Radical transparency

What information would you share with co-workers, managers, the wider world? Does it make a difference whether it is personal information – like your salary, or organizational information? Would you share all or nothing or some stuff (what and why this?) Without going into the ethics and morals of releasing information (as in Wikileaks) the action learning group I'm learning with had a good discussion on radical transparency the other week.

The discussion was sparked by the Ryan Smith Qualtrics CEO blog piece on radical transparency.
And you can watch/hear him talk about it here. His view is that 'the idea of everyone knowing everything, could actually be a major driver of increased organizational performance. [He] believes that the biggest reason companies fail is because people lose focus and get off track. It's particularly true of young, fast-growing companies driving to meet stretch revenue goals and keep their investors happy. Qualtrics didn't want to fall into that trap so the company made the bold decision to make all employees' performance data available to everyone in the company. By doing so, Qualtrics removes the distractions, fears, and negativity that sap concentration. The entire workforce has access to a host of information about the performance and practice of each employee.'

The group of us were debating three questions:
1. What is the value of radical information transparency in developing business performance?
2. How can we help architecture and workplace design clients determine their point of view on this?
3. What can we do to help clients' built environment reflect their information transparency requirements?

What is the value of radical information transparency in developing business performance?
The discussion picked up on the point Ryan Smith makes about performance data and particularly about having transparent and clearly communicated individual performance goals. Someone suggested that if we all knew each other's performance goals then we would be able to support each other better in achieving them – it would be likely to lead to a more co-operative and collaborative environment. This is a view supported by Niels Pflaeging, in a provocative paper Why management is quackery. And what leadership for the 21st century must really look like. He states that " The effectiveness of leadership lies not in any individuals so much as in the collective social process – in community "

Picking up on this someone pointed out that new and flatter organizations can be set up to be transparent from the start, but hierarchical, more mature organizations would have a hard time dealing with the notion of transparency. Without a certain and defined purpose in wanting transparency, and purposeful goal setting around achieving it then it would be difficult. Look at the piece on Transforming Health Care Through Radical Transparency and you'll see how one company is reaping the value of purposeful transparent data. In this instance there is clarity on what the organization is aiming to achieve in adopting radical transparency.

Another person noted the fear element around disclosure of information. He felt that trust is an essential pre-requisite of transparency. Trust – in the validity and reliability of the data, trust in the way it will be used once it is transparent, and trust in the motives of the people who are presenting transparency as 'a good thing'. There's a useful and interesting HBR article Trust in the Age of Transparency that picks up on some of these points and mentions a number of books on the topic. The article closes with the statement that 'Truth be told, customers won't really trust you unless you're transparent. But if you become transparent, your competitive advantage proves transient. Margins plummet, and you're forced to innovate. That's how they get you.'

How can we help architecture and workspace design clients determine their point of view on this?
The role of architects and designers in relation to designing radical transparency into the built environment was interesting. One person noted that initiating a discussion with the client on their principles and philosophies of radical transparency would be useful to have in the early stages of a design project, and it is not a conversation that is typically had. Intrigued by the idea that we could be helping clients make a more profound (and valuable) cultural shift if we pushed the conversations towards the trust and transparency topics one person felt that being able to tell our own stories on our journey towards it would be very helpful. He was a team member on the Ohio Health Riverside Methodist Hospital Neuroscience Institute and Bed Tower project and told a compelling story about the way trust and transparency was fostered and gradually developed between the several organizational teams working on the project.

Another participant was of the view that 'transparency creates junk' and helping clients think through what filters they would apply to reduce 'junk' would be helpful. This turn of the debate moved back towards what information should be transparent and why. The feeling was that relevant transparency of information has to be personal to each individual and immediately available – in this sense it has to be what someone suggested as 'incredibly fluid – running in channels'. It seemed as if we were discussing a form of personalized twitter feed where you select what organizational information you want to know about. In this instance individuals are applying their own filters. In terms of organizational radical transparency perhaps similar principles could be applied?

What can we do to help clients' built environment reflect their information transparency requirements?
The last question, related to the built environment, is about designing in both the visual display of information as well as the reflection of the concept of transparency as a principle of the business operation. Look at the article in Business Week on viz walls for one take on this: 'viz walls' [are] banks of high-definition monitors that companies can use to display and manipulate vast amounts of data in one place, [they] are moving from the province of futuristic movies and TV shows to actual companies'.

The issue here for designers is what form of information display, actual or conceptual, brings both discipline and purpose. What are the trade-offs in presenting some information and not other information. If you're interested in more detail on this angle look at the Pew Internet Research paper The Future of Big Data or if you'd like a more filtered version of the paper look at Information Week's 10 Big Predictions about Big Data. As one of the participants noted radical transparency brings choices in how to present the information.

As you read the paragraph above did you make a choice on whether you wanted to read the more detailed, original information,(Pew Internet Report) or the interpreted Information Week one. Which did you choose? Why? Let me know your views on radical transparency and how organizations should design for it.