Apple serves as a critical example of how difficult and fractioned our relationship with public opinion becomes if we don’t understand the power of transparency.
By Per Grankvist
Speaking and listening are among the most basic elements of human interaction.
Finding a right balance between the two allows us to test our ideas and strategies and then improve them based on the feedback we get from people who love us, work with us and converse with us on social media.
So when Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of hardware engineering at Apple recognized that their plans of removing all their products from the EPEAT environmental rating system was a mistake, it first seemed like a schoolbook case of human interaction. But at closer look, the incident might reveal a major weakness in Apple's business strategy – constantly being opaque in a world that is increasingly expecting more transparency.
Apple has become known and loved for its ability to create desirable products that are intuitive and simple to interact so much so that they are shipped without operating manuals. But outside the closed system of iTunes and the App store, the way Apple interacts with the rest of the world leaves a lot to be desired.
In fact, when blueprints of Apple's new donut-shaped headquarters surfaced, the media buzzed for weeks about how the architecture seemed to embody what the Apple brand stands: cool, sexy, innovative.
But the building, with its vast glass facades is, alas, also a symbol for everything the Apple culture isn’t: transparent.
How Did a Toxic & Secretive Work Culture Lead to the iPod?
Not only is the company not transparent with the outside world, the internal culture is often depicted as equally opaque. As described in Adam Lashinsky’s book Inside Apple, different teams work independently, are used to new security systems being installed pretty quickly and new walls suddenly being erected between office spaces.
In addition, I’ve learned that not only do most teams have no idea what most of their colleagues are working on; new managers are training in a particular way of sharing disinformation in order to identify leaks if necessary. Employees even have trouble hanging out with each other after hours afraid of accidently sharing something with a colleague.
No wonder then, that most new Apple press releases are as much news internally as they are externally.
Shift the focus now on yet another equally trendy, innovative and cool company Google for a second. People I know at Apple as well as my friends at Google come across as equally intelligent, loyal and proud of their respective companies.
The difference: Whereas Google employees seem to be in constant conversation about their latest services or things that are in beta, the folks at Apple are strangely silent, even about products that obviously need some perfecting. (Yes Siri, I’m talking about you.)
Testing Transparency: Apple's Achilles Heel…
Let me be clear: I don’t envision anyone sharing company secrets or using conversation as a way of gathering consumer feedback. But I do expect companies of Apple's stature to be able to master the balance between transparency and secrecy, internally and externally.
In fact I’m convinced that Apple's embarrassing on/of relationship with EPEAT and the social media critique that followed could easily have been avoided had the company chosen to listen to its own employees. I have no doubt in my mind that the intelligent, social-media-savvy, bike-riding, planet-loving, organic-eating people would have conclusively questioned the idea to leave EPEAT, had the management aired the stupid idea internally before going public with it.
...and Abject Failure
But it seems like Apple’s inability to harness the power of transparency – the dark side of Steve Jobs' legacy – for good remains an Achilles heel for the God of gadgets and a weakness that continues to cause the brand considerable damage through deteriorating trust among consumers.
It's no secret that Apple’s inability to disclose the environmental performance of its products annoyed customers for ages until it finally got its act together. Post the Steve Jobs era.
For a company that is exemplified when it comes to producing simple and frictionless user experiences, Apple also serves as a critical example of how difficult and fractioned our relationship with public opinion becomes if we don’t understand the power of transparency.
And yet the lesson is as easy as the remedy: if you don’t give people the chance to speak, you will not benefit from their ideas and feedback. It’s called human interaction.