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Nothing but Net

March 13, 2012
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It's tacky to gloat about your bracket prediction when you trumpet a No. 1 seed. But I'll do it anyways. The Internet is running on high speed as we move into the second round of the Impact Challenge. Deng Xiaoping is no slouch, but the pivotal Chinese politician just can't keep up with the Web as a determining factor in workplace history. The Internet is getting votes at a rate of more than 20 to 1 over its second-round rival.

I was excited to see Peter Drucker squeak past Ethical Practices in the first round to set up a man-vs.-machine contest this round. But Drucker is getting a drubbing in his match up against Personal Computers. The voting is roughly six for PCs for every one earned by the great management mind.

To eat a bit of humble pie, one of my other picks went down quietly in the first round. The Great Recession, which I think did much to alter workforce relations, took it on the chin from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

My third pick to do well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, beat labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph convincingly in the first round. Now FDR is up against the more-formidable Martin Luther King, Jr. The former president and New Deal architect has the early lead against the civil rights powerhouse, but the contest is too close to call.

One upset in the making in the Impact bracket is Email over the Social Security Act of 1935. A sixth seed, Email has a nearly 2-to-1 edge over that crucial piece of the country's social safety net, which is a third seed.

So lots of interesting matchups and players this round. But all but one will be mere footnotes. Just like Kentucky in this year's NCAA tournament, the Internet is the top-ranked thoroughbred that is going all the way.

Forget it, would-be Cinderellas. The Internet is a beast that ought to roll to victory in the Workforce Impact Bracket.

Rightly seeded a No. 1, the Internet has had the greatest effect on workforce management over the past 90 years. True, the Internet's workplace role only dates to the 1990s, but it has had a pervasive and still-growing influence on the way work is organized.

In fact, it subsumes many of the other categories in our bracket challenge. The personal computer became a much bigger deal when hooked up to the World Wide Web. Social media depend on the Web. So does the impact of smartphones and other mobile devices. Even offshoring and outsourcing lead back to the Internet. Shifting work such as customer service and computer maintenance tasks to India began in earnest when high-speed Internet connections to Asia became available.

Yes, Todd, women in the workplace triggered big shifts. So have civil rights leaders and legislation. And health care benefits, costs and reform. But these things have largely been around who's doing the work and about the benefits that workers receive. The Internet has transformed the very way work gets done. Who could have imagined the kind of far-flung, real-time collaboration that now routinely occurs at and across organizations? Engineers in Detroit video conferencing with sales colleagues in Europe and manufacturing partners in Asia. Retail clerks having immediate access to information about inventory that may have taken weeks to gather in the past. Whole categories of organizations have disappeared because of Internet services—think payroll departments and travel offices—while others have emerged—think outsourcing coordinators and corporate tweeters.

My other strong candidates are Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Recession, which should have gotten a much higher seed in this tournament. To my mind, FDR did more than any other person in American history to make work—and the lack thereof—a public policy issue. His public works programs and other actions opened the door to political changes to America's largely laissez faire economic system. He paved the way to laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Civil Rights Act.

The Great Recession, for its part, has shattered much of what was left of the social compact around work in America. Employers not only laid off employees by the millions, but have shied away from hiring them in a jobless recovery to beat all previous jobless recoveries. That, in turn, has led to a "work-more economy" for remaining employees, whose extra duties are pushing many of them to the brink of physical and psychological exhaustion.

But even the Great Recession and its aftermath owe much to the Internet. Part of what is allowing employees to do more with less is the rise of cloud computing—data services provided over the Web that often boost productivity.

And don't forget the Internet brings new challenges to workforce management. Headaches around legal liability have increased related to online recruiting and employees' online activity. The potential for wasted work time has jumped. And the Web is helping to disrobe companies—as employees sound off about their work conditions on feedback sites such as Glassdoor.com.

Think of the Internet as Shrek the ogre. Big, sometimes offensive, but effective. In the Shrek tales, Cinderella has a place—but she's not central. This bracket challenge is a Shrek story. The Internet should cruise to victory.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce Management's senior editor. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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