NYT's Tom Friedman wrote a great column last week — actually more of a book review — about the individual and organizational transparency caused by living under a microscope in the internet age.

In The Whole World Is Watching (subscribers only), he observes:

“When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. Were all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer and each of us so much more transparent.”

This thesis and its implications — which clearly reach to Agitator readers and the nonprofits they serve — are developed in the book Friedman summarizes, titled simply, How, by Dov Seidman.

The thesis: In this transparent world, “how” you live your life and “how” you conduct business matters more than ever, because so many people can see in and directly tell so many others about it.

For individuals, this means second chances will be tougher to come by. Says Seidman:

“In the information age, life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.”

For businesses (and nonprofits) likewise, it will be tougher to clean up your messes, since everybody is a reporter with global reach.

But there are opportunities too for organizations that figure out how to excel, differentiate and compete at behaving well. That's where Seidman's “How” comes from — how you engage customers (donors), how you keep your promises, how you collaborate with partners, how you build trust and so forth.

Sam Brown, the iconic Vietnam War protester, was interviewed once when serving as President Carter's Director of Action (including the Peace Corps). The Rolling Stone reporter noted Brown's pinstripe suit and implied he had sold out to the establishment. Brown's reply: “Don't offend in style when you can offend in substance.”

You can lose the substance if you don't get the style right.

Style is about “how.”

In an environment where so much of the “what” is commoditized and easily copied, it's advantageous to focus and differentiate on the basis of “how” … “how” can be more idiosyncratic and much tougher to imitate.

Businesses who differentiate on the basis of service get this point. And can often earn higher margins as a result.

How can your nonprofit, agency or consulting business turn “how” into a competitive advantage? As Seidman frames it, how can you “outbehave the competition?”

Tom

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