Transparency: Two-Way Street or Two-Way Mirror?

By Cheryl McKinnon posted 06-14-2011 11:55


Organizations large and small are still struggling to find the right balance between traditional (often hierarchical) ways of working and newer (often collaborative) business practices. When the two cultures clash, the results can be frustrating. Working with clients in both private and public sector in recent months, I've observed some interesting - occasionally disturbing - trends. One disturbing trend? The language of Enterprise 2.0 is being co-opted to support the very behavior it is supposed to change.


“Transparency” has been one of the essential buzzwords of the Enterprise 2.0/Social Business movement. Open discussions, clarity about process, elimination of closed door decision-making: these are the goals. Spending time in the world of open source ECM over the last couple of years taught me the value of showing one's work – brilliance and bugs alike. Openness is not just about providing a link to source code, but collaborative contributions to documentation, roadmaps, and exposing discussion to active participants and lurkers alike. So imagine my surprise back in the “real world” this year, when I observed a rather disturbing pattern: “transparency” was being used as a code word for “micro-managing”.


I need you to be more transparent...” “There's no transparency to what you're working on...” “It doesn't matter if the whitepaper is in an early research phase, I need to see it in the spirit of transparency”.




Transparency for me... but not for thee... How can organizations avoid falling into the trap of adopting the language of collaborative work without making fundamental process changes? It's not an easy transitional phase in the path to a more social business. Tools can help, but only where there is an effort to build trust.


Trust is the fundamental platform for transparency. Employees need to feel comfortable about sharing their work, especially in early in a research or writing cycle, and not feel as though every keystroke is going to be monitored and critiqued. Knowledge workers need space to get new deliverables started. Premature sharing of test assumptions, notes, ideas can invite distraction and even inappropriate interference. Getting font and style criticisms when the basic thesis is still being shaped is demoralizing and wastes the time of both reviewer and creator.


How can organizations avoid falling into this trap?

  • Managers and employees need to build trust – not only horizontally across the company but up and down the org chart hierarchy. Trust that work is being done, that questions can be asked without criticism, that constructive and meaningful feedback will be given when requested.

  • Consider using tools other than e-mail. When collaborative workspaces for team projects are used, not only is the confusion of email communication and document versioning eliminated, but managers can observe progress on work from a higher level perspective. When updates are happening, and discussions occurring, there's no need to demand access to every iteration. Questions can be asked and answered without diving into details of early-stage draft content.

  • Establish a two-way street. Transparency in the workplace cannot only be bottom up. Management needs to take a hard look at what elements of their own output can be improved by working in a shared team environment. Make a distinction between what genuinely needs to be restricted – HR documents, financial data, M&A plans – and apply access controls accordingly. Expecting transparency from staff without reciprocation is a recipe for failure and frustration.

Are other Social Business buzzwords being co-opted by command and control hierarchies? Love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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