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'I don’t think it’s crazy to ask if your CEO is the next Mubarak'

Is the Arab Spring is making way for a corporate spring? According to Forbes' David Kirkpatrick, this points to a bright future for business and society globally.

Is the Arab Spring is making way for a corporate spring? According to Forbes' David Kirkpatrick, this points to a bright future for business and society globally.

Civilizations have clashed in an unexpected way this year, as ordinary people using Facebook and Twitter knocked down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and are threatening absolute rule in Syria. A so-called Arab spring brought waves of liberation to a long-oppressed region. Something similar is happening in more democratic countries. In Spain throngs of young people, known as “the indignant ones,” occupied public plazas nationwide, protesting unemployment and exclusionary politics. In Israel ordinary citizens from both right and left united in massive demonstrations against high housing prices. And in India one man’s campaign against corruption went viral, bringing thousands to the streets in support.

This social might is now moving toward your company. We have entered the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves. A few have joined cause with WikiLeaks and its terrifying stepchildren, upending the once secure corridors of the US State Department and Pentagon. But most are ordinary people with new tools to force you to listen to what they care about and to demand respect. Both your customers and your employees have started marching in this burgeoning social media multitude, and you’d better get out of their way – or learn to embrace them.

The institutions of modern developed societies, whether governments or companies, are not prepared for this new social power. People are changing faster than companies. “I don’t think it’s crazy to ask if your CEO is the next Mubarak,” says Gary Hamel, one of business’ most eminent theoreticians of management. “The elites – or managers in companies—no longer control the conversation. This is how insurrections start.” Says Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com: “This isn’t just about Arab spring. This is about corporate spring.” 

In this new world of business, companies and leaders will have to show authenticity, fairness, transparency and good faith. If they don’t, customers and employees may come to distrust them, to potentially disastrous effect. Customers who don’t like a product can quickly broadcast their disapproval. Prospective employees don’t have to take your word for what life is like at your company—they can find out from people who already work there. And long time loyal employees now have more options to launch their own, more fleet-footed startups, which could become your fiercest competitors in the future. “Companies that have been around more than five years are having a hard time because this is so different from what they know” is the jarring observation of Doreen Lorenzo, president of design and consulting firm Frog.

But overall these changes suggest a bright future for business and society globally. The world is becoming more democratic and reflective of the will of ordinary people. And pragmatically, social power can help keep your company vital. Newly armed customer and employee activists can become the source of creativity, innovation and new ideas to take your company forward. A growing number of executives and companies are converts to this point of view.

It calls for humility of a sort most business leaders aren’t used to. “Trust is built by sharing vulnerability,” says John Hagel, a long time author and consultant who co-chairs Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. “The more you expose and share your problems, the more successful you become. It’s not about the top executive dictating what needs to be done and when, it’s about providing individuals with the power to connect.”

Benioff recounts his own epiphany about humility and transparency at Salesforce, which sells online software for salespeople. “In 2005 we had reliability problems with one of our servers. We weren’t talking about it, and customers were upset. It turned into a p.r. problem. And my marketing leader Bruce Francis came in and said, ‘Marc,you need to expose everything. You need to have a website that is directly connected to the computers. If they are running, the website should be green, and when they’re not it should be red.’ I had to open up.” Such a system has been in place ever since. “Social success is really based on trust,” Benioff opines. “If you don’t have transparency you will be eliminated by the system around you.” He is now writing a book arguing that every company must become what he calls a “social enterprise.”

The headlines abound with examples of the precariously shifting dynamic. Companies that show greed or insensitivity to workers or customers quickly find themselves on the defensive. Hershey looked Scrooge-like and clueless in August when 400 college students hired through a State Department-sponsored foreign-exchange programme revolted, walking off their jobs. They didn’t like their stressful work in a candy-packing factory, sometimes on all-night shifts. These kids from China, Nigeria, Turkey and Ukraine are facile digital communicators and used YouTube, Facebook and other tools to bring attention to their plight.

Adidas recently found itself under attack in New Zealand when fans of the hugely popular national rugby team were outraged to learn that Adidas team jerseys were being sold for significantly more there than elsewhere in the world. Fans went online to research comparative product prices in New Zealand and the US and then to organise fellow fans in protest. Soon national news programmes were focusing on the protest and Adidas’ flat-footed response.

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