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Where do we draw the line on snooping?

By - Jenny Luesby | December 11th 2012

By Jenny Luesby

There is a far and wide difference between reading worthy articles about ‘corporate espionage’ as a rising trend, and being the dolt who gets to have your phone tapped, your meetings monitored and even your social life investigated: as many senior Kenyans are now finding in some of our fiercest, most competitive sectors.

Quizzing one of my colleagues last week, she told of several friends in one of the IT-based industries who are now so fed up with being bugged and followed that they are even wondering whether to get out of the sector altogether.

Third parties

For sure, it’s not a life any of us would choose. For what can be the human rights issue when we in the professions end up being monitored by third parties, even into our private conversations with our siblings, children and partners? Are we all fair game: what we do and what we know being so useful that our private life is automatically ended?

In which case, where do the principles go that inform the world’s stock exchanges and so many other organisations? Insider trading, in many countries a criminal offence, is the buying and selling of shares in a company based on information about the business that is not in the public domain.

So by that count, actions taken following my phone calls, your phone calls, and my colleagues’ friends’ phone calls are what?

If the principle of ‘know-one-know-all’ is so forcefully upheld for ‘share-price sensitive’ information, why doesn’t this apply to our private ‘work talk’: such that it’s only legal to use it when it’s out there in the public domain for everyone to read?

How can this unfair information advantage be criminal in corporate investment, but somehow not criminal in corporate management? The owners cannot do it, but the executives can?

Yet what strikes me most of all as I hear these tales of information being stolen, telco systems being subverted to gain phone access, new softwares to listen into all our calls – someone in my IT department told me there is now software so that an unknown caller calls you, but when they put the phone down the connection stays and they are hearing all that follows – emails accessed, and even former police officers on almost permanent call tailing staff for their own management, I wonder what it says about any corporate to be going this path.

For what, exactly, is the point of all this information gathering? Maybe it seems obvious that if you know what your competitors are doing, in detail, and even what your own staff are doing, you are equipped to pre-empt any action that might damage you: or benefit them.

short on IDEAS

In this vein, I remember some four years back being very close to a corporate battle in a sector other than my own where a large, existing player was determined to derail a new entrant that required a network of sites to compete. Suddenly, sites were getting locked up in land disputes, tangled with residents’ associations, any manner of reasons why this new distributor began to hit new blockages everywhere.

Clearly, for companies that only know how to succeed by stopping others, espionage and sabotage are a means.

But who are these runners, these exam takers, these businesses, who can only win by stopping or copying others?

Look around us, and globally, at every company that ever truly soared and you will find companies that are pouring all of their energy into innovation and operational brilliance, doing what they do best, and better than anyone else – and without either the interest or energy to sabotage others.

Would we all adore our I-pads so if Steve Jobs had spent his time poring over tapes of what Hewlett Packard executives were saying to each other, and records of who Sony staff were meeting?

Would he have given the world those first, wonderful Pixar films if his little operation had been tied up trying to stop Disney from making its next film (prior to the acquisition), or to copy it, or likewise for Time Warner?

Brilliant businesses, brilliant people and brilliant organisations can’t be brilliant if they are focussing on what the competition is doing and how to stop them.

It takes focus, energy, commitment and attention to innovate, to give consumers better than what they have ever known: and that doesn’t, generally, come from getting side-tracked over and over by what others are saying, doing or thinking.

Thus, my advice, oh yee of espionage leanings, is: guys, turn the taps off. Stop listening. Stop looking. And clear your desks. Because then you can listen to customers instead, and create new solutions that your boring, me-too, fiercely competitive competitors haven’t even thought of.

Without distraction.

The writer is Group Content and Training Editor at The Standard Group. [email protected]


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