Don Tapscott on Radical Openness

First aired on Fresh Air (17/2/13)

The digital age has fundamentally changed the way companies and even governments operate, according to media and technology expert Don Tapscott. He discusses this shift in Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success, an e-book that he co-authored with Anthony Williams. It's based on a TED Talk Tapscott gave last year.

Tapscott dropped by Fresh Air recently to talk about the book and the principle of radical openness at its heart. "The idea is that organizations, companies, governments and so on, have tended to be very closed in the past," he told host Mary Ito. "They've been secretive, they've not shared information with others, they've protected their assets in a proprietary way, and they've done things within their own boundaries using their own talent. " The internet has changed all that, and Tapscott says it's for the best. "Companies that become more open tend to perform better, governments that are more open tend to be better governments."

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Tapscott pointed out that the internet and social media have given the public powerful tools for finding out information, sharing what they know and organizing collective action. "The real, basic modus operandi of many of our institutions is changing," he said.

Given the degree of scrutiny possible, companies are in effect "naked," Tapscott said. "If you're going to be naked, fitness is no longer optional. If you're going to be naked, you better get buff. And that means you need to be a good company, and you need to have good values, and you need to have good products and services, because people can find out if you don't."

Tapscott acknowledged that there may still be proprietary information that needs to be protected, but increasingly companies default "toward an open position." He cited Ikea, which engages customers in co-designing its products. "It's called 'prosumer.' You turn your consumer into a producer, by engaging customers and providing them with information they need to produce." He also mentioned the clothing company Threadless, all of their clothing design is created by their customers.

"When you share pertinent information with customers, employees and others, you build trust," Tapscott said. "And trust is really the sine qua non of this new, networked world."

Even sharing information that is usually kept secret can be profitable. Tapscott pointed out the experience of Toronto businessman Rob McEwen, who took over a gold-mining company, and then published its geological data -- usually kept top secret -- and held an online contest offering prize money to anyone who could pinpoint where the gold on his property could be found. "For half a million in prize money, he got $3.4 billion of gold," Tapscott said.

Tapscott emphasized that he does not apply the concept of radical openness to individuals, only companies. "Privacy is the really foundation of a free society, and there are real dangers about exposing too much information to the world," he said. "We differentiate between individuals, who need to protect their privacy, and institutions, who can benefit from being open."

Those benefits include growth, innovation and profit, according to Tapscott. So corporate "nakedness" has its pluses. "You can undress for success," he said.

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