A year ago I wrote here at Techonomy about the ways conspiracy thinking threatens companies’ ability to innovate. I proposed more transparent innovation for tech companies of many sorts as the solution. Since then, a post-truth disease has continued to afflict the cultural zeitgeist. While it hasn’t slowed technology innovation, it has presented challenges for societal adoption and even threatens opportunities to overcome some of our most complex challenges.
In 2020, we saw conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines that included fears about microchips, 5G causing the virus, and tech billionaires who were supposedly responsible for it all. Most recently, conspiracy theories regarding climate change emerged in June and were amplified through social and broadcast media leading up to COP26.
Consumer trust has always been a marker of good business. But in the last year, there has been a decline in trust of tech companies. To overcome this, leaders must ensure their companies and their products are viewed as transparent and trustworthy.
Last year I outlined why we need transparency in technology. Now, as 2022 begins, we need to make transparency a reality in a post-truth world. There are several ways to do this, and it starts with transparent innovation.
Transparent innovation doesn’t mean sharing crucial trade secrets or details of future projects. It is about openly sharing how a company’s technology works, its intended purpose, the processes used to build it, and, most importantly, how customer data will be used.
Stitch Fix, for example, shares its algorithms on its website and explains how it uses them to better serve customers. By breaking down complex algorithms and showing customers how it is able to turn data into value, customers feel assured about Stitch Fix’s technology and more in control of how their data is being utilized. Not only does this help build trust, but it shows how ingenuity and disruption can create a better experience and build a new category for online shopping, without compromising consumers’ privacy.
Robinhood is an example of how that can go wrong. The recent controversy over the run on the stock of Gamestop was partly a consequence of the company’s obfuscated regulatory capital requirements – essentially it was not explaining how its sausage is made. And customers also didn’t understand the intermediary steps that had to be taken in order to buy stock and ensure Robinhood’s platform could function properly. Angry users didn’t see those intermediary steps and were in the dark, so they blamed Robinhood unfairly.
Despite the acceleration of digital transformation over the course of the pandemic, consumers have less trust, dialogue and knowledge with technology providers, compared to, for example, healthcare providers or their employers, according to Ruder Finn’s Future Think Index. Consumers want and need more transparency, even if they don’t describe it that way.
Technology companies need to operate in the open and communicate frequently and honestly in order to avoid public backlash from a variety of stakeholders, who may feel in many instances that companies have been dishonest and tried to hide the truth.
The Chief Transparency Officers
The position of Chief Transparency Officer is a relatively new one that expands the C-Suite. It started as an initiative in regional governments throughout the U.S., and is a natural part of a trend towards corporate openness which includes other recently-created positions such as Chief Data Officer and Chief Diversity Officer. Each one empowers leaders to manage complex issues that were not handled well by the existing power structures but that directly impact a business, including customers and communities.
In a time of extreme distrust, every enterprise should appoint such a Chief Transparency Officer: someone whose responsibility and mission is to champion transparent communication, disseminate relevant information and build trust with both internal and external stakeholders.
To do so, the Chief Transparency Officer should leverage data, providing detailed accounts of a company’s software stack and the workings of its supply chain, to show stakeholders how company solutions get built, and how customers’ data is used. The Chief Transparency Officer must be a public-facing leader. with the goal of dispelling misinformation. Their creation will have positive impacts not only on the company, but more broadly on science, technology and innovation.
This “other CTO” will be especially crucial for emerging tech companies operating in areas where the general public lacks much knowledge, and for startups that have yet to build significant public trust.
Minimizing the proliferation of conspiracy theories and reducing their impact should be a priority for all companies. However, the only way to manage issues that lead to mistrust is to boldly tackle them head-on. Transparency and more leadership from business will be helpful for building public trust, but such solutions only work if companies take them seriously.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories can derail even the biggest company. The community of engineers, thinkers and innovators, of which I proudly consider myself a part, must embrace transparency to ease public fears and connect with stakeholders on the issues they care about.