Why the Fortune 500 Needs to Rethink the Value of Educating Employees

11/17/2010 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Now more than ever, there exists a clear confluence of the human desire to be empowered with education and the urgent need for Fortune 500 companies to have employees who think more innovatively and who can be active participants in helping their companies become better corporate citizens of the future.

With that in mind, I recently took my son and daughter to see Davis Guggenheim's documentary film Waiting for Superman, a poignant commentary on the failure of the U.S. education system. As children growing up in a San Francisco suburb known for its excellent public schools, mine will never need to keep their fingers crossed or wait for their lottery number to be called in a school gymnasium in order for them to attend a charter school. I am optimistic as a parent that they will build a life for themselves that strikes a healthy balance of personal fulfillment and positive social contribution.

In the car ride home, we talked about what actually happens to the millions of kids who never get a chance to go to a "good school," and the nearly one million kids who never graduate high school each year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Sadly, many will find themselves struggling to make ends meet for a lifetime.

Yet no matter how broken the U.S education system might be, all hope is not lost. To the contrary, many of the kids who made their way through the system are now grown up and presently employed by the Fortune 500. More are entering the workforce every year. With certain exceptions (e.g. those who actually find a way to beat the odds), these are the hard working employees working jobs in places like factories, call centers, retail stores, office buildings, hospitals, and garages.

So what's the reason for hope? Companies actually need smarter employees and these employees are ready to be engaged. Now.

As stated in the Introduction to the 2010 IBM Study "Capitalizing on Complexity," which is based on interviews of 1,541 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders around the world, "most CEOs seriously doubt their ability to cope with rapidly escalating complexity." Throw in increased momentum of large corporations moving to carbon neutrality and yet another year of dismal Gallup scores on employee engagement in the United States -- something to the tune of more than the 50 percent of U.S. employees not feeling engaged on the job -- and we have a clear business need to enlist the help of large employee populations.

Whether it's for building authentic "employee-built" brands to meet shifting consumer orientations towards social good, accelerating progress to reduce the company's overall carbon footprint or creating new ways to distribute goods and services, these challenges are solved much more rapidly when the challenge itself is distributed out to 25,000, 50,000, 300,000, one million people in unison.

Corporate-led change, the kind we might read about in pages of glossy reports filled with "corporate speak" and colorful layouts is good -- certainly movement in the right direction -- but is inevitably limited and generally un-inspiring to the employees, assuming they even know one exists.

Ultimately, educating, inspiring and empowering employees, people, is something that can be done more effectively, more efficiently and with less financial resources than anything that gets pushed down from the top through a "training" module. What is difficult to appreciate, however, is the degree to which change happens when there is a viral approach to learning and engagement -- when people are empowered and supported to both be student and teacher.

Take the case of Xerox. Under the banner of the company's Earth Awards program, launched 17 years ago, Xerox began tapping its employee population to help eliminate waste. Employee-driven sustainability innovations from around the globe have saved Xerox $10.2 million and eliminated 2.6 million pounds of waste this year.

GE has also been innovative in leveraging the passion of its employees worldwide. In particular, its employee-led "treasure hunts" have helped the company reduce its energy consumption at hundreds of sites and save millions of dollars. GE employees are beginning to spread this concept virally and are now taking their passion, experiences, and insights into the community.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says, "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." The more we value our employees' perspectives and materially engage them in shaping our company's journey, the more we can solve some of our most pressing business challenges while giving people the education that they deserve.