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 / Spring 2004 / Issue 34(originally published by Booz & Company)


Privacy in the Age of Transparency

Although many U.S. companies initially fought consumers’ efforts to make companies pay attention to privacy, almost no major businesses today feel they can completely neglect data protection rules. That doesn’t always mean that leading companies make the right privacy choices. (Recall the JetBlue episode in 2003, in which the airline ran afoul of customers when it shared flight records with a Pentagon contractor that was building a travel security database.) It is also interesting to see how some companies are using privacy to enhance their brand images. The Internet service provider (ISP) Earthlink has run a humorous ad campaign accusing other unnamed ISPs of sharing personal information and promising to be much more discreet. Microsoft has launched a project called Trustworthy Computing, under which chairman Bill Gates has challenged the company to be certain that availability, security, privacy, and trustworthiness are key components of every software and service product the company develops.

These are just a few examples of how seriously companies today look upon privacy. There’s a strong indication that, because of scrupulous motives, strategic imperatives, or the cynical notion that privacy sells, in the future there aren’t likely to be any more embarrassing CEO-to-CEO rebukes like the one Jeff Bezos received.

Reprint No. 04110


Knowledge Review/Books in Brief
by David K. Hurst



Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos, and Employee Burnout
By Eric Abrahamson
Harvard Business School Press, 2004
288 pages, $26.95

Much of the advice that has been given to corporations about managing change is bad, according to Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School. In Change Without Pain, he takes to task the advocates of “creative destruction” and the mantra of “change or perish,” which he suggests has been “overprescribed by gurus for decades.” He argues, as we have also argued in s+b (See “The Four Bases of Organizational DNA,” by Gary Neilson, Bruce A. Pasternack, and Decio Mendes, Winter 2003), that adaptive change is most successful in organizations when it involves the recombination of existing “genetic” elements, rather than the obliteration of the past. Managers will be most successful when they tinker, kludge, and improvise rather than try to reinvent from scratch. Although the resulting change may not be entirely “without pain,” it certainly implies less pain than total reinvention.

To guide the reader through his approach to the incremental change process, Professor Abrahamson develops a two-dimensional “recombinant map” with an organization’s process and structure on the “hard” side and its networks and culture on the “soft.” People are at the center. He identifies three types of recombinant change of escalating difficulty: clonable (the same means can produce the same ends across different parts of the firm), customizable (the means must be modified to produce the same ends), and reinventable (the means must be reinvented to produce the same ends). The recombinant metaphor together with its arcane associations with genetics and genetic engineering may obscure as much as it illuminates, but chapter headings such as these summarize the messages:

  • Redeploying Talent Rather Than Downsizing
  • Reusing Structures Rather Than Reorganizing

The result is a thoughtful, practical book that may act as a valuable antidote to the changeaholics whose nostrums can lead to repetitive change syndrome in their dazed organizations, which soon become resistant to all efforts to transform them.


Signor Marconi’s Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century and the Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution
By Gavin Weightman
Da Capo Press, 2003
312 pages, $25


With a wireless revolution now well under way in the computing world, Signor Marconi’s Magic Box, by filmmaker and journalist Gavin Weightman, is a timely look back at the origins of the original wireless technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Guglielmo Marconi was the product of an Italian father and an Irish mother. He showed a fascination with all things electrical at an early age, read the scientific journals of the day, and experimented in the attic of his father’s villa. By his early 20s, he had a working system for the wireless transmission of Morse code and had demonstrated the feasibility of an entirely new technology. The news of his breakthrough captured the imagination of the public and investors alike. Marconi soon had his own company, which was financed by his mother’s network of contacts, and secured the patents worldwide that allowed him to carry on with his experiments.

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Privacy Resources:
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Ann Cavoukian and Tyler J. Hamilton, The Privacy Payoff: How Successful Businesses Build Consumer Trust (McGraw-Hill, 2002), 288 pages, $24.95.
  2. Michael Erbschloe and John Vacca, Net Privacy: A Guide to Developing and Implementing an Ironclad E-Business Privacy Plan (McGraw-Hill, 2001), 318 pages, $24.95.
  3. Simson Garfinkel, Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (O’Reilley & Associates, 2001), 336 pages, $16.95.
  4. Albert J. Marcella Jr. and Carol Stucki, Privacy Handbook: Guidelines, Exposures, Policy Implementation, and International Issues (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 384 pages, $80.
  5. Don Tapscott and David Ticoll, The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business (Free Press, 2003), 368 pages, $28.
  6. Guide to Consumer Privacy in Japan and the New Japanese Personal Information Protection Law, by Alan F. Westin and Vivian van Gelder (Privacy & American Business, 2003). For a free copy, e-mail Irene Oujo at [email protected]
  7. Privacy & American Business newsletter: Click here.
  8. Privacy Diagnostic Tool Workbook: Click here.
  9. U.S. Department of Commerce Safe Harbor site: Click here.
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