What happened next was really interesting. One by one, the dozens of names on the routing list began responding -- not to simply say yes or no to attending the reunion, but also to describe what they were up to in their careers. The good news was that most had landed on their feet following the shake-out in newspapers, and the concomitant dot-com/9/11 recession in Silicon Valley. But this news was also made poignant by how many had left journalism -- a profession in which most had likely planned to spend their entire lives -- to take jobs in public relations or business. Even the folks who had stayed in newspapers (or TV) seemed to be hanging on by their fingernails.
What makes this doubly sad is that these Merc alumni, along with their peers throughout the U.S. journalism world, represent an enormous fund of intellectual capital that is being frittered away. The Web will capture some of these people, as will the blogosphere . . .but that may take years while both industries test out business models and earn the trust of advertisers. By then, much of this journalism talent will have either moved on or become rusty.
But there is another possibility. I've long been convinced that the corporate functions most impacted by the digital revolution have been, and will continue to be, HR and corporate communications. When you have hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of employees scattered around the planet, working in virtual teams, telecommuting, sitting on distant nodes of the Web -- and you have many more working for you part-time, as contractors or hourly job-shoppers or virtual temps -- your ability to get your messages out to those individuals, to get them to identify with the company, and to defend them from other potential employers diminishes by the day. My gut tells me that most workers now learn more about their company from outside sources than they do from the company itself.
If I was a Fortune 500 CEO, I would consider this a very dangerous state of affairs -- and one that will only grow worse in years to come as, thanks to wireless and broadband, employees become even more virtual. The old sources of gravitation between employees and employers – proximity, pension plans, physical identification (badges, dress codes), etc. -- are diminishing with distance; with little to replace them.
Many companies, to their credit, are making a real effort to cope with these changes. Applied Materials and Intel, for example, have become brilliant at cultivating the culture of global virtual work teams. HP, meanwhile, perhaps because everybody wanted to hide as far as possible from the former CEO, has mastered the art of telecommuting. And, as we've already seen, Microsoft, at least until recently, has been very clever at positively modifying its image though the blogosphere.
But none of this is going to be enough -- indeed, some of these programs (work teams, telecommuting) risk amplifying employees' sense of isolation and alienation. Smart companies have responded to that by using the Internet to stay in touch with their people on a regular basis -- e-mails, RSS feeds, and, increasingly, podcasts.