In the age of Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street, technology has opened a new world for a democratized digital inclusion. Suddenly, there is more information available instantly -- to everyone, everywhere -- about environmental degradation, human rights impacts, and ethical business practices.
This new data-saturated culture in which technology allows messages -- both true and false -- to spread like wildfire is forcing a shift in the transparency paradigm. The era of controlled and packaged disclosures is giving way to transparency that is being co-created by stakeholders and citizen journalists. And businesses, ready or not, will have to adapt.
But this adaptation isn't always easy or fast. While 55 percent of sustainable business leaders in a new BSR/GlobeScan survey say increased transparency is critical to improving public trust, only 32 percent believe business is showing leadership in this area.
At last week's BSR Conference 2011, panelists and participants in a session on hypertransparency echoed this sentiment. They pointed to the immense opportunity for building greater trust, engagement, and empowerment through co-created transparency. But they also grappled with how to create accountability for the abundance of new information, the challenge of lasting engagement in 140-character attention spans, and whether we have to sacrifice privacy for transparency.
Despite the uncertainties, a few companies are bravely tiptoeing into this arena:
- Zappos opens wide the corporate doors by live streaming their internal all-hands meeting in support of their core value of "building open and honest relationships with communication."
- Best Buy's Chief Ethics Officer Kathleen Edmund openly discusses real-life (anonymized) ethics challenges on her blog to create teachable moments and encourage dialogue with employees and the public.
- Intel provides real-time information on air emissions and other environmental impacts -- along with a live webcam -- for its New Mexico facility to provide current and accurate communication with the local community.
- Dole Organic tags its bananas with a code that identifies the exact farm where they were harvested. Consumers can then explore the farm's information, location, and certification, including 3D imagery on Google Earth on their website.
- Office Depot and New Leaf Paper are using Sourcemap -- a platform that crowdsources product supply chain and carbon footprinting -- to trace the life of recycled paper from where it was originally recycled to its final retail destination.
These are promising first steps, but it's important to remember that transparency in itself is not the end game. It's not enough to just put the information and data out there. To engender trust, businesses need to also engage with their stakeholders to help them filter and understand the information without acting a censor or dumbing down the content.
The power and potential in hypertransparency is the opportunity to co-create solutions. If business is able to move from one-way disclosures to a continuous communication and engagement model, the exchange of products and services can create contact, friendships, and emotional accountability from corporations to consumers around the world.
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