the company, or HEROes, as the book dubs them. IT needs to participate in the evaluation, but that does not mean it has a veto over them. That was in the old days. Now IT must act more as the enabler. "Harnessing the power of HEROes is a difficult journey," the authors warn, and I am sure they are right. But it will be part of IT's responsibility to keep employee-initiated projects within cost-benefit bounds without becoming simply a nay-sayer.

Customer influence used to be addressed before the sale, with advertising, website enticements and in store encounters, etc. Now it expresses itself after the sale, with great potential to impact the decisions of other potential customers. The focus of the organization in dealing with customers needs to make a similar shift.

Sales, marketing, customer service, IT all must play a part in responding to this shift. At the same time, "the problem isn't coming up with ideas. The problem is figuring out which of those ideas should be nurtured and which should not," the authors say. IT by itself will not know enough to make all the right decisions. If a good idea requires supporting a new mobile device, a new social networking interface, a new way of sharing information with the customers while also keeping it secure, IT is going to have to come up with the means -- not objections.

It's going to take the techniques of cloud computing, establishing technical resources in a shared pool where employees can come together to collaborate, respond and launch customer focused initiatives. The cloud is the enabler of the Empowered company, but it is still just a means to the end. HEROes will frequently assemble and test ideas. Many of them will fail. Failing quickly and getting on to the next experiment is part of the HERO-enabled company.

If the future sounds scary, Empowered describes it in reasonable, even methodical terms. Many of the shifts in power seen in the relationship between the company and its customers will be reflected in similar shifts between the IT and business managers to their most active, self-motivated employees. Control is are going away, but the contribution of IT is no less crucial than before. Good ideas for interacting with the customer will be worthless without IT's enabling touch and ability to secure the data.

There's no point in lamenting the change. The power of the network is changing the business world. It's not just what Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and MySpace can do for you or to you. Business survival has become a networked thing as well.