Transparency – Is it clear that it’s a good business practice?


More transparency in business practice has been the buzz for a while now.  Counted among its benefits are increased employee morale, better client service, increased productivity and enhanced creativity.  What’s more, it models best practices and opens the organization to opportunity and innovation. So if transparency is so good, why do most businesses have such a hard time being transparent?

Do you remember the phrase, “knowledge is power”? Well most of us believe that to be true. If you couple that thinking, with a belief that resources are scarce, then hoarding power or knowledge makes a lot of sense. If that’s your world view, it’s not hard to see how the idea of transparency might be difficult to adopt. After all, if I’m doing something good in my business, then my competitors might steal my ideas.  If I’m doing something badly, then my competitors can use it against me.  If we are operating under those principles, then we are incapable of being open and transparent.

The thing is, why do we think knowledge is scarce? What happens if by being transparent our challenges get resolved or solutions come from unexpected sources? What if knowledge shared is in reality, knowledge squared? The evidence is that far from being scarce, we have an abundance of knowledge. Don Tapscott, a Canadian business executive, author, consultant and speaker, specializing in business strategy and organizational transformation argues that far from being scarce we have never had so much access to knowledge. He looks at the internet as a worldwide computer that is constantly being programmed by all of us as we upload videos, documents and ideas. In a world full of knowledge, transparency isn’t a just a novel new idea, it is how businesses will survive and renew.

They say that a rising tide lifts all boats. We see the evidence of that in the blogging community on a regular basis. When we share, our time, our ideas, our expertise in the form of posts, comments and advice, we make the community stronger and more effective.  We do something else too.  We make better content for our readers and we provide better ideas to those freelancers, entrepreneurs and businesses who stop by our blogs looking for answers. If our blogs are part of our business, we provide reassurance about our knowledge. We let our clients know that we can be trusted because we put the spotlight on our thoughts and our thinking processes. How better to build brand trust than to demonstrate what we think and what we value? Operating with transparency really does illuminate values in a way that no mission statement, vision or strategic plan can.

If we turn to science in search of why this is true, we find that our brains are optimized for performance when we no longer feel the need to hide our mistakes or worry about blunders. Neuroscience tells us that we are healthier when we are not burdened by secrets. Anita Kelly, a psychologist at Notre Dame who studies the psychology of secrets puts it simply, “I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.”

For the sake of clarity, the science does not encourage us to share every secret we’ve ever held in an effort to get healthy, but does reveal that people who are secretive tend to be more depressed, anxious, shy, and have more aches and pains.

It would seem that the benefits of transparency are clear. On that note, I’d like to extend my thanks to Jon Jefferson for prompting me to explore the issue of transparency in my blog. So what do you think? Should we adopt radical transparency in our workplaces and bear all from salaries to goals, objectives and ideas? Or do you think a little more modesty is in order?

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28 responses to “Transparency – Is it clear that it’s a good business practice?

  • Great article! Real interesting!

  • In general I think transparency is mandatory, however when it comes to salary it can really be a can of worms. I think if you are at the top of the corporate ladder, then yes, your salary should be public, but not if you are mid management or lower.

  • Great discussion. I would advocate for transparency on two things in particular: how is a business impacting (or mitigating) climate change, and how is it impacting (or mitigating) the increasingly sharp polarization of wealth in our country? I realize most of us rarely think of them. But the U.S. has more people in poverty, and a smaller, more precarious middle class, than we’ve ever had before. And climate change will have dramatic, alarming impacts on everyone. Businesses make all kinds of decisions that impact wealth distribution and climate change — yet currently there’s no transparency around this.

    My point is that there are deeper kinds of transparency, and deeper needs for it, than we may initially realize. Excellent topic, Debra.

    • Given the economic turmoil that has so rocked the U.S. over the last few years I find it amazing that the call for more transparency isn’t consistently being heard and heeded. Then again, paranoia plays a prevalent roll in decision making that it gets in the way of objectives.

      In Canada, most of our provinces have passed legislation so that apologies can be made without them resulting in legal liability. What that does is free a number of people like physicians and governments to own up to mistakes or challenges and to apologise for past wrongs without carrying an automatic penalty. It seems innocuous, but what it does is allow for more transparent exchanges and legitimate expressions of regret. It seems to me we need to adopt that general principle when we adopt transparency in a business context. It would allow for those organizations who would like to change, but are afraid of the consequences, to be honest. As a manufacturer might be in a better position to ask for help in resolving environmental challenges if they know they are not going to be penalized for admitting that they have a problem. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, it’s clearly more complex, but it’s a good starting point.

  • In my corporate days, I found that professional organizations were useful…transparency can be a tool that enables “friendly” competition which I feel is healthier and more productive than claok and dagger because it is the customer is the beneficiary

    • Jacqueline I am amazed at how often leaders want to stop or thwart competition in the workplace. It’s not that I want every element of anyone’s day to be a competitive process, but I think there’s something to be said about healthy and even fun competitive processes. As you note, its not like the cloak and dagger stuff doesn’t exist and it’s definitely not useful to anyone.

  • I can go either way on this issue, but perhaps because I don’t have much of a mind for business. Yet look at what some great business minds do with transparency. Do you really need to keep so much to ourselves in this age of social sharing? WordPress is free and open source software, and Wikipedia was not the end of authoritative knowledge as we know it. Those are but two small examples. Maybe better transparency practices could even come into play by studying the intelligence of groups such as beehives. Who knows…. it’s late and I’m probably not making any sense 😉

    • I love the beehive example. I don’t always want to be part of the hive mind, but there are definitely times when that group think can work to great advantage. If you want to accomplish social change, raise the profile of an issue or even change the mood of an organization, then having open discussions about what’s on your mind can be amazing.

  • Debra, being transparent is perfect, in theory.

    But how can 99,9 % of multinationals, regardless of origin, go out and tell the world they don’t pay taxes? Or worse, if investment banks were open about how they are taking clients to the cleaners. The same applies to banks, actually.

    Could an inventor tell the world about his latest invention? If he/she hasn’t got a patent on it it will be stolen. All ideas are actually stolen on the web. We just don’t know about it.

    Greed is, unfortunately, part of human nature. Consequently,far too many people will never be transparent. So should a fraction of humanity be transparent and share their ideas with the greedy lot so that the latter can profit?

    • Unfortunately, you are only too right about the illicit practices so prevalent in many organizations Catarina. It amazes me how often immoral behaviour is equated with good business practice. Despite that, I believe that we are moving to a period where keeping secrets won’t be up to us as individuals or even up to organizations. Julian Assange is an indicator of the direction of things and he’s just one of many. As you shared on Google+, Syrian hackers took out the New York Times and governments are regularly hacked. Big businesses are not immune to privacy breaches either. Sooner or later we’ll all be transparent by default.

  • I am a big believer in being open and honest, no matter what. Of course, there is something to be said for tact, too. I think we should share our knowledge, and not use it to lord it over others. Of course, that’s just me.

  • Transparency to a degree is very useful. Employees appreciate knowing what is going on and how it affects them. For example job cuts that can be explained. Or lack of salary rises. But knowing everything can also lead to dissent and people not wanting to contribute anymore.

    But then you also raise the issue of transparency in terms of knowledge. And the internet has certainly made that possible now. We know far more than we ever did, and can repeat things far more easily. Like this weekend we made jam (jelly) from our plums. Never did it, don’t know anything about it. Mum is in another country. Enter – the internet. How to sterlize jars. How to boil the jam (jelly)to the right consistency. How to store it. It’s all out there in one form or another. Same goes with blogging. And software. Open Source has lead to a great leap forward. Even my application is based on the shoulders of giants (java, web, etc is all open standards) This is a great thing and is leading to accelerated human development I believe.

    • Its an amazing dichotomy we have built for ourselves. We are on the fine edge between sharing all and hoarding as much information as we can. I think we will eventually have no secrets, whether we like it or not. As it is, we often give away our privacy (Facebook. LinkedIn, Twitter etc.). I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel in a world that was completely transparent, but I certainly like getting everything from recipes to blogging tips effortlessly off of the web. 🙂

  • Debra – unfortunately, we still live in a cutthroat corporate world (that I’m no longer part of). So many companies work in silos. I know from experience, and this hasn’t changed, that one business unit won’t cooperate with another business unit because they don’t want to split the profits earned from a customer. Yet that customer would be better served if everyone in the organization was working collaboratively toward the common goal of providing the best possible services and products.

    • Jeanette I hear you. I have seen people fiercely guard information so that colleagues couldn’t get it and then freely share it with those outside of their organization. Internal silos can make some of the most impressive prisons.

  • I agree that sharing substantive knowledge within your professional community pays dividends (besides being a nice thing to do). When I was running a law practice, one former lawyer friend told me that he didn’t want to go to national meetings because “why should I help other lawyers?” He eventually went from being a “character” to being really strange and no longer speaking to me. That has happened with exactly two people in my life — and I’m old. In neither case was the loss of those relationships detrimental to my life. I have consistently found in my life that “what goes around, comes around”. Having said that, sharing some info doesn’t mean sharing all your personal business information and i don’t necessarily think that sharing everybody’s salary is a good idea. In a small business people are paid different salaries for all sorts of reasons — hopefully, none of them discriminatory!

    • I’m amazed at the attitude of your old colleague. It takes a special kind of insular thinking to want to be so cut off from the world. He also missed the point that he too could gain some insight from others.

      I quite like the idea of transparency, but not quite sure I want to share my salary. I guess we all have that line in the sand that moves us from seeing the benefits of transparency to appreciating the perspective of privacy.

  • Debra- I have to say that “Knowledge is Power” is so true not only in business but in daily life. I think you can operate with transparency as long as you don’t give the store away. I remembered a comment my son made years ago and I can’t agree with him more “need to know basis”. You don’t have to show it all. I guess I am not secretive as I am not depressed, anxious, shy. I have never been shy. Enjoy your article as always

    • Hhahahahhaa…I must not be secretive either Arleen. Moderation in all things, is also a great expression. Transparency is a wonderful and important part of building trust and integrity into an organization. That doesn’t mean that all information needs to be available to everyone. I work in the health sector and keeping people’s information private is also a powerful and important part of building trust. It all comes down to finding the right balance.

  • Everything requires balance. I am all for transparency but in a measured and practical way. Sharing all our secrets can have a negative affect just as holding everything too close to the vest does. For example: I really don’t need to know about the sex lives of the chairman of the broad… LOL. But then again it might be I entertaining. 🙂

    • As I wrote the post I was trying my very best to embrace a mindset of complete transparency, but couldn’t completely manage it. I believe strongly in giving people as much information as possible so that they can make informed decisions. I also think surprises at work are inconsiderate and a great way to build disengagement. Having said that, there is such a thing as privacy and it also has great benefits.

  • Hi, Debra-
    I agree that transparency is helpful and I have always tried to share what I learn especially when it makes it easier for others. The “Knowledge is Power” attitude has been a roadblock in that effort many times. It seems to enable questions to always go to certain people, making them more powerful in that environment. My thought is to do like the saying and “teach someone to fish” so the power and innovation goes to the group and the company instead of specific people. It is definitely a challenging attitude to change, though, especially for those who like having that power.
    Great topic!

    • My experience is that people operate better with more information. I’ve always had the privilege of working with amazing teams. It’s my belief that their brilliance wasn’t accidental, it was a direct reflection of their access to information. I appreciate that some things need to be discreet, but I think in most cases organizations hoard information to their detriment. Thanks for commenting.

      • Well said! Especially “their brilliance wasn’t accidental, it was a direct reflection of their access to information”.

        • You know, when I have a bright capable group like that people will ask why I share so much information with them. I always think…aren’t the results obvious? Even in light of the outcomes, people find it so hard to be open.

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