Working in the dark

I discuss transparency a lot on this blog. I see it as one of the three principles for net work. Transparency is a key enabler of shared power and making our organizations more democratic. Alex Bogusky says that, “Transparency isn’t a choice. The only choice is does it happen to you or do you participate in it.” As the external world becomes more transparent, for better or worse, then so must the internal workplace move toward transparency.

However, a dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed. This is the major obstacle in improving workplace transparency – fear of exposure. As Marshall McLuhan noted several decades ago, we now live in a global village. Our workplaces need to adapt to this reality.

Nick Charney has a good post on the value of openness, an enabler of transparency, in the federal public service. Tools like internal wikis can facilitate this, if they are used.

But first I wanted to set up the discussion by arguing that GCPEDIA (the Government of Canada’s official internal wiki) has the potential to be the single most transformative technology adopted by the Government of Canada since the first computers were issued to civil servants twenty years ago. It is the only technological environment (possibly with the exception of the lesser known GCConnex and GCForums) that allows public servants to share information across the entire enterprise. It has the potential to level geography, silos, and hierarchy and in so doing allows the civil service to tap into its cognitive surplus like no other technology to date has.

 Jessica Stillman describes two of the biggest fears about working transparently:

  • Fear #1: Your company will be a ship without a rudder
  • Fear #2: No carrot, no stick, more slacking

Sigurd Rinde understands the value of transparency in getting work done. He redesigned an advertising agency’s workflow, identifying the main choke points - four “big meetings” where one of the “owners” had to be present - and then made the workflow visible so anybody could see what was happening.

With an average seven weeks from start to end for their projects, where I assumed half a week average delay from instant for each meeting due to “sorry, I’m busy on Thursday”s (that I would argue was very optimistic), we could cut the time from seven to five weeks per project, on average, without losing anything but thumb twiddling. With a 20% profit margin today it would translate to a tripling of their profits.

Of course the clients would think this was a great idea.

Did they go for this no-brainer? Nope, the two owners would not hear of it, their controlling habits and methods where not to be touched, and bah humbug to tripling of profits. Ah well, their prerogative, they did not have outside investors. Maybe I should have had a chat with their spouses over lunch at Harrods?

The clients did not go for this, even with the data staring them in the face they continued in their old ways. This confirms what I noted in my last post. Just having the right information will not get us to change how we work.

Medecins sans frontières [MSF] has embraced transparency as an essential part of its international aid work in the world’s most dangerous areas. MSF knows that learning through constant discussions is critical for all members of the organization. MSF has a culture of debate and exposing the truth and this lets the organization move forward. Transparency can mean life or death for members of MSF, as any organization dealing with complexity and chaos has to understand.

What may be considered a knowledge management problem, finding the right information at the right time, is really a transparency one. If I want to find general information, I search the Web, and quite often find what I need. For more contextual knowledge, I ask my network via text message, Twitter, blog or forum. The reason I can do this is that either the knowledge or the knowledgeable person is visible on the web. Without transparency being practiced on the web, it would be a useless resource for finding information. Transparency gives the web its power.

A common occurrence inside large organizations is not being able to find information. Finding information can take up to 36% of workers’ time. Transparency is the principle that everything that can be shared, should be. It is achieved by embracing simple standards, like the web uses. It assumes that we never know how information may be used in the future, so we make it easy to find. As natural pattern seekers, if enough of us can see the data and information we all create, then there may be a chance that we can make some sense of it. If not, we will continue to work in the dark.

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