It’s not just newspapers

Last week, Kevin wrote about Alan Mutter’s Brain Drain post on how the journalists who most get this new digital era are the people least likely to be able to effect change within their organisations, and how many of them are looking to get out of the media because they can’t see a future for themselves there. Many voices from the journalist blogging community chimed in, and Kevin does a good job of linking to some of the most prominent posts. But I have something really very, very important to say to everyone who reads Strange Attractor who isn’t in the newspaper business.

It’s not just newspapers losing their brightest talent.

I have a lot of conversations with a lot of different people from a lot of different places, and recently a theme has started to emerge. The people who most clearly understand the way that the internet and Web 2.0 is transforming business are leaving jobs that frustrate them with companies that don’t get it, and are either finding other jobs with companies that do get it or are cutting loose completely and going freelance. And I’m not alone in this observation – Dennis Howlett blogs about a conversation he had with a Barclaycard developer who was profoundly unhappy with his job because there was no opportunity to innovate:

I was struck by the profound sense of frustration experienced by this person. Geeks invent stuff. They solve problems. They love puzzles. Stifling the ability to engage in those activities is anathema. It’s like sucking out the oxygen they need with which to thrive. Any time organizations do that to anyone, productivity plummets.

It’s not just geeks, either. On more than one occasion I have been brought in to talk to a company by someone who sits in the room with me and nods vigourously (but often silently) as I speak. When they do talk, I find myself nodding vigourously as well and it becomes clear that they are on the right track, that they understand social software and the changes currently being wrought. One day, I asked one of my contacts, “Why did you bring me in when you so obviously know what you’re talking about?” The response came, “Because they won’t listen to me – maybe they will listen to you.”

These people aren’t journalists or developers; this isn’t about a particular industry or job title. These are people who have a passion for the internet, who see how useful social tools can be, who just want to make small changes that might have a big impact, but they can’t, because management won’t let them. Whether that’s via direct commandments or through an anti-change, anti-innovation, anti-technology culture that’s been fostered by them doesn’t matter – the fact is that smart, innovative people aren’t being allowed to experiment, and they’re getting so frustrated by it that they are leaving to go elsewhere.

It’s not just newspapers that need to wake up to the fact that their middle managers and CXOs just might not have the right skillset and mindset to help them survive the digital era. As far as I can tell, that problem is rife in all industries. And any business that refuses to take notice of its own talent, (or even the knowledge of digital experts – who, it has to be said, may turn out not be white, male and middle-aged, and may even come from outside your sector), is going to find itself very much at the bottom of the heap as their brightest people go off to help more open and aware companies.