Adam Corson-Finnerty, who wrote this opinion piece, is Director of External Affairs for the Library of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Laura Blanchard, of "Fundraising and Friend-Raising on the Web" (ALA Editions, 1998.) He graduated from Penn in 1967 and has a master’s degree in American Civilization. His musings on the Internet, fundraising, and wired public relations can be found at

Last week Intel, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer chip maker, announced that it will offer its 70,000 full- and part-time employees free Pentium III home computers, free Internet access, a commitment to regular upgrading, and the choice of one Intel "Play" product. Delta Airlines has also decided to shower computers on its 72,000 employees, and GM and United Airlines are thinking about doing the same thing. The company that set the ball rolling on this trend, however, is Ford Motor, which announced last month that it would buy high-speed computers for every one of its 350,000 employees.

According to Ford, the computers will come with color printers and unlimited Internet access for $5 a month. Since Ford has employees in countries like Poland and India, it indicated that if $5 a month proved onerous, the rate would be selectively lowered. Oh, and we are not talking about computers for the office and factory floor. We are talking about computers that the employees can take home, let their kids and neighbors play with, go anywhere, do anything. Whatever.

Interestingly, the "catch" is that there is no catch. The closer you look, the better the deal looks, and the more brilliant the managers at Ford seem to be.

The ostensible reason for this $100 million giveaway is to promote "computer literacy." Ford figures that it is actually a cheap way to bring its workers into the cyber-era. Give them a computer, and let them take it home and play with it. Even if Joe sixpack or Nasheem mango lassi doesn’t know what to do with the thing, perhaps his children will. And maybe they will teach him, and their mom, and their cousins.

Stay with this for a second. Ford could have announced a massive computer literacy program, whereby workers would have been required to attend classes on company time, in company classrooms, with company-paid instructors. Guess what? This kind of traditional approach would have cost more, disrupted workflow, irritated workers and their managers, and would not have been effective anyway. Instead, Sally herb-tea-only-thank-you-very-much takes the computer to her own learning location (home) and learns on her own time, and feels grateful to her employer for its generosity.

Ford needs its Sallys, and its Nasheems, and its Joes–it needs them to be computer-savvy and net-enabled, and ready for whatever is coming next. Here’s why: Money is not a limitation in business development right now. Lack of skilled people is the problem.

Not only are good people hard to find, good people are hard to keep. Mainstream companies, paying fat salaries with lush perks, are still unable to hold onto their top and middle managers. The "suits" are heading for the dot-coms. And ten minutes after they have donned their sunglasses and sandals, they start playing beach blanket bingo.

Companies–like Ford–that want a large, techno-savvy workforce are going to have to grow their own. Battlefield promotions will be the order of the day. "So, Sally, I saw your Herb Tea Fanzine page on the Ford Family site last night. How would you like to be the Web Master for our unit?" It will be like WWII. Corporals will become lieutenants, lieutenants will become majors, majors will become generals, and all because the preceding general just left for whoopee-dot-com.

Yet computer literacy may be just one of the benefits to Ford, and perhaps not the most important one. Employees who are wired are employees who can be communicated with at almost zero cost. Throw out the paper memo, the company newsletter, and the benefits manual. Send an email, create a Web resource site, draw employees to company content, or push it to their home computers.

Employees who are wired can also push ideas up the chain. Innovation becomes democratized. Rewards and recognition for cost-saving ideas and new manufacturing tricks can be granted rapidly and very publicly. Virtual teams can be formed and reformed, and the ones that work will save millions in travel fares and travel time.

But that’s not the Big Story. Internet Week decided that there was a message behind the message, and opined in its February 14, 2000 issue: "Delta’s and Ford’s combined employee base of 422,000 represents a captive audience with billions of dollars in annualized buying power. With those kinds of numbers, the companies could easily introduce hundreds of retail partners, targeted ads, and other buying information to employees, all the while earning a cut on transactions."

The plot thickens. Is Ford doing a brilliant, forward-seeing, high-wire, invent-your-future act, or just setting up a Company Store? Tom Rhinelander of Forester Research thinks it’s the latter: "This is all happening because the numbers look right, not because all of a sudden employees need PCs to do their jobs efficiently. This is all about generating revenue." (Quoted in "Ulterior E-Motives," by Chuck Moozakis, in the Feb. 14, 2000 Internet Week.)

The Company Store. People of my generation remember the popular Tennessee Ernie Ford song about a coal miner:

"You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older, and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the Company Store."

The company store that Tennessee Ernie and Johnny Cash sang about did indeed have a "captive audience." Such stores were located at remote work sites, where there was no alternative place to make purchases. Prices were high, and credit went straight against the next pay check, or the next several paychecks. If the workers didn’t like it, they could lump it.

The Ford cyberstore will be a very different animal. Employees who don’t want to buy from the Ford site will be only a click away from thousands of alternatives. Don’t like the book prices at Try, or Ditto for cars, credit cards, music, home mortgages, and so on.

No, if Ford and Delta want to make money from their employees’ purchases, they will have to give them a better deal. And that, in fact, is what the real deal is about. These companies will be able to leverage the collective buying power of their employees in order to get attractive discounts. We are talking about a giant buying co-op, with the company getting a little piece of every transaction.

Shift lanes for a moment. While Ford is creating a huge retail marketplace, it has also been busy creating a business-to-business hub. This started with Ford’s effort to link electronically to its suppliers, and that notion was dubbed "Auto Xchange." The guess is that this supply-chain network could save Ford $9 billion in purchasing, lower overhead and other efficiencies.

But wait, there’s more. At the end of February, the Big Three automakers announced that they were going to pool their efforts and create a "single global portal" for the industry. This new venture will be jointly owned and will allow everyone to buy from everyone else in the three supply chains. The headline of their press release says it all: "Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler Create World’s Largest Internet-Based Virtual Marketplace."

Amusingly, the press "spin" on this initiative was that Ford and the others had been forced by their suppliers to merge exchanges, lest three separate standards be imposed on the little guys. No doubt there was resistance from the suppliers, but it only took the Big Three a few weeks to figure out that 100% of a Big Thing couldn’t hold a candle to 33% of a Colossal Thing.

So, let’s put it all together. Ford is creating a huge employee-based buying co-op, and Ford has co-created a mammoth B-to-B hub. Hmmm. What if Ford encouraged the employees of its suppliers to join the buying co-op? What if it allowed the extended families of its employees, and its suppliers’ employees, to join? What if anyone who owns a share of Ford stock, or who purchases a Ford, could join? The Ford Family might just become the world’s largest multi-national tribe.

Do I think Ford is that smart? That bold? Yes, and here is the reason why. In order for Ford to launch its computer giveaway program, it had to cross a conceptual Rubicon. The Ford free PC program is giving workers the most powerful worker-organizing tool ever invented.

Armed with the power of e-mail, a Ford worker, on her own time and in her own home, will be able to communicate with every other Ford worker in the world. Does the headlight unit in East Mugwort have a grievance? Within one hour they can alert their union, tell other workers in their plant, tell other workers in similar units in other parts of the world, tell friends and family, tell their congressperson, and so on. And when contract time comes around, a dissident faction will be able to make its claim to everyone’s attention. That is, unless the UAW and Ford team up to block communication–which they won’t because it would bring down the whole edifice.

Mark this well. Ford, a company that prides itself on having good union relations, has launched itself into completely new waters. This computer giveaway program is not just a narrow "company store" play, it is a brilliant reinvention of the corporate enterprise in the era of the Internet.

"So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Ford."
"But, Uncle Harry, I thought Ford was in the car business."
"No, dear, Ford is in the ‘whatever’ business."
"Yes, ‘whatever,’ and so is everyone else."