Simon Terry

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Transparency is a Disinfectant

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‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants’ Louis Brandeis

Transparency is a disinfectant. Openness highlights the need for change. Just as hygiene enables but does not deliver good health, transparency alone will not change the behaviours in an organisation. 

From Transparency to Transformation

Many people hoped the transparency of social business would transform organisations. We are now in an era when an organisation is more transparent internally and externally than ever. Networks & conversations reach across organisational boundaries. Opportunities exist to connect, to share information about opportunities and issues and solve problems together.

Many hoped that with this new transparency would mean organisations followed a path that looked something like this:

Transparency > Greater awareness of issues> Experiments towards a Solution > Autonomous leadership

In this model, increasing the transparency and connection across the organisation highlights the problems. The visibility of problems enables individuals to experiment with new models to address the issues. Those experiments foster the evidence and the leadership to complete the transformation. 

This model has the appeal that people need do little. Simply add technology to make the organisations more transparent and change begins. However we have learned that organisations are communities of humans and that greater transparency is a positive, but it not enough to catalyse transformation. There are real human forces like power holding us back from this change.

Transparency is a Prerequisite not a Solution 

Speak to any change agent and you will hear a common refrain: ‘My organisation can see the problem but it still won’t do anything’. 

Transparency is essential to highlight problems & opportunities. Transparency in networks is good at finding new issues that have been hidden by historical ways of seeing things. Customers and community can raise their issues directly, often for the first time. Employees can share frustrations.  People can use the new transparent organisation to find those with the ability to make a difference to the issue. What transparency doesn’t do is guarantee that person does anything.

Brandeis is right that transparency is a wonderful disinfectant. Transparency also changes behaviours. When people are aware that their actions are transparent they are more likely to consider others and feel the accountability of the community. The rarity of bad behaviour in enterprise social networks is a case in point.

However, more likely does not mean a guarantee. Transparency will not overcome the wilfully blind leader, the resort to arguments, justifications and excuses or the use of power to enforce an exception. Each of these may be seen by all but they also might be accepted in the culture of the organisation.  When organisations have strong cultural or power forces that resist the issues, people may see something but still refuse to acknowledge, to discuss or act on it. 

Transformation takes Transparency, Accountability and Leadership

Organisations need transparency. Effective organisations thrive on it and particularly on the most difficult forms of opening their organisation up to external parties like partners, customers and the community. These organisations make accountability to respond to what flows from transparency part of their leadership conversation.

The sunshine of transparency helps create safer and more human organisations. Accountability and leadership leverage that transparency to complete the transformation.

A future post will describe the characteristics of an organisation’s leadership conversation that leverage transparency to foster transformation of organisations.


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