One of the most fascinating phenomena of the blogging era has been the inversion of corporate norms. As the tools of production and distribution are democratized, institutions lose power and individuals gain it. As the Web becomes the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier in history, consumers learn to trust peers more and companies less. And as the same trends play out within the firm, businesses are shifting from command and control to "out of control", distributing more and more power to the rank and file.
Perhaps the most interesting of these is the shift from secrecy to transparency. The default communications mode of companies has traditionally been top-down, with only the executives and official spokespeople permitted to discuss company business in public. The standard rule, explicit or not, was "That which we choose not to announce is not to be spoken about." Aside from some special exemptions, such as conferences where those employees trusted enough to go chatted guardedly with outsiders, employees were cautioned that what happened at work should stay at work. Loose lips sink ships, etc.
But over the past few years, a new breed of executive has emerged, and with them a new attitude toward controlling the corporate narrative. From Microsoft to Yahoo!, the public face of the company is increasingly employee bloggers who are trusted both internally (allowed to blog without legal or PR review) and externally (they're just regular folk like us!). The consequence is that much that was once hidden is now open for all. These rarely include big disclosures (the real secrets stay secret), but instead tend to be about routine issues that dominate the day-to-day life of engineers and project managers. The small cost of some competitor getting early wind of a new feature is more than outweighed by the good will generated among customers by candid insights into product development. So far, so Naked Conversations.
What really interests me, however, is when this goes even further. Not just transparency, but Radical Transparency. The whole product development process laid bare, and opened to customer input. Management in public, via blog. CEOs venting, without benefit of legal counsel, in late-night postings.
The poster child for this is, of course, Mark Cuban. His postings on everything from NBA refereeing to video competitor strategies are riveting, an unfiltered lens directly into the brain of one of the most primal entrepreneurs on the planet. Like him or loath him (disclosure: I like him), you can't stop reading him. His blog is the Being John Malkovich of capitalism--you're in the head of a extraordinarily intuitive businessman who can't help but say what he thinks.
In the spirit of transparency, I'm going to continue to build on this theme on this blog in public even as I help develop it into a story or series of stories in Wired. That is, of course, exactly what I did for my book, which worked better than I could have dreamed. Now I'd like to try applying it to magazine-making, too. The difference is that this time I won't be the author of the magazine piece (my job is to catalyze great work, not do it myself), so I'm just one party of many. We'll see how it goes...
I'll end this post with some recommended reading on Radical Transparency:
Fred Wilson: "We are living in public more and more every day. It's becoming the norm. Our kids out their personal lives on their MySpace and Facebook pages. We blog about what we did this weekend and where we ate last night."
The Wikipedia entry: focuses on management and government.
JPG Magazine: The community votes on which pictures go in the magazine.
The Sunlight Foundation: Uses Web 2.0 data-aggregating to bring transparency to politics
The OpenHuman project: Very silly. Still, a data point...
(Image taken from the Visible Human project)