Executive Careers Blog

No, You're Not Paranoid, They Are Watching You

Surveillance Camera

One of the first rules of management used to be the maxim that you "never ask someone to do something you're not prepared to do yourself." But a UK supermarket chain appears to be doing exactly that.

Asda—owned by Wal-Mart —has begun broadcasting live footage on the internet from cameras located at facilities that the average member of the public would otherwise never see. Thus, one can go online and check out what's happening right now at "a dairy supplier in Lockerbie, a carrot processing plant near Selby, and our atrium at Asda House in Leeds."

Sound like the sort of thing you're going to rush to click on to get a feel for how the company conducts business? Didn't think so. Not only do the venues selected seem designed to be as boring as possible for anyone who might even consider getting to know more about one of the biggest brand names in the UK, they also violate the rule stated in the first sentence above. By shielding their own operations from the public eye while simultaneously putting ordinary rank and file workers on display for anyone to gawk at, the management at Asda are doing the exact opposite of what that rule demands: asking for transparency without displaying any themselves.

Echoing that sentiment, UK newspaper The Guardianacerbically suggests that, "the bigger question is why anyone could think that the one place we want to see in head office is the public foyer. Where's the webcam in the boardroom?"

Now, obviously there are good reasons why you wouldn't put a camera in your company's boardroom, or in the CEO's office, but surely a firm that is at least paying lip service to the notion of transparency could find a way to put a human face on the upper echelon of the company. Not so at Asda, however; far from being in danger of disclosing sensitive information about long-term strategy, new products, or the day-to-day running of the firm, the company appears to be a completely closed shop at the top. Indeed, as The Guardian notes: "parent company Wal-Mart provides almost no financial information on its UK activities." (Link appears in original article.)

So there you have it  - the case of the company that offers transparency, but only as long as it gets to control what's actually in the public eye, opening only the windows no-one really cares about looking into.

Far from providing greater understanding of how the company operates, the strategy actually ends up—for me at least—suggesting the possibility of sleight of hand. Sure, we can see one of the conjurer's hands as he invites us to look through the windows behind him. But what's the other hand doing while our eyes are averted? (For the record, I'm sure the company isn't up to anything nefarious—more likely it's just a poorly thought-out strategy—but it's a testament to how easy it is for an effort at transparency to backfire if it's not initiated seriously, and at all levels of the company.)

Any business leader seriously interested in increasing the transparency and openness of their business should take heed of Asda's example and bear a couple of key points in mind. First, if it's done right, it's definitely worth doing. Nothing makes employees, investors or customers happier than knowing who and what they're dealing with. And, second, don't forget to lead by example; not just on this issue, but in all behaviors you'd like to see displayed throughout your organization.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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