"T" Is for Transparency
SAN FRANCISCO, April 2, 2009 — There was a revolutionary undertone during the morning keynotes here today at the Web 2.0 Expo at the Moscone Center. Speakers took the stage, imparting the general notion that with advances in technology and the Web, we can defy old-school business models and failed institutions. Notably, author and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff on Twitter) proposed during his presentation that because of its transparent nature, the Web will fix our economy. Rushkoff outlined the flawed principles in which often dictate how businesses are run and how the antiquated methodologies lead to tarnished relationships.
Transparency is at the heart of relationships, yet many organizations don't have the groundwork for transparency to exist, he shared with attendees. "Moving to becoming a transparent company is easy if there's something happening in the company and if you are good at what you do," Rushkoff said. "If people work in the industry that your company is a part of, it's much easier to be transparent." It sounds so easy the way Rushkoff put it. Essentially, the key to becoming transparent is developing a culture that's dedicated to your industry or service. However, institutions and businesses continue to struggle with this.
Rushkoff presented an example of misaligned interests that nearly ran a company into the ground. Paul S. Pressler, the former chief executive officer of The Gap, had grand intentions for the clothing company when he took the reins, Rushkoff told the audience -- but they weren't interests that consumers could relate to. Pressler, a former Disney vice president achieved his goal of getting famed actress Sarah Jessica Parker to pose in ad campaigns, but he did very little for clothing sales, according to Rushkoff. The operationally minded executive knew a lot about management, but very little about fashion -- a "gap" that resulted in the clothing brand nearly tanking. Upon leaving the company, the CEO spoke proudly about never working a day within the garment industry. "What would it be like where a CEO isn't just inexperienced but is proud of it?" Rushkoff exclaimed.
Business, at some point, became generic, said Rushkoff, touching on a topic from his latest book Get Back in the Box. Managers of factories traded time on the manufacturing floors for offices where they stared at ledgers and sought to outsource everything. Even in fun and creative industries, spreadsheets and Harvard business style took over, stripping companies of personality in preference for corporate culture. The creative center is what keeps companies together, Rushkoff said, and just outside that creative center are enthusiastic customers and fledgling employees. However, there are disruptions in the way of that creative synergy. For example, he said, advertising creates "myths" and resells products, often in ways that don't reflect the core product at hand. One such disconnect is embodied by the famous set of animated characters that have been the public face of Keebler cookies for more than 40 years: "The elves," Rushkoff joked, "are not a product attribute."
Rushkoff blamed two primary institutions for the lack of transparency and false assumptions permeating the world. Number one, he said, is commerce. Although he didn't have the time to speak a great deal on his theory, Rushkoff said that today's currency is based on a debt infrastructure and everything must be done through -- his number two blamed institution -- corporations. However, Rushkoff said, on a lighter note, that the Web is allowing us to break free of barriers. "It allows people to create value on the periphery again -- to create and exchange without centralized corporations," he said.
Following Rushkoff's talk, Ellen Miller, cofounder of Sunlight Foundation, an organization created with the goal using the power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more available to citizens, spoke about government transparency. The intentions of Sunlight Foundation -- which is not related to last month's annual Sunshine Week, despite that movement's similar goals -- are to make government data:
- sensible to the everyday citizen, and
- oriented toward the bigger picture.
Miller pointed to slide of a giant burger and fries. This is what government data looks like, she said, "It's indigestible." Miller's organization has created such sites as
-- sites that allow government information to be more consumable. As for government's use of the Web in being transparent, she said they are progressing, yet there's still a lingering feeling that government agencies want transparency among businesses, but not for themselves.
"There's a cultural resistance in Congress toward greater transparency," Miller said. "It's a fear of losing control, but transparency will be done to them."
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