Transparency or Lipstick on a Pig?

Openness is easier than you may think [tweetmeme source=”Marcio_saito” only_single=false]

I just got back from the Social Business Edge, a conference in New York City discussing the effects of Social in Business. Two (of many) topics generated discussion: organizational transparency and personal privacy.

Lee Bryant from Dachis Group noted that companies are rushing to address social media from an external communication perspective, but to support that, they also must become more social on the inside. Otherwise “social” is just lipstick on a pig.

Stowe Boyd, the chair of the conference, has for some time been talking about the erosion of personal privacy and how publicy (opposed to “privacy”) is becoming the dominant motif of our online lives.

The discussions at the conference and particularly the thoughts of Bryant and Boyd, made me think about how personal privacy and company opacity are related.

Until a few years ago I kept my life relatively private. Not only in the sense of keeping personal information from the public, but also by segmenting my social circles. I had multiple personas, with clear boundaries between information I would share among “family”, “friends”,  “co-workers”, or “acquaintances.”

Boyd has used a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marques to illustrate the discussion about privacy: Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.

When I started using social websites starting a couple of years ago, I initially transposed my segmentation to the virtual life (I communicated with family by phone and e-mail, Facebook is for friends, LinkedIn is for professional connections, Yubliss is for self-discovery, and I would not tell anyone about having joined But it became increasingly difficult to manage all those groups and the leaking of context between them.

There was a point where I gave up maintaining those siloes. It is just too difficult to keep track of who are in which group and what are the overlaps. I still try to route content that is relevant to each segment, but I assume that what I say online can and will be seen by everyone. To a large degree, I gave up having a secret life.

While it was initially difficult make that leap, I eventually found the experience to be liberating. Once I internalized my newly found publicy, I did not need to think twice before writing or saying something. I felt free to say what I (really) thought.

Of course, I do not advocate the end of the rights to privacy or secrecy. On the contrary, I think those rights become even more important to freedom in a more social world. What I am saying is that, from a personal perspective, refraining from exercising those rights in excess for the illusion of privacy can be a very liberating experience.

I think the same applies to companies and social organizations as well. Advocating organizational transparency might trigger skepticism among people used to functional segmentation, but we are going from communicating only in a “need to know basis”, to the “public by default” era.

I was once given a “secret” document with the company strategy and told not to share with any other employee. I looked at the document and did not see anything in there that was more valuable secret than if it was shared with the people supposed to execute on that strategy. That company no longer exists, companies like that will have a hard time surviving.

If companies are to engage with customers using social media, they must be more transparent and less controlling in that interaction. As Bryant said, they also need to transform themselves from the inside out. Employees must be trusted and empowered to help the organization engage satisfactorily with customers.

When companies go through that transformation, I suspect their experience will be similar to my personal evolution from a “private” to a “social” person and they will find that it is easier, not harder, to conduct business that way.

And you, what is your secret?

This article was originally written for and posted at

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