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Empowered: Managing In Real Time

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Does it seem to you that world is moving faster now?

You can whip out your iPhone and instantly find the price online of any product with a bar code. Or look up the movie you were thinking of seeing and see what a thousand people had to say about it - while you're waiting in line.

Even as the consumer is moving faster, corporations are still plodding along. How long does your bank make you wait on hold for service? Why are they designing mass marketing programs months in advance, when people can get instant feedback on what to buy from their Facebook friends?

When Heather Armstrong - a self-proclaimed professional blogger who goes by the name dooce - talked to Maytag about her brand new, broken Maytag washing machine that three service calls had failed to fix, the customer support rep was deaf to her pleas. Even when she told the rep that she had a million Twitter followers. Then she tweeted, "DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG . . . OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE." Brand disaster.

Face it. Top-down management can't move at the speed of today's technology.

The solution for companies is to empower their workers to solve customer problems with technology. Let me share some examples.

Leonard Bonacci runs stadium security for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Working with a company called GuestAssist, he put in place a system that lets anyone at the game text for help to a short code. Those texts could say "A guy spilled coke on my seat" or "The person in front of me is having a heart attack" - but either way, Leonard's two dozen staffers can get there and solve the problem quickly. He's turned the 68,000 people in the stadium into his eyes and ears, and the result is an organization that moves a lot faster.

Marty Collins, a community marketer at Microsoft, saw that lots and lots of people were tweeting, posting photos and videos, and making Facebook connections about getting stuff done with PCs. She helped Microsoft marketing see how to reclaim "I'm a PC" from Apple ads and make it a positive. And she corralled those positive comments into a feed that anyone could see. It's at During the launch of Windows 7, that feed was on the home page for Windows, showing what positive things people are posting about Windows right this minute.

Sunbelt Rentals rents construction equipment to work sites. Its salespeople were visiting those sites, but by the time they got there, pricing and availability information was often out of date. So John Stadick, the CIO, equipped the salespeople with iPhones and an app that called up accurate inventory and price lists. The people with the iPhones generated 3.5% more rentals and called the office 30% less, because they were now operating at the speed their customers required.

These aren't isolated cases. These people who find and deploy technology to serve consumers are what we call HEROes - highly empowered and resourceful operatives. In the companies I've interviewed for our new book Empowered, I see a trend - companies that embrace their HEROes can operate at Internet speed and create loyal customers who spread word-of-mouth.

This takes a new way of working for three groups within the companies: managers, the technology department, and the HEROes themselves.

Managers need to embrace their workers' technology ideas and help clear obstacles out of the way. These obstacles can come from PR, senior management, legal, or IT - but they need to be negotiated. Managers also need to be clearer about strategy, so their workers will come up ideas that fit the corporate goals.

IT people need to get out their current mindset around technology, which is typically as the department of "No." People are using social networks, google docs, and other simple tools to get work done (unless you work with Dilbert, of course). Instead, they need to support workers with technology advice. These projects will go forward, but they're typically too small for IT to own. And IT has to help people work together with collaboration systems. At Deloitte Australia, 4,500 people work together with a tool called Yammer - a sort of corporate version of Twitter - that allows people to operate at the speed of their customers, finding the required resources quickly.

And the HEROes themselves need to use their creativity to serve customers, not just to fool around with technology. We've got a tool that HEROes can use to assess their projects for value and effort - a better idea than just rushing in. HEROes who work with management and IT to nail down benefits and risks of their projects are far more likely to succeed.

The future of business is HERO-powered. HEROes can operate at a speed no top-down organization can match. Every company has them. The question at your company is - will they get the chance to make you more responsive, more sensitive to customers, more competitive? In this age of empowered consumers, you'd better hope so.

Josh Bernoff is Senior Vice President of Idea Development at Forrester Research and the co-author of Empowered: Unleash your Employees, Energize your Customers, and Transform your Business (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010). His previous book, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, was a BusinessWeek bestseller and won the American Marketing Association Foundation's award for the best marketing book of the year in 2009.