Why large firms are adopting small company styles

One of the features of internet life that has been discussed to the point of cliche is its role as democratiser.

Augmented by social factors - individualism of rights, styles and behaviours - this brew of culture and technology is exceptionally heady.

Structures and assumptions that have served us for years are being rewired around a fundamental and permanent change in the relationship between the people and the institutions. And one of the victims of this process is the historic advantage of big companies.

One of the obvious benefits of being big is "deep pockets". This means that you can hire the best people, raise capital for new projects on the best possible terms and are sought out as a partner by other big firms, so multiplying the advantage.

Today, a more unconformist, creative workforce doesn't automatically want to work in the biggest company they can find. They care about life balance, pace of their progress and how fast they can be engaged on really interesting work.

The style of the small company, its pace and agility, its more natural internal communications, perhaps broader equity participation, and above all, its capacity to give greater weight to ideas than process, make it an attractive home for the very best people. They know that they will be poached if they're any good, so the orderly career progression offered by the corporation is accorded nil value.

And though no one wants to work for a rubbish salary, there is a gathering recognition that none of us should trade our days and our passion with someone who will give us only money in return.

As for funding, the financial institutions rate strategy and management above bigness, and notwithstanding the current credit squeeze, entrepreneurs have not found start-up cash hard to find.

The partnership culture, now a well-established feature of business practice, is driven by ideas and not scale.

Some of the most successful large companies are deliberately adopting small company styles: making time for ideas, finding ways to offset the impersonality of the large machine and creating sub- divisions within the whole.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet and inherently suspicious of the big commerce, would be delighted.

Richard Eyre is chairman of the IAB richard.eyre@haymarket.com.

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