Leading in the Age of Super-Transparency

Thanks to social media and an increasing flood of data, the capacity to generate causes and controversies almost instantly has become the new norm in today’s “super-transparent society.” Most business leaders have not yet come to grips with the new reality — and what it means for their organizations.

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When Martha Payne, a 9-year-old student in Argyll, Scotland, started a blog in April 2012, she had no idea of the stir she would soon cause. The lunches her school offered offended her youthful sense of justice, and she saw no reason to keep her thoughts to herself. So she began blogging under the name “Veg” (short for “veritas ex gustu,” which means “truth from tasting”). With tech support from her dad, Martha photographed and rated the school lunches and posted her reviews to a blog she christened “NeverSeconds.”

Soon Martha was adding new material regularly. The small portions were an early concern. “I’d have enjoyed more than 1 croquet[te],” she wrote, in a post from the first month. “I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can’t do it on one croquette. Do any of you think that you could?”

Readers were supportive. “My toddler eats more than that,” one observed. Other blog posts questioned the food’s nutritional value, using words like “pathetic,” “rubbish,” and “disgraceful.” When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tweeted in support of Martha’s project, newspapers picked up the story. Riding a wave of publicity, NeverSeconds logged 2 million hits in its first six weeks. Martha donated to a nonprofit that provides free school meals in poor parts of the world.

But the initiative soon screeched to a halt. As Martha explained in a blog entry titled “Goodbye,” her head teacher had removed her from math class, escorted her to the office, and told her to stop taking photos of school lunches. In a separate entry, Martha’s father noted that Martha’s charity efforts, which had raised nearly £2,000 at the time, would end, and thanked the school for being supportive. The decision to shut down NeverSeconds, he explained, came from the local area council.

However, the story didn’t end there — a firestorm ensued.



1. E. Lee, “Comcast Customer Service Call Goes Viral: Company ‘Embarrassed’ by Rep’s Treatment of Customer,” July 16, 2014, www.usmagazine.com; and P. Mejia, “Viral Video Shows Brusque, Forceful Arrests in Austin, Texas,” November 18, 2015, www.newsweek.com.

2. “Big Data Gets Personal,” MIT Technology Review report, May 2013, www.technologyreview.com.

3. “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Update 2014-2019 White Paper,” February 3, 2015, www.cisco.com.

4. N. Cohen, “Hong Kong Protests Propel a Phone-to-Phone App,” New York Times, October 5, 2014, www.nytimes.com.

5. L. Franceschi-Bicchierai, “Snowden Stole Secret NSA Documents with a Flash Drive,” June 13, 2013, http://mashable.com.

6. A. Cunningham, “SanDisk’s 128GB MicroSD card is the Biggest, Tiniest Storage You Can Buy,” February 25, 2014, http://arstechnica.com.

7. J. Ronson, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” New York Times Magazine, February 12, 2015.

8. A. Toor, “How a ‘Lady in Red’ Became the Symbol of Turkey’s Unrest,” June 7, 2013, www.theverge.com.

9. See L. Devin and R.D. Austin, “The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products” (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).

10. Ronson, “One Stupid Tweet.”

11. L. Abramson, “SodaStream Criticized for West Bank Plant,” February 10, 2013, www.npr.org.

12. D. Greer, “We Are All Intelligence Officers Now” (presentation at the RSA Conference, San Francisco, California, Feb. 28, 2014).

13. B.E. Hernandez, “Google Knows Where the Flu Outbreaks Are,” January 10, 2013, www.nbcbayarea.com; and K. Hill, “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did,” February 16, 2012, www.forbes.com.

14. J. Bohannon, “Credit Card Study Blows Holes in Anonymity,” Science 347, no. 6221 (January 30, 2015): 468.

15. For research insights into why this works, see L.B. Jeppesen and K.R. Lakhani, “Marginality and Problem-Solving Effectiveness in Broadcast Search,” Organization Science 21, no. 5 (September 2010): 1016-1033.

16. “Kenny Glenn Case/Dusty the Cat,” September 21, 2011, http://knowyourmeme.com.

17. R. Vamosi, “Corporate Video Conferencing Systems Fail Secure Implementation,” January 26, 2012, www.securityweek.com; and Ms. Smith, “Hacks to Turn Your Wireless IP Surveillance Cameras Against You,” April 14, 2013, www.networkworld.com.

18. D. Takashi, “Hello Dave. I Control Your Thermostat. Google’s Nest Gets Hacked,” August 10, 2014, http://venturebeat.com; and H. Kelly, “The Five Scariest Hacks We Saw Last Week,” August 5, 2013, www.cnn.com.

19. M.B. Farrell and P. Wen, “Hacker Group Anonymous Targets Children’s Hospital,” Boston Globe, April 24, 2014.

20. R. Mackey, “‘Operation Payback’ Attacks Target MasterCard and PayPal Sites to Avenge WikiLeaks,” December 8, 2010, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com.

21. P. Bright, “Anonymous Speaks: The Inside Story of the HBGary Hack,” February 15, 2011, http://arstechnica.com.

22. C. Letsch, “Turkey Twitter Users Flout Erdogan Ban on Micro-Blogging Site,” March 21, 2014, www.theguardian.com.

i. D.M. Upton and S. Creese, “The Danger From Within,” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 9 (September 2014): 94-101.

ii. J.A. Winnefeld Jr., C. Kirchhoff, and D.M. Upton, “Cybersecurity’s Human Factor: Lessons From the Pentagon,” Harvard Business Review 93, no. 9 (September 2015): 86-95.

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Comments (2)
Eduardo Testart
Really Great! Now it will be more and more difficult to "Hide" information, actions and activities, forcing all to behave like "someone might see you..."
Good!! for a better world.
Knowledge Elisha
This is a great article, thank you guys for your work. this has really opened my eyes to how digital era is actually disrupting all facets of the organisation and there is urgent need for the leaders to accept it and align accordingly.