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Radical Transparency is not enough

Tomorrow evening I’ll be chairing a panel on Radical Transparency’ as part of The Hospital Club’s Sustainability Week. We’re asking:

‘should organisations embrace the power of social media in order to engage customers or is this just asking for trouble – a pact with the devil which is ultimately going to end in tears…’.

If I’m entirely honest, I think that those organisations stubbornly clinging to the idea that they have a choice are desperately deluded. The democratization of social media has already happened. What is clear to most forward thinking brands (and gradually dawning upon those a bit slow on the uptake like British Gas) is that the balance has shifted towards the consumer. The average person in the street with a twitter account now wields more influence over the brands which supply their mobile phones, heat and light, clothing and newspapers than ever before. I personally rejoice (a little childishly) every time I get a response to a public twitter feed customer service complaint. It’s enforced transparency to an extent, a consequence of the negative impact refusing to engage in open dialogue with consumers can have, and it exists beyond the control of the PR machines.

The question for me is not if, but how transparent it is possible to be, not only through brands’ public facing information stream, but in terms of their organisational structures, internal communication, pay and benefits, strategy and values.

My blog last month on Openness garnered several interesting comments but one which stood out was a question from someone in the music industry about whether this could ever actually work. What would be the consequences, he asked, if (for example) we all knew exactly what everyone else was getting paid. Wouldn’t all hell break loose?

Out of sheer laziness I’ll quote my own response here (I could pretend I hadn’t but I’d only get found out):

You can’t just introduce radical transparency to a team or organisation without building a culture of trust, communication and accountability alongside it. One without the other will generally create more problems than it solves. There also need to be explicit shared values and agreed behaviours, so that a conversation around (for example) why one person is paid more than another becomes an open exchange where if there are differentials it can be made clear where they are tied to relative performance, hours, value to the team or market rate, and negotiation is possible (or not, considering the criteria). It doesn’t stop people getting pissed off, but does open up the possibility of more dialogue and accountability, both from leadership, who become more accountable to the team as a result of the transparency, and vice versa.

I think this is as true for large organisations as it is for individuals. Radical transparency without accountability, authenticity and good intentions to back it up is meaningless and as British Gas discovered, potentially damaging. Radical transparency alone is not the key, but congruence between a genuine values led strategy and open communication may be.

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