The era of radical transparency

Posted: December 14, 2011 in Responsible business
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English: Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitt...

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The ever-decreasing opacity of life in the 21st Century is often viewed with concern. Faced with the evidence, people’s first instinct is often to worry about their personal security being compromised in some way.

However it is also doing wonders in shining a light on unacceptable behaviour by decision-makers. Political examples are pretty easy to find – consider the impact of SMS and Twitter on this year’s regime change in Egypt and, almost it seemed, in Iran the year before.

The same goes for corporations.

In the next few years, things could get really interesting. 2010 saw the launch of the revolutionary “Free2Work” app, which allowed smartphone users to scan a product barcode and learn before purchasing if it was produced under ethically dubious circumstances.

At the moment the app only profiles a small number of high-profile brands and is a bit of a novelty mainly intended to start people thinking. Just imagine when this information is more readily available though. The 21st Century leader needs to be ready to engage with this. To date, too many have been playing a cat and mouse game (see this and this post), engaging with pressure group demands by being seen to act and doing just enough to make the issue go away.

Even amongst companies who sincerely intend to improve their labour and environmental record (the majority, hopefully), the dearth of information hampers not only self-appointed monitors but even the companies themselves from knowing with great precision what happens all the way to the manufacturer and from there to the people who extract the raw materials.

“So what have you done about that?”

As time goes by, data becomes more and more readily accessible. At the moment it is still pretty hard work to unravel a supply chain and learn where a particular product comes from – although you can see some representative examples around the place, e.g. sourcemap.com

How much longer, I wonder until that data is in a format that it can be fed, live, into activists’ websites and apps and thence to concerned citizens’ smartphones? It would be a brave CEO who bets on this never transpiring. And speaking of smartphones, don’t forget everyone who buys one of these devices makes themselves an amateur news reporter. YouTube ignominy can be just one button push away.

Harvard Business Review has already been recommending that business leaders not fight it. They needn’t be motivated by altruism, it’s just going to make things easier for their companies in the long run. ‘Heightened stakeholder sensibilities’ are here to stay.

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