Sunday, December 26, 2010

Remember, You're Running a Business, Too

My last post on What WikiLeaks Should Teach Association Executives got a fair amount of play in the Twitterverse, when KiKi L'Italien decided to theme her weekly #assnchat Twitter chat around it. I'm still struggling with this "real-time" web thing, but I tuned in for as long as I could, and I saw a lot of great insight on the subject being shared. In general, the tweeps participating seemed to embrace the idea that transparency trumped secrecy in today's hyper-connected society, and that associations were especially suited to this kind of operation. I myself, caught got up in the spirit of things, contributing such pithy points as:

And then, a few days later, still feeling smart and the Twitterverse inexorably passing around dozens of other tasty posts from dozens of other bloggers, I read this.

WikiLeaks opens a whole new world of risk for your business. With infoanarchists scrambling to pry loose your secrets and put them on the web — partly just because they can — the danger is mind-boggling.

Forget about worrying that some executive's flip e-mail message will fall into the wrong hands. Now there's a real risk that the entire corporate brain could be exposed, just as the diplomatic brain of the U.S. government has been opened for all to explore.

It's another post on the HBR blog, and it's written by and for business executives who are running organizations that make and sell goods in a competitive market. They're sometimes easy for me to dismiss, but this one cut through the not-for-profit mindset in which my brain is often steeped. Wait a minute, I thought, I run an association, sure, but am I not also a business executive running an organization that makes and sells goods in a competitive marketplace?

My previous post and much of the #assnchat discussion seemed focused on the idea that an association's business communications could be fairly easily divided into two broad categories: (1) The confidential, which you wouldn't in your right mind put up on social media or send through email anyway; and (2) Everything else, which, as long as it hung together with consistency and transparency, presented no risks for slipping into the wrong hands.

But I forgot about a third category--not so much business communication as business information.

The trade association I work for conducts several very popular statistics programs on our industry. Our members submit their sales data to a confidential third party, and they produce aggregated reports on total sales volume and market share that are sent back to participating companies. They are consistently rated as among the most valuable services my association provides.

Thinking like a business executive, I realized that should these aggregated reports get "WikiLeaked" for all to see, then the member service I'm providing will lose much of its value. And if the confidential sales data given to us by individual members got the same exposure, I'm fairly sure our association would pretty much be finished.

So while we're all busy patting ourselves on the back for making sure that our private communications match the form and content of our public ones, let's not forget that we're also running a business in a competitive marketplace, and that confidential data protection is as much an issue for us as it is for any business. When your competitive advantage depends on any form of "secret" information, then there's more than one lesson that WikiLeaks should be teaching you.


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