A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables highlighted that we are living in an age of unprecedented transparency, one where information is increasingly a base of power – a base from which individuals can wield enormous influence in addition to countries and companies. Whatever you believe about Wikileaks and its founder, the ongoing saga has brought into the public domain what many commentators have been speculating on and security experts fearing: Infowars. Cyber-attacks have been carried out both on Wikileaks and on companies which have chosen to withhold services from the organization, by loose, nameless (some call themselves Anonymous) communities of hackers using social media to organize themselves. So what are some of the major pros and cons of radical transparency?
Changing individual and corporate behaviours for the better: In his book Ecological Intelligence, well-known management author Daniel Goleman (and he may not have been the first) used the term radical transparency to describe how new technologies and information aggregators that reveal the ecological impact of products we buy could potentially drive consumers to make smarter decisions and companies to reform their business practices. He gives examples such as SkinDeep, a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products, which has hosted more than 100 million searches since its launch in 2004. He also notes that Clorox and S.C. Johnson have now revealed the ingredients of their consumer products, in the process enhancing their reputations. It’s pretty exciting stuff! While Goleman thinks we are not quite in a world of radical transparency yet, giving consumers and companies the information required to participate in driving better decisions highlights some key benefits to moving towards this state.
Influencing political processes and decisions for the better: Even though public participation in decision-making may not be directly possible, e.g. due to parliamentary processes, since the 1990s many national parliaments have published the vast majority of parliamentary documents, laws and debate records. These offer the means for the public to understand critical decisions – and to collectively influence these where public opinion is strong.
Leveraging the power of communities to create/improve lives and work: Collaborative projects, e.g. open source software or Wikipedia, leverage the power of open information to create and/or improve on everything from products to services to ideas. One of the best examples is perhaps Ushahidi.com, an open source network which emerged during the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008, crowdsourcing and mapping incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone. The platform has now been enhanced and deployed in crisis situations around the world, including the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, to make visible areas of violence and crisis, to focus efforts to address these. As such it combines social activism, citizen journalism and information mapping. Such communities and activities clearly enhance both our lives and work.
Enhancing trust and reputations: In a world where the power of choice, for individuals and communities is increasing dramatically, trust and reputation become critical currencies. As we highlighted in our recent special report on personal finance, lack of trust is a huge challenge for retail banks and a key reason that other non-finance players can play in this market space – because they have the trust of consumers. Transparency is a key building block for trust and reputations, and will become increasingly important.
Controlling illegal or malign information sharing: One question we asked ourselves at the very start of the recent Wikileaks campaign was: Can they be shut down? Clearly the answer is no – despite the best efforts of the US government, the Wikileaks organization has employed highly sophisticated technology as well as operating in multiple legal jurisdictions, which means for better or worse, the information leaks cannot be stopped, either technically or legally. While this may be a positive in the case of free speech, it has significant downsides if the people making information made public have malign or illegal intentions. Consider for example someone who bears a grudge against another individual or a company – even if information released can be disproved, damage will still be done. Also consider the implications of nameless communities who can rally and disappear at will, intent on negative forms of social activism.
Ensuring accountability: Extending the previous thought: How do we hold people, communities, companies, societies and governments accountable when information made transparent does damage whether reputational, financial or physical? A more light-hearted example is Barack Obama’s frustrated response to an August 2010 poll by Time magazine in which nearly one quarter of Americans believe he is a Muslim: “I can’t spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered on my forehead.” Information sticks. The problem is what to do if it is wrong and the people responsible cannot be held accountable.
Changing our relationship with the internet: A growing global catalogue of careless and/or criminal releases of confidential information may change our relationship with the internet. From a window on the world, a vital source of communications and communities, many are evaluating the potential downsides of a world-wide web where information can never be suppressed, and where communities can turn on their makers. Expect also to see governments such as the US and China tackling the paradox of cyber-security, as it becomes increasingly clear that this is a double-edged sword. Mobilizing internet communities and capabilities for security reasons will be a necessary part of future national (and international) defenses, but there are always risks that the hackers get hacked by their own communities.
From governments to companies to individuals, it is clear we need to think through what living with radical transparency really means, as well as the appropriate balance between openness and confidentiality. Trust and integrity will become increasingly important tools in the new age of cyber-relations, cyber-threats and infowars. Borrowing from and adding to Daniel Goleman, here are some thoughts on how companies can engage in this new world:
- Have a transparency strategy. Be clear about where the right balance is for you and your company in being open with information – and where and how you want this shared. Recognize that you will not be able to have complete control, so…
- Be proactive. Know what’s being said about your brand online. Check how you are being rated on relevant sites that aggregate and publicize information. Think about how it impacts your reputation.
- Tell your story. Engage with the rating communities and organizations – don’t view them as a threat, but as an entity with similar goals to yours, i.e. improving the consumer/customer experience. Have a conversation.
- Engage your community. Don’t make it difficult for customers to reach you with comments and feedback, as consumer frustrations may well end up on a website for all to see. Engage with your customers and actively monitor complaints websites – word travels fast.
- Plan ahead. Radical transparency comes with cons as well as pros – think about the potential downsides before they happen, whether reputational or cyber-attacks, and make contingency plans.