Friday, August 22, 2014

The Transparency Wave

kdmblogtransparencyI don’t know the number of times the words “transparent” or “transparency” have been used in popular print, on the internet, in business materials, or in casual conversation in the past year, but the figure has to be substantial.  (Google calculates the frequency online at nearly half a billion.  Confining your search to “corporate transparency” yields a more modest, but still significant, 138,000 citations.)

So, while “transparent” or “transparency” may not be the most popular word of the year currently, could it be one of the most popular words of the decade? 

Why not?

Just in case you are interested, the etymology of transparent is from the Medieval Latin for “to show through.”  It’s all about getting the message across accurately and clearly.

In business or in any field, it is an advantage to be transparent with fellow employees, customers, suppliers, influentials and other important communities.   It is a critical way of building trust.  We’d all like to be regarded as being as “honest as the day is long.”  Yes, the saying is a bit corny, but it hits at a fundamental characteristic which sews teams together, no matter how big or small the team. 

All in all, I think transparency is a great word, and a healthy word, as it is popularly used today.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it is a good thing to be open, letting others know the root of what you are communicating, not hiding either fact or opinion, clearly telling the truthful story, and allowing others to know what you are doing, even activities that might have been kept to yourself in earlier years. 

For example, McDonalds — the fast food giant — was fighting charges that McNuggets are made from “mechanically separated chicken” (also known as “pink slime” and “goop”).  McDonalds did more than just denounce the rumors; they created a behind-the-scenes video, released online, that featured the company’s supply chain and its manufacturing process.  The company was lauded for its honesty and openness.  To date, the video has had nearly 4.4 million views and McDonalds has been lauded for its approach to transparency.

All of that said, I wonder if, maybe sometimes, “transparency” is getting to be a principle applied automatically without stopping to think, “Hey! Should I be telling these people these things?”  “Am I helping or hurting these people by communicating this information?”  “Should I delay the release of material information until I have all the facts?”  Before the Era of Transparency we probably held too much close to the vest.  We spoke of establishing trust but were not as conscious of the details required to accomplish that goal in a way which would create trust.

For example, timing is often everything.  Why communicate information that could hurt someone’s standing before it needs to be said?   Why send a draft to a third party when there is a high probability of change?  Why reveal personal information that could affect someone’s opinion of you, when it will only create a shadow of doubt, with no clear benefit.  These are all examples that I have observed.

I advocate a balance between sensitivity and transparency.  Both create trust.  But let’s not get them confused with each other.  It is a good thing that our value system favors transparency, and that we today think about it as events occur in business or elsewhere.  While business and government still have a way to go in climbing the trust ladder, as most opinion surveys show, I believe that we are headed in the right direction. 

I would rather be too far over on the transparency side than the other way around.