Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 5, 2010 7:13 AM

An Open (And Closed) Case For Business In A Digital World

Can a business culture be both open and closed?

WikiLeaks scared everybody last week. How is it possible that one individual can become a whistleblower by uploading thousands of documents to a website that anyone can have access to, and one from which the individual doing the uploading cannot be traced? In the good old days (about four years ago, when WikiLeaks didn't exist), if someone wanted to be a whistleblower, it was a very complex and dangerous process that not only put the employee at risk but everyone in their family and social community as well. Whistle-blowing was a laborious process of gathering information, lying about your actions to colleagues, smuggling information in and out of a company. It involved secret meetings, wiretaps and other activities usually reserved for a John Grisham novel.

Anyone can, so anyone does.

Now, it's about a couple of clicks on a trackpad from just about anywhere to a website that has no physical location and where the creators and owners have not been formally identified (although we do know that Julian Assange acts as its public representation). How can a company like WikiLeaks - that has created a platform so open and so powerful - be so closed in terms of who they are, where they are from and what their real endgame is?

This is the new nature of business in a digital world.

It's not just the information and intellectual property that a company stores on its servers and hard drives, it is much more about the culture that is being created by its people, and how this integrates into something few businesses really spend any time focusing on: Internet culture and what it means to business today. By its very definition, business culture was always about closed platforms: protecting your information, protecting your strategy, keeping who is working for you private, ensuring that the competition was never able to know your next move and the cumulative things you do that make your business so unique and successful (the "secret sauce," as it were). This attitude is not only still relevant, but it is a requirement in a world where any one individual can have a thought and publish it to the world in text, images, audio and video, instantly and for free using the Internet.

Look no further than Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, tumblr and beyond.

There is no need for technical skill, and there is no need to be the next Hemingway to do it. Interested in knowing how many employees your competitors have, who they are, and everything else about them (including job titles and descriptions)? Do a quick search on LinkedIn for the company's name (while you're at it, do one for your own company).

Do you still think you live in a world where your private business information is not open and public?

The knee-jerk reaction is to shut it all down. Lock the employees out. All new business models and shifts in culture are uncomfortable because they are weird. They're weird because they do not look, act and do what we have known to date. Think about the concept of online dating before it became popular. Some still hold to their conviction that online dating is only for those who are supremely lonely (or total losers). Reality check: In the past few years, online dating has become the primary way that most people meet, fall in love and get married (it has also been a primary driver for divorces and promiscuous hookups, but that's another story).

WikiLeaks and the case for figuring out how much a business must open up in the era of the Internet culture is a current affair that cannot be ignored.

"In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it," said media pundit and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, in a PressThink Blog post, The Afghanistan War Logs Released by WikiLeaks, the World's First Stateless News Organization. "But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new."

What the Internet now allows is what businesses must seriously start paying attention to.

Recently, Charlene Li (founder of Altimeter Group and the co-author of the bestselling business book, Groundswell) released her second book, Open Leadership -How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (Jossey-Bass - May 2010). In it, Li urges business leaders to "be open, be transparent, be authentic" (talk about some tall and counter-traditional orders). The book goes on to promise how leaders can "tap into the power of the social technology revolution and use social media to be 'open' while maintaining control." The subtlety of the book and the surrounding context of the debate as to whether businesses can ever truly be open is a paradox, because if businesses choose to ignore Internet culture, what they fail to realize is that people now have this technology in the palms of their hands, and these voices will not be silenced (no matter how complex the NDA and privacy policy of the employment agreement are). Meaning: a business can choose to not be open, but so long as all of their employees (or even some of them) engage in these many channels and platforms, they are - by default - open and more transparent (whether they like it or not).

What's a brand to do?

In a recent interview, Li went on to state: "What has happened over the last three years is that we now have a culture of sharing that didn't exist three years ago. ... Now we think and act very differently because of these technologies. The societal change that has happened is that we share more." The act of sharing is no longer relegated to email chains, a phone call or a meeting in a conference room. The act of sharing has been digitally distributed across borders to the point where businesses that are embracing this culture now actively share some of their internal thinking openly to the world (do some industry-specific keyword searches on SlideShare to see how many companies are now publicly sharing their thoughts and presentations within your world). The idea isn't to simply put everything you think out into the world. The real opportunity is to listen and accept the feedback, conversation and information that floats back. This is what makes Internet culture so fascinating, and it's what makes the simple act of sharing such a powerful force in our ever-changing world. It's also what makes both businesses and those watching the WikiLeaks story unfold so scared.

Now, it's your turn: Should businesses be more open or closed? Where do you sit on this cultural shift?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel