It is ten years since the publication of 'The Naked Corporation'. The book by Don Tapscott and David Ticoll proposed a new age of openness in business, motivated by a series of corporate scandals and powered by the internet, "a transparency medium without peer in human history."
Tapscott and Ticoll suggested that “if you have to be naked, you'd better be buff”. In other words, the unavoidable sharing of information about corporate behaviour via internet media would drive management to improvement that behaviour.
It seems like wishful thinking, looking back at the last ten years and the slew of corporate scandals, the biggest of which nearly broke the global economy. Banks are in the unusual position of having to hand out money in fines, refunds and compensation. Oil giants continue to take risks with the environment. Manufacturers remain reliant on low-wage, low-safety labour.
Has anything really changed?
There is some evidence that companies are being stripped bare, and that this is having a positive effect on corporate behaviour.
Look at the response to the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. Not all of the big retail chains have signed up to better standards as a result, but some large players like Primark have been driven to action. The company subsequently acknowledged in its quarterly results the value of avoiding the boycott that followed the disaster.
The organisation of that boycott, and the wider sharing of the negative messages about those retailers that failed to respond, was heavily supported by the internet. Boycotts happened long before the internet of course, but it adds mass and momentum to campaigns. It’s not just a small hard core who take an interest: now they can rapidly build an supporting army of armchair campaigners who can register their dissatisfaction and apply pressure to companies with just a couple of clicks.
Naked, not 'good'
These campaigns, however, have not resulted in a change to the fundamental motivations of business. You cannot make companies inherently 'good'. It is the role of management to return a profit to shareholders, and any other policy, aim or objective will always be subservient to that goal. But there are short-term and long-term views of this ultimate objective, and you can argue that it is taking a short-term view that has led so many corporations into moral cul-de-sacs.
Was it wise in the long term for banks to rip off its customers selling worthless PPI or CPP insurance? Is it a good long term strategy to drive so much cost out of the supply chain that you end up relying on suppliers with poor safety and underpaid workers? Should the oil companies still be funding lobbying efforts to stymie climate change legislation, when eventually the effects will hit and we will be looking for someone to blame?
Corporations are far from naked yet. But you could argue that they are being forcibly disrobed by the internet. Consumers share stories of poor service within seconds. Hackers and whistleblowers share evidence of misdeeds via WikiLeaks and Anonymous. It is increasingly likely that bad corporate behaviour will be revealed and it's reasonable to suggest that this will have a positive effect on future standards.
Taking off the disguise
If you subscribe to the ideal of the naked company, then naturally you have to consider naked management.
As managers we all do things we know we shouldn't. Corporate bad behaviour on a small scale: a poor bit of delegation here, a delayed appraisal there. We often take on more than we can handle when we're climbing the ladder, leaving things festering in our inbox while we fight the latest fire. Focusing on short term success while we let the long term slide.
Perhaps if we exposed ourselves - our inboxes, to-do lists, activities - to our colleagues above and below us in the hierarchy, it might help us to make better long term decisions?
The internet is driving us towards this end. The more digital our communications, the more structured our workflows, the easier it is to both measure and share your inputs and outputs. This will terrify some and horrify others. Is it a breach of privacy this level of oversight, like the call centres clocking people in and out of the toilet? Or is it a legitimate means of optimising our own and the business's performance?
The answer will come down to policy: examining, sharing and measuring the right things.
Why not try it? You've nothing to lose but your clothes.