What Does WikiLeaks World Mean For Open Information Sharing?

First, let me wish you a Happy New Year. If you're like me, a new year inevitably brings about reflection on the previous year: things accomplished, things left to accomplish, and things that caught our attention. In that latter category, the thing that really caught my attention in 2010 was the emergence of WikiLeaks. As an analyst who covers enterprise collaboration topics -- including enterprise use of social software -- it's a fascinating subject: On one hand you have a platform for disseminating government and private-sector information to the public, and on the other, you have a forum that advertises itself as publishing information organizations would prefer stay behind their firewalls. For the Content & Collaboration (C&C) professionals I serve, that second point is troubling. Allowing information to flow freely within the organization is the mantra of many C&C pros looking to make their businesses more efficient and competitive in this 21st century global business environment. But this is a difficult sell in a WikiLeaks world where, as demonstrated with the disclosures made last year, a low-level employee with access to connected systems can provide sensitive information to a third party. In 2011, Julian Assange's outfit is promising a new round of document publication, this time from a major American bank (rumored to be Bank of America), which makes the question of information freedom more acute for C&C pros: Is collaborative information sharing really possible? 

This is the wrong way to look at the issue. As we have shown in our research, collaboration is essential for internal operations and work between organizations, making it difficult for businesses to retrench (though affected organizations are now rethinking how they share information). Thus, the discussion should not be about the feasibility of collaboration (it's necessary), but about the information worker herself. The most prominent WikiLeaks source to date is a disaffected soldier. Forrester's research indicates that businesses in North America and Europe could also have a number of employees who are harboring resentments toward their organizations. In reviewing workers' Net Promoter scores for likelihood to recommend their company's products and likelihood to recommend employment at the company, we found 43% and 35% of North American employees provided a score of 1 through 6 rating for each of those items, respectively, making them "detractors." Similarly, large numbers of European workers are detractors of their company's products (56%) and the practicality of working at the company (53%). Regardless of your feelings toward Net Promoter, the low numbers of employees who fall into the top two box (9 and 10 ratings) for recommending their company as a place to work or to buy products from should raise alarm. So, for C&C pros, part of ensuring workers use information properly is to help boost employee confidence in and enthusiasm for the company and its products.

Now, I should be clear in saying that I am not making an argument against legitimate whistleblowing. There is a place for that in our business culture, and avoiding situations that create the need for a whistleblower are topics better covered by a corporate ethicist. Neither am I making a judgment about the legitimacy of the leaks that are the foundation of WikiLeaks' work -- I'll leave that for you to decide. That said, there are real concerns about workers exposing proprietary information. Likewise, leakers historically have been people who have lost faith in what their company is doing and/or have an axe to grind. So what is to be done here? There are a few key things that business leaders can do:

  • Clearly state a corporate mission that workers can support. Although business leaders have a vision for where they would like the company to head, this does not always make its way down to the employees. C&C pros can take the lead here in helping the executives communicate what they believe the company stands for to rank and file employees via tools like blogs, the corporate intranet, and email communications. Employees should also be invited into a conversation about the corporate mission to provide feedback on what they think will best help customers. Once again, there's a role for C&C pros to play in facilitating these conversations through collaboration tools like videoconferencing and team workspaces. Doing so will help create buy-in as workers have had a hand in creating the corporate mission, making them invested in its success.
  • Tie each job into the broader mission of the company. Helping workers see how their job fits into the grand scheme is essential. This starts with clear job descriptions for workers. Creating these descriptions should be a collaborative process with employees, as they can provide insight into what they do on a daily basis. Furthermore, it will once again help tie these workers back into the company as they are laying out how they fit into the company's overall success. C&C pros can lay the foundation here by helping the HR department set up workspaces to have discussions and work on these descriptions.
  • Include workers in the innovation process. An area of importance for many C&C pros is finding ways to surface good ideas from anywhere in the organization. While this is good for product development and service improvement initiatives, it can also be good for employee morale. If they see that the company is taking their ideas seriously, it makes employees feel like they are contributing members of the team. It also invests them in the development of the products and services the company produces. C&C pros can facilitate this process with ideation management software and clear policies on how information will be input into that system.