A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Loose ears end careers

I’m sitting in San Francisco Airport right now, listening to a sharply-dressed, harried sales executive shout his frustrations into a phone. He’s complaining about wanting to test Violin Memory on an HP box, and HP not playing ball.

His conclusion is that his company should simply sell the 6000 series and cut HP out of the deal completely. Apparently, Violin Memory is a niche player HP is only using temporarily to sell DL-908s until something better comes along.

I have no idea what the 6000 series is. I think a DL-980 is an HP server. And I only vaguely understand Violin Memory. But that’s not the point. Someone does, and it’s really easy for me to tell them.

This is the third time a situation like this one has happened in as many trips. In fact, when I sat down to write this post, I had only two examples; the loud phone call to my left hadn’t started. Calls like this, where someone carelessly shares secrets, convinced that nobody to whom their remarks matter is in earshot, are an increasingly common occurrence in the lounges, taxi lines, and gates where today’s travellers live and work.

People in social houses shouldn’t throw tweetable content

In December, I was sitting in another airport, listening to a particularly loud sales engineer boast about his recent meeting with a large bank. He mentioned that his firm was likely to unseat the incumbent vendor, Socialware. Because I have no sense of personal space, I decided to mention this online.


Socialware is a social media monitoring company. So it makes sense that they noticed my message, and responded. They followed me immediately, and while I didn’t give them any details about the conversation, I easily could have.

It’s not difficult to imagine the Socialware sales rep who owns the Morgan Stanley account taking that tweet to his customer. And one would assume that the customer would know exactly who the indiscreet competitor was. That’s an awkward, and possibly career-ending, event.

Here’s a third example. Sitting in yet another airport, I noticed the guy next to me wearing a Helly Hansen sales shirt. He was complaining about one product being out of stock, and having to steal catalogs from another region. As it happens, I know someone at Helly, and I sent him the surreptitiously-taken picture at right. Sure enough, this rep works with my friend.

Clearly, I have few filters and little sense of airport decorum. And this may be the least appropriate thing I’ve written in a while. But here’s the point: today, any of us is a way for competitors to collect information.

Loose lips sink ships

In World War Two, propaganda cautioned us to watch what we said, lest the enemy learn of our plans. “Loose lips sink ships,” they warned. “He died because you talked.” Spies went to great lengths to discover information about the enemy, but it was an active discovery, often undertaken at great peril to the spy. The spy sought out the mark, placing himself carefully within earshot

The coefficient of friction

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the coefficient of friction. In physics, this is a measure of how hard it is to move two things that are pressed together. As we move more and more of our lives to the digital realm, we reduce the coefficient of friction dramatically. Organizations need to reconsider their basic business models when part of their value becomes frictionless, because this is where disruption happens.

  • In travel, the agents’ function was to lubricate the friction in planning and ticketing travel. Once online ticketing was a reality, they vanished.
  • In publishing, the coefficient of friction in creating and publishing has dropped dramatically with iBooks, Kindle and other tools.
  • In media, the frictionless world of copying and distribution has copyright holders running to legislators to erect new kinds of friction like SOPA and PIPA.
  • In IT, cloud computing can be purchased for such low initial prices, it’s seldom worth expensing. This means it flies under the radar of most CFOs until it’s too late to stop the flood, creating a “shadow” IT.
  • In manufacturing, the advent of reliable domestic 3D printers will upend otherwise tepid industries such as supply chains, replacement part inventories, and children’s toys. We’ll buy raw materials, 3D models, and maybe electronics. What happens to Toys R Us?

The collection of information is rapidly becoming frictionless, too. Symmetric social networks like Twitter make it trivial to share information with anyone who’s listening. In the Socialware case, they heard what I said because they’re in the business of monitoring.

But really, everyone is in the business of monitoring. When it’s trivial to share information, and trivial to search for it, it’s no longer a matter of loose lips sinking ships. It’s loose ears ending careers. And we’re all ears.

(I should note that I haven’t included any of the personal information I overheard, which included the names of the people in the meetings and what they thought of them. That’s oversharing even for me.)

Edit: Several folks on other sites have added lots to this discussion. One key point is that with easy search, we’re all insiders. I can google a dropped name or a mentioned product, and get context. Thirty years ago, unless I had your product catalog, your words were meaningless. Today, for many companies, a brandname is all I need to get the insider knowledge. There’s an old adage in security that security through obscurity is a bad thing. In a world where obscurity vanishes with a single search, this is even more important.

Another interesting thread emerged around the use of this information in the past. Traditionally, it would be insider trading, blackmail, or a stock tip. We have SEC regulations around disclosure, but these don’t really consider the immense leakage of the smartphone-fuelled world.

And of course, the ultimate irony here is that for a blog post about data transparency and openness, most of the good discussions are happening on other social networks, within walled gardens. Painful irony is painful.






8 responses to “Loose ears end careers”

  1. Marjie Avatar

    Fabulous! Really enjoyed this. I remember, embarrassingly enough, at the advent of theonile phone how irritating having the world turned into a phone booth. Over share is rampant.

  2. Marjie Avatar

    Mobile phone that was

  3. Liesl Avatar

    Great read! Really interesting what mobile, social and digital technology in general is doing to corporate intelligence and our notions of discretion and privacy.

    Loose Lips = Pink Slips

    Makes me think companies should provide training alongside that signed NDA (or at least this blog post as required reading!) As you prove several times over, in this day and age it’s all-too-easy for an always-on employee to forget where they are or who could be tuning in.

  4. Judith Avatar

    Very well-written article on something so important, in any age! In Jewish tradition, there’s a saying: “Know before whom you are standing.” The idea there is that we’re always standing before God, so we should be very careful what we do or say, but I think it applies equally to human beings. With the proliferation of cell phones, cameras, and easy access to social networking sites, we’re much more exposed than we ever were, and we should always be aware of the words that come out of our mouths.

  5. Ben Yoskovitz Avatar

    Use code names.

  6. Max Finder Avatar
    Max Finder

    Great post.

  7. Brian Cerveny Avatar
    Brian Cerveny

    In the late 90s I worked with someone on a mobile phone chipset design team. He was on a flight near two engineers from up-and-coming competition. They spent much of the flight discussing implementation details of their product.

    My friend took good notes and, after consulting with our legal team who confirmed if it’s said in public it’s fair game, turned the notes in to our portfolio planning team.

  8. DK Montreal Avatar
    DK Montreal

    First-rate article, Alistair!