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 can. But it is also the unspoken issue in the Yahoo brouhaha over 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 simply bi-directional interface between the individual and the mother ship? Bi-directional? How quaint.
Why is the whole discussion about, and pardon me here, another anachronism that jumps right out of an episode of “Mad Men”, the “water cooler” conversations that pit people face to face sharing information? 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.
But have they not heard of the Dunbar Number? The maximal 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 army companies to medieval monasteries. After that? Forgetaboutit.
Actually, after that, is what social media was made for.
It is eye opening and somewhat disheartening that the press and punditry have saluted Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer’s, old school idea and edict and one 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. But 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 was a transparently obvious method to the madness lurking all along. That 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 collaborate and share ideas via modern 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.
And 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 from 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 or 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 only 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 and opportunity, more than anything else, is a terrible thing to waste.
There is an interesting article in the New York Times this morning that I hope lots of people read — that means you Mr. Benioff. It’s a tale of a shoemaker’s kids going barefoot.
It seems that Yahoo, trying to breathe life back into a sclerotic organization, has cancelled its work from home policy and is now mandating all workers report to the office every day. Good luck with traffic at the bottom of Silicon Valley. The commute has just gotten worse.
The discussion covered in the article sounds like a low calorie beer commercial from the 1990’s. One side says we need people in the office every day to promote collaboration, creativity and innovation. The other says at home workers are more productive so leave us alone. Tastes great! Less filling!
Sometimes I wonder if our inability to compromise as a society stems from this simplistic Boolean logic in which there can only be two sides and by definition the side you oppose is wrong. It harkens back to the religious wars of the Middle Ages, but I digress.
But hold on; let’s tease this apart. Yahoo wants to ape Google’s culture and that’s understandable given that the 37-year-old CEO, Marissa Mayer, hails from there. That culture devotes less than 100 square feet to each employee and channels foot traffic to encourage human-to-human interaction, the better to cause serendipitous face-to-face meetings and things like collaboration and innovation.
That’s nice, even laudable, but in the twenty-first century, this new dictate seems a bit draconian. Hasn’t Yahoo ever heard of collaboration software? Social media? Chatter? Yammer? I realize Yahoo is in San Jose and Salesforce and Yammer and others are way up the coast in the big city but they could track these solutions down on…the Internet perhaps?
It is astounding that a company like Yahoo could be in such a situation and that it could be so ostensibly unaware of how this looks to share it with the world. While the issues of collaboration and innovation are the right ones for any company to chase, this solution only works for people reporting to the same building and there are only so many interactions you can prompt in a day.
Most importantly, there’s Dunbar’s number, which is the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain a stable social relationship. Depending on the individual that number is between 150 and 220. Social media like collaboration software helps to extend Dunbar’s number for many people and it breaks down the barriers set by geography, something that companies with more than one building have to cope with. Collaboration tools make no distinction between collaboration with someone down the hall, across the country or half way around the world.
The beauty and importance of collaboration and social software is that they break the limitations of human contact so the only question for me is why isn’t Yahoo — a pioneering Internet company — publicizing its uptake (we hope) of this new technology instead of moaning about this policy from the last ice age?