In the era of enterprise openness and collaboration, can businesses still succeed by being closed and uncooperative? This may not be a politically correct question to ask -- or to answer candidly, for that matter.
This week's IE Radio guest, the social media marketing expert Vala Afshar, speaks and writes eloquently about the need for transparency, trust, and collaboration, both inside an organization and with external customers and partners. But not everyone espouses this model.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), for instance, Shira Ovide describes the cagey and controlling approach to product development taken by Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Division:
Industry executives say Microsoft and Mr. Sinofsky have carefully controlled technical and marketing information about Windows 8, doling it out in Mr. Sinofsky's periodic blog posts, one of which ran to 8,500 words.
Mr. Sinofsky has pushed for Apple-like control over how the new software and hardware work together, dictating details usually left to computer makers, such as the degree of resolution for screens and how long a PC takes to start....
People who have worked with Mr. Sinofsky say he relies on a close circle of confidants and is wary of sharing information about his projects.
This isn't exactly the kind of behavior espoused by proponents of social business. In Vala Afshar's words: "A social business nurtures connections with employees and customers by adopting a listening and learning culture." Steven Sinofsky, in contrast, appears to be driving his own bus, letting passengers on and off as he pleases. It's an approach reminiscent of Steve Jobs, whose management style was secretive and autocratic.
In the years before the Internet, this was an approach that seemed to work: Keeping brand secrets under wraps, putting only certain spokespeople in front of the public, and covering the firm's financial and legal tracks carefully were all part of business practice and process. Further, many corporate leaders enjoyed their authority and felt entitled to it. So was it any surprise they resisted being told what to do by underlings? (In truth, many probably still do.)
Now that the back door's opened and the public appears to be streaming in on social sites, the game has changed, and a lot of folks probably don't like it.
There's still a place for guarding proprietary information, surely. But when it comes to the exposure that social networking brings to organizations of all kinds, it's too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Firms need to train employees on how to communicate to customers and partners online without divulging information that is sensitive, without being overtly negative or inappropriate, and without departing from corporate branding or policies.
These aren't easy goals, and it may be unrealistic to expect them to be reachable by all employees, especially ones who cherish authority and tend to be possessive of knowledge. But it's important for enterprises to make an effort in the direction of openness and to be prepared to engage on open online forums with customers, partners, and internal collaborators -- even though there may be natural resistance to doing so.
In short, it's important to acknowledge the advent of social business. Failure to do so effectively can produce a dangerous isolation.
Given the cool reception Microsoft's latest products have been getting in the runup to the official unveiling of Windows 8 this Friday, Steven Sinofsky may wind up being a case in point.
— Mary Jander , Executive Editor, Internet Evolution