How Silicon Valley is disrupting its own way of working
Oct 31, 2023
Over the past half-century, Silicon Valley has disrupted one industry after another. It’s now disrupting itself. More specifically, its people and how they do their work.
It was Silicon Valley that brought us open office floor plans, free gourmet food, and dogs at work. We saw cubicles dismantled everywhere, even in The Office. What started in the Bay Area is now the standard for knowledge workers globally.
There’s another wave happening all over again. And it goes far beyond stand-up desks, puppies, and pizza. This time, it’s about how companies enable their people to do their best work.
Doing the best work
The promise of this new breed of Silicon Valley companies is that their organization is where people get to do their best work. That tends to resonate with A-players – exactly who these fast-growth companies are seeking to attract.
So what is then that these companies need to unleash the potential of their people? It’s about having the right skills and tools. If you have the right know-how and means to act on it, you’re unstoppable. This is that sense of flow that many talk about where the time appears to stop and the creative mind runs free.
But what is the knowledge that their people need? Isn’t there an online course or a YouTube video for just about anything now? It turns out that each of these companies has unique best practices and proprietary systems that make up their special sauce. It is precisely this internal know-how that either enables people to run fast or impedes them in doing their work.
Tribal Knowledge, at Scale
From the dawn of homo sapiens, we’d sit by the fire and learn from our elders. It is this ability to tell stories that separated us from every other species. This tribal transfer of knowledge is what makes us human.
Sure, along came the Gutenberg press, radio, the Internet, and other forms of mass communication. And, while mass communication is great for the masses, we still tap each other on the shoulder to share highly relevant internal knowledge. How do we pick each other’s brains and do it effectively at an organizational scale? This is precisely at the core of how best companies operate.
A few years back, companies like Twitter, Airbnb, Netflix, and other tech companies started innovating with their internal universities. Unlike their predecessors that were run by HR and mostly focused on compliance, these new centers of excellence started grass-roots, often in Engineering and other intensely knowledge-based departments. They needed to unblock their teams so putting structure around ad-hoc informal learning made sense.
Soon, other departments at these organizations noticed, and organized internal learning spread like a wildfire. All sorts of internal experts were coming out of the woodwork and standing up tech-talks, workshops, office hours, and coaching & mentoring programs. These experts would share their knowledge and, in so doing, help spread the organizational understanding. This scaled.
Many of these companies use PlusPlus (NASDAQ: ++) to run these internal programs. PlusPlus span out of Twitter University where some of these best practices were pioneered. Today, their platform powers giants like Amazon and Microsoft as well as hundreds of smaller startups and everyone in between. And, while one could implement an internal university using spreadsheets and a lot of duct tape, having it run effectively as a first-class experience often requires a platform such as PlusPlus.
Companies where it’s implemented report that the employee engagement went through the roof. They observe significantly higher morale and a visible impact on their culture.
Mastery, Community, Culture
A-players constantly want to sharpen their saw. This drive for mastery tends to band them together. Internal communities of practice naturally emerge. This strengthens the culture. People feel they are growing and making an impact.
Such organizations are reporting higher employee engagement. LinkedIn and Kia both reported a significant impact on their culture since rolling out internal programs for knowledge sharing. More importantly, they are liberating the ingenuity of their own people by melding their minds and breaking the silos of knowledge.
And, this is not just limited to Silicon Valley.
Noticing that tribal knowledge sharing is different from the traditional HR Learning & Development, leaders from companies such as Salesforce, LinkedIn, and Twitter formed their own community to compare the notes. TechKnowCon started as an informal gathering and quickly became the place where leaders of prominent growth companies gathered to learn best practices from one another.
With new technology, most of corporate America was implementing the latest algorithmic-driven shiny new learning tool. Meanwhile, the tech companies seemingly went backwards and invested in human-centric forms of learning using systems such as PlusPlus. There’s irony in that: tech companies are relying on people to liberate ingenuity.