This story was originally published on March 20, 2013, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
We have this idea of modern computing that is closely tied to social media, and rightly so. Social media is a kind of glue that ties us together in new and bigger configurations than our own human capabilities.
However, it is also the unspoken issue in the Yahoo brouhaha about working from home — the idea whose name shall not be spoken. How else to explain the ultra retro edict — anachronism, really — that all Yahoos must report to the brick-and-mortar in person rather than “telecommute” — another anachronism implying the possibility of only a simple bidirectional interface between the individual and the mother ship?
Bidirectional? How quaint.
The Water Cooler Myth
Why is the whole discussion about (pardon me here) another anachronism that jumps right out of an episode of Mad Men — the water cooler conversations that have people sharing information face-to-face? The pundits and press revel in the Yahoo situation and the “need” to have people report to the job to share their precious ideas.
Have they never understood social media? We must presume that the denizens of one of the great pioneering companies of Silicon Valley have a passing notion of what social is all about, which makes this situation all the more perplexing.
Have they not heard of Dunbar’s Number? The number of people that each of us has brain power and time to interact with on something like a serious basis? That number is somewhere between 150 and 220 relationships, and it is the basis, derived through trial and error, of human associations from U.S. Army companies to medieval monasteries. After that? Forgetaboutit.
Actually, after that is what social media was made for.
Social Enterprise Setback
It is eye-opening and somewhat disheartening that the press and punditry have saluted Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s old school idea and edict. You cannot help but wonder how far it sets back the social enterprise. On one hand, it says, “Yes, we are a leading edge Internet company, but no, no, no, even we won’t eat that dog food.”
James Surowiecki of New Yorker fame and author of The Wisdom of Crowds makes the point in this week’s edition that the Yahoo campus is a ghost town on Fridays, and that the company has a need to bring its fraying threads back together.
Fair enough. That there is need for greater collaboration at Yahoo is no surprise. Quick, name the most recent Yahoo innovation! Time’s up. I can’t either. However, saying that all or even most errors will be corrected — no, check that — saying that anything will be made better from the olly, olly oxen free of touching home base is to confuse cause for effect.
It is also to turn one’s back on the progress that’s been made in social collaboration software in the last decade.
The best we can hope for from this Dracon-ization (not to be confused with polyester-ization) is that there is a transparently obvious method to the madness lurking all along. After a period of pain and shakeout — and downsizing — some workers might again be allowed to work free of the campus tethered by nothing more than a wireless Internet umbilicus through which they can share ideas via collaboration technology.
Or not. It is doubtful in the short run that the collaboration gains accrued from face time will outnumber the resentment, RVs and resumes building up in the San Jose corridor.
Collaboration Makeover, Please
What about the future? There will surely come a day when daily commuting, already burdensome because you simply can’t afford to build roads wide enough to accommodate rush hour, will become prohibitively expensive thanks to fuel prices. Then the social commuting productivity techniques and business models that could have been learned from an intensive effort at righting the S.S Yahoo will be revealed by their absence as another missed Yahoo opportunity.
In lieu of that, it would make great theater for a company like Salesforce.com, Microsoft’s Yammer or any of a dozen other collaboration vendors to take Yahoo under its wing and do a makeover a la “Restaurant Impossible.”
Yahoo is, at this point, “deliciously low” as Professor Higgins might say: A corporate Eliza Doolittle waiting to be discovered and taught the rudiments of modern corporate communication before re-emerging from its doldrums changed for the better, and ready to engage the world.
A great opportunity is being wasted here. Opportunity, more than anything else, is a terrible thing to waste.