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Can a Social Network Pop the Executive Bubble?

While ground-level employees are bursting with ideas, owners and execs often exist in a bubble. David Sacks of Yammer wants to change that.

Jeff Kubina via Flickr

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There's an information paradox at the top of many businesses. Owners, CEOs, and top managers desperately want good info about what's really going on in their businesses. But many feel trapped in a bubble of eager-to-please reports. Meanwhile, where the rubber meets the road, employees engaged in the everyday business of the company are bursting with ideas (and complaints) about how the business could improve, and feel frustrated they can't communicate these ideas to the top.

Employees on the ground have exactly the intel owners need but policies, procedures, org chart complexities, and even simple shyness often keep the different levels of a business from connecting. Yammer CEO David Sacks thinks his company's product is the solution to this problem. Billed as an "enterprise social network," Yammer lets employees post, chat and share much like on consumer social networks such as Facebook, only limiting the conversation to those internal to the company.

"Companies that aren't using an enterprise social network do have a social network," Sacks explained in an interview. "It's just offline. It's called the org chart. It's just a really inefficient way of transmitting information. The unique feature of a social network is that every node in the network can talk to every other node, and so there are none of these silos or barriers to communication." The best part for owners is, "the CEO is just another node in the social graph."

Further, Sacks says:

I think there's a huge danger that every CEO can get cocooned and people just tell them what they think they might want to hear. This is a way of breaking out of that and getting information from the field, from the market. It's just much closer to the ground with a lot more sources. I don't know any CEO who doesn't want to know more about what's happening in their organization, who doesn't want to get more detail on what's happening in the market, and tools like Yammer really provide that.

Yammer may be a good way for owners and executives to get diverse and direct information, but even the best bubble-bursting, intelligence-gathering tool on the market won’t make an obtuse or egomaniacal CEO pay attention. Sacks admits that the desire to listen and accept feedback is a prerequisite for the success of any tool like Yammer.

"You do have to be comfortable with some level of dissent," Sacks says. "If you want to get information about policies that are not having their intended effect or are alienating employees, you’ve got to be permissive with respect to allowing employees to post that kind of information.” But swallowing your pride, as well as autocratic worries that criticism will spiral into some sort of revolt, can pay dividends. Sacks points to the experiences of Deloitte Australia:

On a Tuesday a new policy was promulgated. An employee posted an objection to it and said why it wasn't a good idea. Then a bunch of people piled on. The CEO saw this and assigned an executive to go out and talk to the employee who first posted on this. It turns out the policy wasn't a good idea, and by Thursday it had been reversed. A bad policy got reversed very quickly because the employees were able to voice their objections in a forum that the CEO then saw and could take action on it. If it weren’t for Yammer, the complaints about the policy would have just festered.

Needless to say, Sacks is duty-bound to do his best to sell his product and downplay possible objections. (Setting a policy about what's appropriate to post should limit employee indiscretions, he insists, and internal research apparently shows that cute cat pictures and the like make up only a tiny percentage of Yammer posts.) But even if you're not sure about the solution his company is offering, his point about the need to unclog the information bottlenecks that allow bubbles to form around top management is a good spur to get any entrepreneur thinking about how to access the unvarnished opinions of his or her employees.

How do you ensure that you're not cocooned from harsh truths as the top dog at your company?

Last updated: Jan 11, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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