All eyes on you: The hyper-transparent future awaiting business

September 04, 2014

Imagine your business is permanently monitored by hundreds of thousands of live camera feeds – and the most embarrassing clips are streamed directly online. That’s the reality of the ‘hyper-transparent’ future that all companies will face, says Richard Hardyment.


Do you lie awake at night worrying that a journalist might fly halfway around the world and dig up some embarrassing scandal about your business? If so, it’s time to retire. The digital revolution means that corporate responsibility professionals will soon have a much more disruptive reality to contend with.

Today, over 2.7 billion people are already hooked up to the internet. That’s 40% of the world’s population who are typing, sharing, and in many cases photographing and videoing their daily lives – a figure that has doubled in just seven years. This accelerating shift presents some massive and exciting opportunities for businesses. But the changes are so profound that I think we will need a fundamental rethink of what responsible business means – and the risks posed – in the coming years.

New issues such as data security and digital marketing are now firmly on the corporate responsibility agenda for many firms – not just technology ones. One of the most dramatic shifts for business is where they are spending their marketing budgets: online advertising in the US will soon overtake traditional print spend. Meanwhile, consumers are getting worried about all this digital data: 97% of UK adults say they are concerned that organisations will pass on or sell their personal details.

Besides new issues, a more fundamental transformation is taking place in stakeholder relations. The upside is clear: more interactive, personalised and instantaneous relationships are possible in the digital world. But the downside risk has received far less attention.

Already, consumers, campaign groups and disgruntled employees are using social media to shine a light on their grievances or whip up a protest around a cause. Greenpeace have used Twitter and YouTube to impressive effect when targeting Barbie-maker, Mattel, over deforestation. The organisation even managed to whip up a storm by accusing Nestlé of trying to censor a video on their palm oil sourcing. Kellogg’s faced a ferocious backlash after its poorly judged offer to exchange retweets for “a breakfast for vulnerable children”. Staff even went as far as to hijack the official Twitter account at HMV after redundancies were announced, condemning the “mass execution of loyal employees who love the brand” to the followers they had spent years courting.

But is this just the beginning? If current trends continue, it won’t be long before the World Wide Web and its social media platforms become omnipresent. That means employees, consumers, suppliers and other stakeholders will share their views instantaneously with a vast audience – and potentially cause major embarrassment. But what is the true scale of this likely to be?

Let’s look at the facts. There are 6.8 billion mobile phones in use today. There really are very few corners of the planet where no-one has a phone. If you think this is a rich-world only phenomenon, consider that from Egypt to El Salvador, well over 60% of the population now use a handheld device.  Even laggards such as Ghana and Zimbabwe both have over 30 mobile phones per 100 people – a rate that is doubling every few years. These devices increasingly have cameras and video capabilities, and high-speed infrastructure is improving (albeit slowly). Indeed, getting low-cost phones into Africa is a key business driver for companies like Samsung and Apple; and Twitter recently declared an ambition to reach “every person on the planet”.

By the end of this decade, it’s entirely plausible that there will be very few shops, factories, mines and farms in the world that do not have a majority of workers able to photograph or video their daily interactions. These will then be posted onto networks for billions of people to see within seconds of them occurring. This is a hyper-transparent future that no business can afford to ignore.

So if you are a business executive who, today, is  worrying about an enthusiastic non-profit campaigner or journalist traipsing halfway round the world to dig up accusations of discriminatory practices, dangerous conditions or dirty pollution, it may be time to call it a day. Because the next decade will present a radically different set of challenges. These types of incidents and accusations will be impossible to hide from the public eye.

What should you do? You could invest in an army of lawyers to combat the accusations. You could even attempt to ban mobile devices from your premises! None of these will be effective – in fact, they are most likely to make the problem worse. Trying to crush social media interactions is like trying to stop a wildfire with a water pistol. It just won’t work.

The good news is that best practice in responsible business provides some answers. Map out the key risks. Ensure the right policies in place. Gather the data. Test the systems. Publish and assure your performance. Set-up your own whistleblowing facilities and actively invite those that work in the company (and supply it) to flag any problems to you first. Acknowledge issues openly and early. Take rapid and convincing steps to rectify problems as soon as they arise.

Of course there will always be surprises. The sheer scale of modern enterprise makes knowing what’s going on everywhere, all of the time, an impossible feat.

The opportunities presented by online connectivity shouldn’t be forgotten. The ability to have high-quality, real-time conversations with consumers and stakeholders is already opening up business. Successful companies over the coming years will build strong and trusted relationships through this medium. But the pace of change must startle even the most tech-savvy business executives.

There is something of a generational shift here: young people growing up with Snapchat and Instagram today have far fewer qualms about sharing information than today’s business leaders. The truth is that the majority of companies are rarely at the forefront of digital innovations. Most play catch-up. Those in charge of devising and delivering responsibility programmes in the years ahead need to prepare for the digital disruption that is already unfolding, or risk managing a permanent firefight.


Richard Hardyment is a Director at Corporate Citizenship.

For more ideas on the issues shaping the future for business, see Corporate Citizenship’s report, Future Business: The four mega-trends that every company needs to prepare for.