Is commercial confidentiality outdated?

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Although openness and transparency are the values of the day for organisations wanting to excel, commercial confidentiality still lurks in a dark corner, attempting to keep business plans and ideas away from competitors. In HR we understand the importance of keeping information confidential for the right reasons. But in this information age, is commercial secrecy even possible, let alone desirable?

It’s been a while since the average Joe could invent something new, get it patented and make millions. Not only is it rare to actually come up with something that’s never been done before, it takes a massive cash injection to get something to market. So if you’re not part of a huge conglomerate, where most of the product invention gets done these days, you need the backing of one to get anything off the ground.

Before your idea is even out there, ready to be copied and mass produced even cheaper than you can, you need to share it with so many other people that “commercial confidentiality” is practically obsolete. And is that a bad thing? By developing with openness and collaboration we can do things quicker, bigger and better. And it’s how we do it, which is harder to duplicate, that will win the customers. That’s where HR comes in, recruiting and developing the best talent to deliver the new objectives.

Yes, I’ve been reading “How” by Dov Seidman. Not the new updated version with a foreword by Bill Clinton, but the original, which I managed to purchase online for the princely sum of twelve English pennies. I’m sure the central ideas are the same. That what we do is no longer important, it’s how we do it.

It’s an idea that seems at once both obvious and revolutionary. I’ve been thinking of numerous examples from my own life of how true this is. Take supermarket home deliveries in the UK. As soon as one retailer started offering it, all the main ones followed suit. That’s the what. Now we’re getting the how – delivery price offers, produce freshness promises, even free champagne and your shopping put away for you. But yes this is probably just an extension of the larger supermarket wars and a lot about brand loyalty. There are plenty of other examples.

So the “what” is standard. The basic model. The “how” is the differentiation, making it special and individual. Seidman uses the example of General Electric, who understood the futility of trying to protect their “what” so well that they published many ideas in their annual reports. I’m not suggesting this is the way forward but careful thought needs to be given before something is labelled as commercially sensitive. This includes why is it considered commercially sensitive. If your answer is simply that it’s new, I suggest you think again. If it passes the why test then how will it remain confidential, and for how long, and who will it need to be disclosed to? It’s my belief that not many ideas will pass all these essential tests. Occasionally we need to trust that things are kept schtum for a little while to make sure they’re done right and/or to surprise the customer. Just don’t use commercially confidentiality as a giant stick to beat off competitors. It’s an outdated term that simply doesn’t work.

Photo Credit: the cover of How by Dov Seidman, available from Amazon

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