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Uncertainty (and the certainty of Wikileaks coming to your organisation soon)

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The introduction to a blog post by Charlie Beckett about the US State Department’s dilemmas and dealings with the Wikileaks affair more or less articulates something I’ve been mulling recently: how can organisations respond to some of the more extreme effects of the web:

Authority hates uncertainty. Big business and government feel safest when life is predictable and stable. Change implies a risk that your grip on power will be weakened. And unexpected change is the worst kind of all. But if uncertainty is permanent, can systems adapt?

A state department official, speaking at Polis under Chatham House rules, described the impact of Wikileaks on the delicate art of diplomacy:

The State Department official told us that Wikileaks reveals the brittleness of the balance between necessary secrecy of government and the freedom of the press. He said, memorably, that WikiLeaks was like ‘a cartoon grand piano dropped down upon that arrangement’. A lot of noise and not a little chaos.

The post moves on to make some excellent points about networks and the implications of a networks world…

The Internet is more powerful at amplifying political forces because it connects personal, mass and economic communication networks to one connected communications system – the Internet. This makes these networks more powerful but also more complex, vulnerable and unstable. Whether its WikiLeaks or Wael Ghnomin on Facebook, The Internet is the Uncertainty Principle in Global Relations.

The disruptive effects of the web – the revealed complexity of networks, the speed things spread, that edge ideas move to the mainstream, the altered balances of knowledge and power between individuals and groups – are being seen first in international relations and politics, but it is coming to commercial life too (just ask Bank of America).

Wikileaks may be the prime agent of disruption at the US State Department right now, but it is a manifestation of bigger trend, or set of trends – transparency, web-enabled activist networks, distrust of politicians – rather than the whole story in and of itself. There are other organisations like WIkileaks, they just haven’t made the headlines yet. As for the tools to be able to do what Wikileaks has done – well they are available to anyone.

Privacy and private information – be it your own, or your organisations – is effectively at the mercy of anyone who cares to consider hacking it and making it available. Many people see a public interest case in shining a light on US diplomacy.

Many will see the same case for exposing the workings of large corporations. But how about smaller ones? How about NGOs? How about every single company and local government department? How about patient records? How about your own personal email, social network and bank accounts?

Well, there’s a whole other set of blog posts to be made about the forces that unleashed Wikileaks being taken to their logical conclusions, but what is to be done in preparation? The case studies that are discussed around crisis communications and social media for instance are the often told instances customer revolt and revolting employees. Maybe communicators should be stretching themselves a little and thinking through the implications of when Wikileaks comes to their town.

Immediately we cannot guarantee a secret, the issue becomes about how we do openness, how we do business. The Uncertainty Principle sounds ironically like an organising principle for communications, brand and indeed wider business strategy. Going back to Charlie Beckett’s post, we have to wean our organisations off of certainties if they are to adapt to the complexity of the modern world.

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com.

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