Transparency – Realistic Promise or Social Business Illusion?

Transparency is widely touted as one of the major benefits of social business. It is supposed to help preserve knowledge, lay out facts and figures clearly to all, and reveal problems so they can be solved. Transparency, it is promised – at times explicitly, at others more implicitly – has the power to change many things for the better. In a working group I participated in at the Next Corporate Communication conference at the University of St. Gallen, someone referred to the Internet as a great engine driving transparency.

But let’s not delude ourselves. There are those who do not want transparency. Let’s take the issue of customer relationship management or, as it is known today, Social CRM, for example. The first group that comes to my mind in this context is sales reps. They’re often networkers, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to be transparent about everything they do. For as long as there have been sales reps, they have at times neglected to enter all their contacts in the company’s CRM system and built up their own personal collection of business cards instead. After all, they’re “their” contacts, not the company’s – the relationships from which they make their living, or at least that’s the way many of them see it. And the guys in the marketing department are left wondering why there are so few suitable contacts in the CRM database… Which brings us back to transparency: When customer relationship management doesn’t work, it’s usually not technology that’s the problem, but the sales team and a lack of transparency.

But, then again, what good sales rep is really willing to divulge what deals he or she has in the pipeline? Doing so would mean being asked about them and lay them open to being monitored and tracked – and that’s exactly why the veil of intransparency is drawn over many a deal. And when the deal goes through, you can always just pretend it was a bluebird and surprise everyone.

Of course, we also all know employees who keep their knowledge to themselves because they are, whether for good reason or not, afraid of losing their jobs. And we Germans are certainly all familiar with works council members who place immense value on data privacy out of concern for the coworkers they represent and want to ensure that monitoring individual employees’ performance remains difficult or impossible. I am often struck by the utter disbelief on the faces of my fellow IBMers in the U.S. when they hear about German works councils. Just to be clear here: Protecting employees is a worthy cause, but I do not think it should be taken to unnecessary extremes.

And let’s not forget the management, the company executives. Leadership 2.0? During a presentation I gave to an executive board on the topic of social business a few weeks ago, I mentioned that Ginni Rometty no longer announces the quarterly figures via e-mail and instead now does so on her video blog. These videos are posted in the online community entitled Think together (the name says it all) and are then commented on and discussed by IBMers. Upon hearing this, the chairman of the board I gave the presentation to said: “I don’t want my employees commenting on what I say.” If management favors a command-and-control mentality, it will only be looking to use transparency to manage performance and certainly not to encourage transparent discussion within the company. As the old saying goes, a fish rots from the… However, this video shows just how much transparency can do for a networked company. And examples like the Children’s Hospital of Boston show how transparency can even save lives in sensitive areas like healthcare. But all this requires a significant change in thinking.

Some customer service departments are no doubt less than thrilled that customer complaints are now being posted, commented on and shared online. Back in the old days, a customer would simply complain to someone in the call center. The problem was dealt with (or maybe not or only very slowly) and that was that. Nowadays, it’s online for everyone to see that customer Joe Blow Public is not happy with company XYZ. The Internet never forgets – once it’s out there, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. But whatever – opinions are bound to differ on how seriously businesses are taking this transparency. Telecommunication providers in particular seem virtually immune to complaints, as I recently experienced for myself .“XYZ helps”? Yeah, right.

Such instances of willful disregard notwithstanding, the Internet and the increased transparency it provides have shifted the balance of power in favor of the consumer. Granted, that, too, can go too far, such as when hotel guests or restaurant-goers blackmail establishments by threatening to post negative reviews on relevant websites. But as far as I can see, such occurrences are few and far between rather than a serious problem. Businesses have a lot to gain from transparent, open discussion with customers and partners. For instance, Cisco has set up customer communities where technical problems and their solutions are documented and openly discussed – a measure the company claims saves it $120 million each year. We’ve had similar experiences with similar experiences with IBM developerWorkshere at IBM: Our figures show that this developer community saves us around $100 million on call center and support costs.

And then there’s the kind of transparency that can stand human resources departments in good stead when hiring new people. These days, human resources managers only have to go online to get an idea of how applicants conduct themselves. If their search turns up incriminating party snapshots showing too much bare skin or drunken carousing, applicants can probably kiss their chances goodbye. Of course, human resources departments would never resort to such methods, and no young person today is stupid enough to put inappropriate pictures of themselves on public display in the Internet – we all know the ins and outs of Facebook et al.’s privacy settings, after all…

Transparency clearly raises concerns. It’s easy to relate to many of the reasons people give for those concerns, and some are justified, even if there are plenty that are baloney. But we have to address them. We need to take those objections that are valid into consideration and if possible show those that are not to be unfounded. Certainly we need to consider very carefully where and how we want to – and can afford to – be transparent and to discuss and weigh the various sides of the issue. But let’s take a positive approach and please be constructive when we address this topic. How transparent should we be in what areas? Being transparent does not always have to mean laying everything bare – just as there are times when wearing sexy underwear is more desirable and effective than stripping naked, revealing what is of interest while also keeping sensitive details private. As long as nothing relevant is hidden and there are no nasty surprises at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with using discretion, and when used judiciously, transparency is not just something to be welcomed; it is essential.

If you try to slow it down, you might succeed, but probably not for long. Attempts to stonewall transparency, whether within the company or in customer communications, are futile. There is no going back: The times they are a-changin’. We are living in the Social Media Age. So let’s face the facts. Rather than closing their eyes and hoping transparency will go away, those in charge need to take a constructive approach – that is, only press the data protection point where it is really necessary and allow greater transparency in areas where it has proved to be of benefit to customers, businesses and employees.

The following articles on the topic of transparency are worth a read, even if they are not entirely focused on transparency in companies or in communication with customers.

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