Blog and news
July 8, 2024

Harnessing collective intelligence technology to drive better futures of work

The recent government enquiry into the Post Office’s legal pursuit of sub-postmasters in the Horizon IT scandal has revealed how far the Post Office, Fujitsu and others were willing to go to protect their interests. The enquiry has also revealed how difficult it is to learn about an organisation’s internal workings, even in the face of close legal scrutiny. This begs the question: why do we have such few ways of hearing what happens inside organisations beyond whistleblowers, public enquiries and televised dramatisations?  

The answer may seem obvious: organisations are groups defined by secrecy. As Jana Costas and Christopher Grey have noted in a major work, secrecy is one of the hidden architectures of organisations. There can be both personal, economic and social reasons why people withhold even simple facts about office cultures to outsiders. Inside organisations, however, it has been well documented that people are not shy about gossiping or complaining. Jon Weeks in an ethnography of a bank noted that British office workers complain to each other about their company, offices, and management on a daily basis. Yet sharing certain topics, especially outside of an organisational space or social group, has long proved an obstacle, even in the face of broader public interest.  

It turns out that people might be more willing to share if the right technologies are in place. For the past eleven years, South Korean office culture has witnessed a revolution in the ability for workers to share stories about their work life. The mobile application Blind was launched in 2013 as an anonymous chatting app where users are grouped into company-specific chat rooms. The application bridges anonymity with familiarity: workers communicate with those who might be in the same building, but do not know who is who. Initially meant to foster positive relations amongst co-workers without regard to rank or status, the application quickly opened the floodgates for whistleblowing on a range of topics. The application became famous in 2014 for being the origin of the Korean Air nut rage incident which led to the criminal prosecution of a top executive.  

Blind launched an English language version of its app in 2015 which was aimed at workers in American Silicon Valley firms. It caused a stir at Uber in 2017 where employees complained about lack of action around sexual harassment and misogyny within the company culture. While the company originally tried to block employees from accessing Blind, the negative publicity and employee dissatisfaction as a result led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. Uber now is reported to listen closely to what employees have to say on Blind.  

While individual posts tend to be shared within company only forums, some can generate significant momentum, being shared or screenshotted by users at other companies from which point they can reach netizens and journalists. From my own early-stage research, I’ve seen some of Blind’s wider impacts on South Korean working culture. It has had a significant impact on desire for job changes in the Korean labour market as employees now can get honest appraisals of company work cultures. Likewise, it has changed how companies think about workplace design and workplace policies. Many large companies, seeking to improve their ratings on Blind’s honest company review section, have loosened rules on dress codes, linguistic norms, office designs, work time, and in-company perks to lure early- and mid-career workers. Blind has found success by being company or profession-focussed as well as by protecting employees through its patented registration system that doesn’t monetise the personal data of its users behind the scenes.

For the time being, the application has not spread beyond South Korea and US-linked technology jobs. However, its impact suggests that technological innovation is important when we conceptualise the future of issues like workplace democracy and organisational listening many of which still presume older models of face-to-face communities. It is worth thinking about how the UK would prepare if something like Blind came to the British watercooler. I outline the potential impact of an anonymous workplace application in the UK for five groups:

Employee and Professional Communities: Formal resources for reporting like human resources or ombudsmen can feel risky to employees, but a resource in the palm of one’s hand, that can be accessed outside of work might be very helpful. Anonymous chatting can overcome significant workplace taboos, such as discussing harassment and wage transparency. In increasingly remote or distributed workplaces, an employee-only social media channel also creates new opportunities for hearing from others and building community outside of official channels.

Trade Unions: Blind can both complement and challenge trade union organisations. On one hand, it provides a modern channel for workers to chat about workplace issues, such as wages and benefits and can improve awareness of issues across an organisation or sector. On the other hand, Blind creates its own flat structure without regard for formal authority; in some cases in South Korea, trade union leaders have also been subject to the same critiques as upper management on the application.    

Workplace Consultants: Workplace consultants promise to be able to capture the pulse or climate of an organisation. Blind offers an opportunity to see what employees really think. Evidence from South Korea suggests that employees have much harsher views on workplace culture than company-sponsored surveys suggest. Something like Blind could end up putting many workplace consultants and survey tools on notice if it achieves significant inroads.

Upper Management: Managers and executives read Blind too, though they may not always admit it publicly. Executives can get quick wins on hot-button topics to improve employee morale or to demonstrate feedback works. In South Korea, Blind has thus had a ripple effect on the broader management ecosystem, with some companies actively embracing it to drive change and others developing alternative tools.  

The public: Blind increases the circulation of work stories by anonymous employees from real companies. This would help give shape to the everyday working conditions and diverse organisational landscape that many in the UK are hardly aware of. In cases of organisations with a public interest, we would no longer have to rely solely on the rare whistleblower or expensive public enquiries to learn about internal misdeeds. If organisations might fear their own employees communicating to the public, corporate accountability could dramatically improve.

So far, the English language version of Blind caters to American business communities, but that could always change in the future as the developers expand to the UK or workers themselves appeal to create UK-specific channels. Until then, we might ask what would happen if large British organisations like the Post Office, the NHS or the Civil Service had their own lounges to chat about what is going on? Whether it be via Blind or another application, research suggest that British workers would be keen to hear what their coworkers have to say about leadership, about the quality of their work life, and comparisons of their salaries. The wider public, not used to hearing these insider voices, would also have a lot to gain from hearing stories that might be in the public interest as well – it would certainly fill a marked silence in the current state of affairs.  


About the author: Mike Prentice is a lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. He researches contemporary corporate culture and management in South Korea and is the author of Supercorporate: Distinction and Participation in Post-hierarchy South Korea with Stanford University Press.


Dr Mike Prentice


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