WikiLeaks saga pushes businesses to adapt

This cautionary tale shows that even though we are not ready for massive change, it’s happening
By Mitch Joel, Vancouver Sun December 24, 2010

So much has already been written about WikiLeaks. Most of the debate is about the legalities and moralities of what WikiLeaks is, and what it means in our brave new world.

But if you can take a step back and look at it, without prejudice or passing judgment, there are many fascinating lessons about how new media act — and react — that are also excellent business lessons. You may even consider this a cautionary tale.

Here are seven lessons that WikiLeaks teaches us:

1. Transparency first. If your default position is to hide information and keep it secret, the new world is going to cause you many sleepless nights. WikiLeaks shows us that businesses will be best off leading with transparency, only shifting to secrecy when it’s absolutely necessary — if protecting a “secret sauce,” for instance.

Leading with secrecy has no place in our new, more transparent world. As people connect with vast networks and divulge more information about themselves online, that is becoming the cultural norm, so any actions — by business or government — that lack that level of transparency will be seen as “secretive.”

2. You are media. Any individual can have a thought and then be able to publish it in the form of text, images, audio and/or video to the world for free. This doesn’t just mean that everyone is a publisher; it means that every individual is, or can be, a media channel. WikiLeaks is a media entity, as Mathew Ingram pointed out in a Gigaom Blog post. If we agree this categorization, all media properties need to be protected, at least to some degree, by those first-amendment rights.

3. Publishing has changed. This ties directly into the last point. We may not like it, but WikiLeaks is both a publisher of content and a media channel. That means we as a society need to reevaluate our definition of publishing. A while back, podcaster and blogger Christopher S. Penn asked on an episode of my podcast, Media Hacks, if something written and published in the online game World of Warcraft should be considered a book? That’s a debate for another column, but we can all agree that it is, without question, a form of publishing.

Would the mass media and academic intelligentsia consider that publishing? These newer forms of publishing threaten the traditional business models and question their legacies — and people don’t like when you do that. But, let’s face it, publishing has changed.

4. Information travels fast, be it legal or not. It’s no longer about crisis management of better public relations; we have shifted to the real-time web. And the news has shifted along with it. We do not find out about a plane crash on CNN. We find out about it because the survivors are tweeting or shooting video and streaming it live. Information doesn’t travel faster now; it’s happening in real time.

5. Decentralization is real. While WikiLeaks has passed the massive amount of content over to some major media outlets to turn the information into snackable content for the mass public, the structure and organization of WikiLeaks points to a new kind of regime.

The new company is (and can be) a decentralized organization — one that runs on a handful of laptops and smartphones. They are a credible competitor. The idea of a few people working from their local Tim Hortons when compared to another business with a fixed address and infrastructure used to be seen as both laughable and unprofessional. No more.

6. Credible anonymity. This will, without question, become one of the biggest trends we will start to see in the digital channels. Think about it this way: when reading a customer review on Amazon about a book, who would you trust more, Sarah P. from Chelsea, Quebec, or an anonymous reviewer who says they work for one of the biggest book publishers in the world?

What do we really know about Julian Assange? Do the sex charges against him make the content he is publishing any less credible? As social media allow individuals to open up, publish their lives and share everything, there will be many other places where anonymity will prevail, and the content will be as, if not more, credible than the content where full disclosure is happening.

7. We are not ready. The shocking part of WikiLeaks is how everybody else (those who do not understand Internet culture) is reacting to it. They are not used to this type of organization or the way it looks and feels. It’s awkward and because of that, it feels both strange and threatening. It simply validates that we are not ready for the massive changes that are happening.

With all of this in mind, can’t we look to the continuing WikiLeaks saga as an amazing opportunity for businesses to listen, understand, grow and adapt? These are all strong indicators of the future trends we are about to see in corporate culture.
Mitch Joel is President of Twist Image and the author of the book, Six Pixels of Separation.

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