In “The Conversational Firm,” MIT Sloan’s Catherine Turco Looks at Motivating a Millennial Workforce

Is it possible for a company to shed some of the key trappings of traditional bureaucracy and still be competitive in the marketplace? Catherine J. Turco, an associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, went undercover for ten months at a fast-growing social media marketing company to find the answer.

In her illuminating new book The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, Turco takes an in-depth look at a young enterprise called TechCo, a pseudonym she uses to protect the identity of company and employees. She finds that TechCo has developed a deeply engaged workforce by promoting open company-wide dialogue. That sense of freedom, she notes, has contributed to a culture that is invested, innovative, and adaptable to change. She calls this new style of company “the conversational firm.”

One of the principal tools of the conversational firm, Turco reports, is social media. TechCo provides its employees—who are primarily millennials—with social media vehicles so that they can offer input into major business issues. Because millennials relate to the world through social media, she says, it only makes sense that they would feel comfortable relying on apps to register ideas and opinions in the workplace.

In The Conversational Firm, Turco leverages her interviews with 76 employees, her attendance at hundreds of company meetings, and insights from cultural and economic sociology, organizational theory, economics, technology studies, and anthropology, to portray a company that has found a way to be open without relinquishing control.

Giving millennials a voice through social media

Turco observes that the company operates an enterprise chat system as well as a very active wiki on which executives and employees communicate. And she says that the company is continually adopting new tools to foster even greater dialogue. She also notes that TechCo created a physically open workspace to complement its digitally open one. “People worked in wide-open workrooms with no offices or cubicle walls to separate them. Executives didn’t have offices, either; they sat with everyone else. Employees told me that this was especially important to them because it symbolized the sort of access and free-flowing communication they valued.”

Bottom line, Turco says: TechCo has opened up the company’s communication environment dramatically without destabilizing or disrupting a conventional decision-making hierarchy. In The Conversational Firm, she presents TechCo as a powerful new model for how firms can navigate today’s rapidly changing technological and cultural climate and offers lessons about the effect of social media on the corporate environment. The book offers an eye-opening analysis of corporate communication, control, and culture in the social media age.

Read a Q&A with Turco about her work on The Conversational Firm.