The Limits of Open

Over at Frontera Project we are big fans of everything “Open.” From George Soros’s concept of “open dolphin-in-open seasociety” that brought me first to Europe and then to the U.S. in the mid-1990s to open source software to open innovation that I practiced as a lead product design planner at Crispin Porter + Bogusky to the philosophy of “open branding” advocated by Resource where I built a Strategic Services department a couple years ago. Shortly after I brought Alex Bogusky to speak at the Open Brand Summit in Columbus in 2013, John Winsor from Victors and Spoils, too, began blogging about the principles of open branding. The idea is obviously sticky and powerful. How much historic momentum, triumphant spirit and human truth are in such branded entities as “Doctors Without Borders” or “worldwide web”! How liberatingly irreverent is Apple’s business strategy of collapsing the boundaries between the traditional industries of hardware, software, phones, musical content, websites, digital, physical, etc., and using its brand as the only magnetic north!

But it soon became clear that, paradoxically, Open has its limits. The openness of the web overwhelms people with information, devalues great journalism and at some point put newspapers on the brink of extinction. We found that out when we were building a campaign to save newspapers at Arnold. Open-plan work spaces (and reportedly some 70% of U.S. work spaces are “open,” and Resource’s offices in Columbus are open because they materially manifest the philosophy of open branding) are losing appeal with workers and designers because they are actually ineffective and stressful to people. Kelly Mooney and Nita Rollins’s book Open Brand bails on its own title, as its content is all about consumers and not brands. And clients are struggling to understand how to do their job of building brands if “opening a brand” means renouncing it.

Now, in an article entitled “Contextual Intelligence,” Tarun Khanna addresses this paradox of the “limits of open” from a different angle. He criticized companies for blindly applying recipes for success developed in one country, “Trying to apply management practices uniformly across geographies is a fool’s errand,” he argues. “There is nothing wrong with the analytic tools we have at our disposal, but their application requires careful thought. It requires contextual intelligence: the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed.”

A business anthropologist in me gives a “violent yes” to both. The market is a complex system in which there is enough room for opposites and a smart business leader and marketer is always deeply open-minded about the possibilities of breaking down the silos, crossing borders, integrating artificially separated capabilities, seeing hidden kinship between different consumer behaviors, questioning his own assumptions, breaking away from the comfort of an established truth in order to embrace market realities that have taken root away from home, and…finally going beyond the very cliche of “open.” This is openness without limits!

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