TCS Daily

The Unbearable Rightness of Nick Denton

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 3, 2005 12:00 AM

A couple of years ago, Nick Denton, inspired by Howell Raines' problems at the New York Times, warned that the power of the blogosphere might have anarchic consequences:

        "In the turmoil at the Times, there's a broader implication: organizations 
        are becoming harder to run. The phone, and email, have given managers 
        the illusion that they can control far-flung empires. But modern communications, 
        and the growth of weblogs and web bulletin boards in particular, have also 
        given power to bitter employees. Think of it as the proliferation of weapons to 
        organizational terrorists.

        "Let's face it: most people are disaffected. They're paid too little, promoted 
        too slowly, passed over, humiliated. They haven't realized their dreams, and 
        they blame everyone around them, and above them in particular. Apart from 
        conservative opportunists, who wanted Raines out of the Times? Duh. The 
        old farts who'd lost out to him in the power struggle, the pedestrian 
        reporters who resented the paper's cult of soaring writing, and those whose 
        metabolisms would never achieve the speed Raines wanted."

Denton noted, "Asymmetric warfare has come to the workplace: managers may sometimes have the power to hire and fire, but the peasants have the internet now." He also suggested that this might be a bigger burden for larger organizations than for small ones.

That seems to be the case, with regard to the ultimate large organization, the United States government. According to a report by Bill Broad in the New York Times, employee-bloggers are giving the Los Alamos National Lab, and the Department of Energy, fits:

        "A blog rebellion among scientists and engineers at Los Alamos, the federal 
        government's premier nuclear weapons laboratory, is threatening to end the 
        tenure of its director, G. Peter Nanos.

        "Four months of jeers, denunciations and defenses of Dr. Nanos's management 
        recently culminated in dozens of signed and anonymous messages concluding 
        that his days were numbered. The postings to a public Web log conveyed a 
        mood of self-congratulation tempered with sober discussion of what comes 

And that's perhaps an appropriate mood for the blogosphere as a whole. On the one hand, we've started to see a switch: Where an earlier generation of articles on employee-blogging warned the employees about the danger of retribution from the employers, a newer version of the story warns employers about the power of the bloggers in their midst.

On the other hand, it's hard for organizations to operate when dissent becomes easier, and more popular, than actually running things or doing work. Whistleblowing is all very nice, but no organization made up largely of whistleblowers is likely to thrive. While "organizational terrorism" may be a bit strong, Nick was certainly right to note that one of management's major advantages was informational -- it could know more, and communicate more to more people, than dissident employees hanging around the water cooler could.

That's changed now, and there's no doubt that it makes managers nervous. Still, I think the Los Alamos case also underscores what I wrote in response to Nick:

        "Things will be different, and already are. Even in the military, email and 
        chatrooms are flattening hierarchies and changing power dynamics. 
        On the other hand, what the Internet peasantry hates most is not just 
        power, but bogosity. Raines was disliked as much because he played 
        favorites (and it was seen as a favoritism not based on performance) 
        as because he was dictatorial: tough, but unfair. And -- just as students 
        resent a professor who won't shut up their over-talkative peers more than 
        they resent one who will -- employees don't necessarily resent managers 
        who run a taut ship, so long as they feel that merit is being rewarded 
        over sucking up."

Say what you will about the Los Alamos scandals, but no one has accused the lab of being a taut ship, or of rewarding merit above all else. While Internet samizdat may pose a threat to managers, it still seems to me that the threat is biggest where the management is the worst, and that exposing bad management, and unhappy employees, isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

The biggest danger, at any rate, won't come from the internal blogging. It will come from management's overreaction to internal blogging. If managers are afraid of internal bloggers, and respond either with witchhunts and efforts to shut them down, or -- perhaps worse, from a standpoint of organizational health -- try too hard to appease dissidents by trying to run their companies or organizations in ways that won't offend anyone, the damage will be far greater than the damage done by bloggers. With or without bloggers in the mix, management requires a backbone. The smarter managers will read blogs, looking for real problems that need to be fixed, and they'll respond (perhaps on their own blogs?) to the critics; the smartest ones will even realize that employees know the difference between the chronic bellyachers and the people who have serious complaints, and will respond accordingly.

How many managers are this smart? I guess, thanks to the Internet, we'll find out.


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