Book Review: 'Empowered' Illustrates IT Power Shift - InformationWeek
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Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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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.

The book Empowered is a milestone for where things are headed, both for the business manager and the IT manager. Written by two Forrester Research analysts, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, it is in many ways a direct follow up to the earlier Bernoff and Charlene Li book, Groundswell, also published by Harvard Business Press. [Click here to read an excerpt from "Empowered."]

Groundswell was, in many ways, a document stating that search engines and social networking were producing a power shift from business managers to consumers. Consumers were talking about what they acquired, particularly when they didn't like the outcome, and other consumers were heeding what they said.

Empowered is about what business and IT managers can do in the face of that power shift and how they can maintain some initiative when all doesn't go as planned.

Actually, Empowered shows what skilled employees can do -- many of them far down in the hierarchy of the organization -- to make the enterprise response to challenges more flexible and more individual. Bernoff and Schadler argue that enterprises will have to hire, tolerate and cultivate such employees if they hope to survive in the new environment. Unless these first responders are "empowered" from the top down, the company will gradually lose control over its own destiny from the bottom up. That is, consumers will demand responses that aren't forthcoming. Innovative and responsive workers will move on to more hospitable locales. The company will languish.

In 2008's Groundswell, there was still a sense of IT being in control and needing to adapt its thinking to the new tools now in the hands of consumers. Two years later, in Empowered, that thinking has faded into the background and there's a new sense of needing to support the employees who are, in some ways, most like those consumers.

That means instead of IT equipping a new employee with a PC and phone, the employee may arrive already using the laptop and phone of his own preference, or even an iPad, and expect IT to support him.

The book starts out with the convincing case of a 34-year-old harried mother with a newborn and an older child, highly dependent on her new $1,300 Maytag washing machine. When the machine broke down a week after it was delivered, she expected its speedy repair, thanks to the extra 10-year warranty she had purchased.

Already an outspoken blogger, you can imagine what happened when Maytag still failed to accomplish the repair after weeks of delays. The authors call the mother's rants against Maytag "breathtaking in honesty and scope." Her blogs "about motherhood have a quality that people appreciate, especially other mothers."

The authors skip to the Twitter-equipped quick responders at Best Buy, the Twelpforce, and other counter examples. When employees start to use social networking to respond to consumer's social networking, you're on the right track, but IT must support such responses. That raises a host of issues: how does the enterprise capture the data involved when employees start inventing new ways to deal with customers? How is such data kept secure when the employee is operating outside the glass house and established procedures? If the employee doesn't inform IT immediately of new data, how will IT secure it and back it up?

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