It’s natural to feel secretive about the inner workings of your company. Traditional corporate values shun transparency, and given today’s competitive business landscape, a CEO’s intuition tells him to keep his firm’s secrets under wraps.
But there’s growing evidence that opening up your business for the world to see — then using as many people as you can to contribute ideas about improving the processes and products you’ve put on full display — is a growth strategy for now and future. Call it “collective intelligence.” Could it work for your company?
In We Are Smarter Than Me: How to Unleash the Power of Crowds in Your Business, authors Barry Libert and Jon Spector argue that revealing the inner workings of your business and encouraging mass collaboration just makes sense in the Internet age. “I don’t think it’s possible to hold on to the old idea of secrecy as a competitive advantage,” says Libert. “It’s not possible anymore for employees to be kept in the dark or to keep customers away from product innovation, because if you do, they have the voice of the Internet through blogs, wikis and discussion forums to say things about [you] and, ultimately, they’ll get the upper hand.” Rather than allowing the marketplace to come to detrimental conclusions about your business based on misinformation or no information at all, turn everyone into an enlightened partner in your business process.
That getting customer and employee feedback is important isn’t news. But “creating nakedness or being exposed or, as we say, ‘letting the zoo be run by the animals’ is what’s really creative here,” says Libert. “The more people that can get involved, whether it be employees or customers, the more innovative and vibrant a company can become.” And, say Libert and Spector in We Are Smarter Than Me, “in the case of customers, it gives them a vested interest in the results and all but guarantees they will like — and buy — what they’ve created.”
You might already gather your constituents for annual focus groups or conferences in which you share information and collect feedback. “The problem with that is it’s a single transaction,” says Libert. “It has no recurring nature to it, so it doesn’t engage the hearts and minds of the customers and employees year round.”
You may not want to go as far as Microsoft, which posts uncensored internal videos on public websites and encourages its engineers to blog freely about their projects in order to get the public’s feedback and give the mammoth company a more human face. Still, try to think about ways to collect more feedback and create more discussion.
Consider adopting open-book management, whereby you give employees detailed financial and operational information, thus equipping them with the knowledge they need to make smart business decisions. Libert, for one, recommends starting with technology (perhaps Facebook or a wiki) that allows your employees to post profiles and share ideas in a more meaningful way than a suggestion box. “Then, you can think about how to turn that externally focused,” says Libert. “Begin asking the same thing of your customers — what types of products and services would they like to see — and using discussion forums, blogs and wikis to engage in a real-time dialogue, a 360-degree process year-round.”