True transparency is about more than spilling the beans

Today’s media often characterize our networked information age as the age of transparency.

Transparency can be a euphemism for lack of control over information and the public narrative about our business or ourselves. More ideally, it can be a mindful business strategy for approaching decisions and actions with the intention of communicating proactively and honestly about what is being done and why.

This requires us to address directly issues that may present conflicting interests and values. That’s not easy, especially in an environment made ever more complex by increased scrutiny of ever greater numbers of people – people who may either stay at the surface of an issue or suddenly and in vast numbers dive deep into one of its dimensions.

As I read a recent story about how financial institutions are bracing for a potential new wave of information leaks, two thoughts occurred to me:

Being leaky is not the same as being transparent.
As a society we are in the midst of an information technology revolution that is moving so fast we have not yet caught up to understand its potential impacts.
It seems that (in parallel with the progress of the 21st century) we are in our “tweens” and headed toward a kind of social adolescence. As is often the case with those only approaching maturity, we don’t always see how we are affected by the forces of development and therefore clumsy at times in how we deal with it.

Being leaky implies there are holes in an otherwise seamless container or closed system that holds its contents intact and safe from exposure, only to be dispensed in increments as decided by the owner of the vessel. When breaches occur, they cause the contents (the proverbial beans) to be spilled at our feet while creating opportunities for others to look into the container. If we think about information as the content, it is clear that the power of information technology has compromised any company’s or individual’s ultimate control of its story or message. Narratives will be weaved in increasingly communal ways, with multiple, sometimes conflicting versions that are retold and revised on an ongoing basis.

Einstein noted that information is not knowledge. A state of historical amnesia exists today because the amount of information we experience leaves us intellectually immobilized by the fatigue that results from trying to process the volume and velocity. Faced with this paralysis we give ourselves permission to look away from the torrent of bytes that flow past and stay at the surface. The challenge of our new era of transparency is to be able to know what to pay attention to, what to discard, what requires action, what requires protection.

It won’t be easy. In a year when, Facebook’s users number 500 million (up from 5 million in 2007), its valuation has topped $50 billion (up from its approximate valuation of $30 billion just six months ago), and founder Mark Zuckerberg is the Man of the Year; Wikileaks’ Julian Assange continues to garner major headlines and you cannot live a professional day without encountering a tweet, a post, a link, or a leak, we are undoubtedly in a new era. Social networks, knowledge communities such as wikis, and ever-faster-cheaper-better – and more mobile – technology contribute to the volume of data and information available and the velocity at which they travel. There are many benefits to our ability to connect with each other more easily and there are also challenges and risks for business to manage.

In this decade, which can be considered this century’s “adolescence” we need to emerge a stronger and more engaged society. Business has a tremendous opportunity to facilitate this engagement. Being transparent implies that our system is open, or at least accessible, and that we are receiving as well as offering knowledge and learning about our actions and our products. Owners, stakeholders and customers may add to this understanding or learn from it. This state of being requires us to start our decision making processes in fundamentally different ways that could bring positive and radical transformation to the quality of all of our lives.

How is our community fundamentally different if it is based on interests and affinity rather than on geography? What is gained? What is lost? How might our decision-making and behavior change if we accept up front that they are fair game for broad public consumption? Will our business decisions change? How would we measure and report success? Over what time frames?

These are all puzzling questions. Share your thoughts here about where we might find the answers and what are the greatest opportunities and challenges they pose for business.


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