The myth of free and how it impacts employee’s participation

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Many people are discussing all around the web (and even beyond) whether digital things must be free or not. On the one hand, there are those who think that everything that is not tangible and is fluidly exchanged through the net is free by nature, on the other end there are those who think that everything as value, because of the time spent to make these contents and that their dematerialization, even if it can lower storage and distribution costs in such ways to lower the final price, doesn’t mean things have to be free.

It’s both a social and economic discussion, that is very close to more concrete things we experience everyday in the workspace.

Let’s be clear : nothing is free. There are things that people has not to pay for, and mistaking the two concepts may make us go astray to a large extent. When we don’t pay for a content we must keep in mind that advertisers pay for us. Let’s consider, for instance, something that is free at first sight : the content of a blog. The author pays the price : hosting, the time invested… But, most of times, he decides not to pass the costs along the readers. Fortunately, he has a job that makes him earn enough to live. No one pays his rents with the consideration shown by his audience or with an exchange of service.

Knowing that, if the actitivity of producing contents is different from the one that makes people earn for their living, it could be free, when they meet it’s impossible except if the content producer can live on nothing and than gentle organizations will provide him with a home, food, electricity,…without anything in return. Stop dreaming.

The same phenomenon happens in the workplace when things come to collaboration, participation, social networking.

Everyone has his job, for which he’s paid. Everything he does and produces is financed by the person who pays him (he’s paid on a “local” budget which someone is responsible for even if at the end it’s the company money). On a strictly accounting point of view (and don’t tell me it’s irrelevant, everyone who has to manage a budget knows what I’m talking about), breaking silos means making something that has been financed by one person should become freely accessible by the whole company. Even worse, freeform collaboration means that someone someone who is paid on a department or business unit’s budget should be asked to make something (either it lasts 1 min or 1 hour) that someone else will benefit from.

The problem is not a the employee’s level, at his level everything being transparent, but at the management’s level because it’s in charge of optimizing how budgets are used. Unlike the general public web, businesses don’t know how not to pass a local cost along to the the whole organization since everyone has to justify the way the allowed funds are used. In brief, businesses don’t understand free across its departments. Rather, their internal policies don’t make that possible.

Do solutions exist ? Knowing that, in the end, the company takes benefit from collaboration, beyond internal rivalry, maybe the equivalent of a “global licence” should be a good thing. As a matter of fact, money comes from a one and only pocket, the company’s, that would like collaboration to grow within its walls. But it should take away manager’s sense of responsibility and the cure may be worse than de disease. Or maybe the good old distribution key, revisited for the service industry, could work. Who knows.

NB : Goldratt tells us that “cost allocation kills productivity”. Here’s an example that makes businesses continuously reivent the weel.