The Deal With Transparency: The Parent Generation Meets The Trans-Parent Generation (Part I In A Series Of 4 Posts)

Transparency is one of the important buzzwords that has surged into new management and leadership vocabulary and, surely, rightly so. It has, in fact, become such a buzzword that the University of Michigan has put it tops of its 2010 list of 15 words that should be banished. This post is the first of a series on the subject of transparency as it relates to society, brands and management.

Just how transparent should one be?

Why is transparency so important? As said by Terry L. Cooper, Ethics Professor at University of Southern California, transparency is one of the values closest to a universally accepted public value.  It has a tendency toward the values of truth and responsibility. It creates a consistent environment because, once information is out in the open, there is less wiggle room, cotton wool and bovine stercus.  Yet, how transparent should or need one be?

The setting of transparency expectations by the Government. The level of transparency at the governmental level generally predicates how transparent a population is.  The government becomes the standard bearer and laws such as the Freedom of Information Act (signed in the UK and the US) pave the way for greater transparency throughout the society.  But, there is also room to believe that increased transparency can lead to a meltdown in confidence in the democratic governmental institution.  Perhaps, this reduced confidence comes from the fact that a certain amount of conceit, deceit and manoeuvring is intrinsic to making the conflicting forces and interests work together?  In any event, negotiation in total transparency is unlikely to achieve a win-win — if ever such an outcome can be achieved.  Or is it because a governing body is no longer able to manipulate (“spin”) the political message causing a splintering of opinions and a dilution of convictions? For governments, in attempting a 2-way transparent dialogue, the challenge is to be able to understand its public through the rampant citizen 2.0 channels, to galvanise support and to execute plans without being laden down explaining over-exposed means.

Transparent versus Parent Generation?

Personal versus Professional. In this societal push for a higher form of transparency, perhaps there is a search for a deeper truth, a lust for a deeper sense of meaning.  If the UofM university students cited above voted to banish the word ‘transparency’, they are also the first ones to be concerned by the trend.  The younger “transparent” generation generally enjoys going “full monty” – witness the raw material on live streams on the Web; the older “parent” generation, on the other hand, thinks a little more discretion is necessary. For an individual to be so revealing takes either a great deal of trust, a dose of exhibitionism or, perhaps, just naiveté as followees follow the leaders.  At issue, at least at the individual level, is that the degree of transparency is intrinsically related to that which is personal.  And, with the exposition of the personal-ity, this transparency leads to a greater emphasis on and attention to personal branding.  Inasmuch as the personal thoughts, images and activities become public domain, the lines between a professional (“polished”) and personal image blur. In the professional world, it is increasingly difficult to hide one’s personal life. The professional must be accountable for his/her personal image, and vice-versa.  It is in this context, that the need for “authenticity” takes its full meaning. On the individual level, the issue then is to be able to segment between the personal and the private and to keep the latter protected.

Transparency has its broader merits in the public sphere, especially in areas such as public safety, hygiene in restaurants, medical errors, sexual delinquents, and finances, etc.  But, there are limits needed in the search for transparency.  Where and when should transparency be exercised in the business world? The next three posts in the series will look at the merits of transparency in the areas of brand building and management.

­­Would love to have your thoughts on how important transparency is for you!  How important is transparency in the government, in society and in your personal life?

Photo source Creative Commons for statue “Just how transparent should one be?” http://www.flickr.com/photos/arenamontanus/3473678750/

Comments 24

  1. My two cents: I indeed believe that the key for individuals is to play the transparency card when it comes to personal data but to draw the line when it comes to private information.

    Personal data can be shared with many, private should remain sacred and whenever someone decides that some information belongs to him/her only, it should be respected. Information shared once could be later removed upon request from most sites. Transparency should neither be absolute nor eternal.

  2. @Minter,
    When it comes to Transparency in Seller Buyer Relationship I keep simple:
    Transparency is a Privilege not a Right.
    You have to earn the right to look under “Each Others Tent” so to speak.
    If you are a Seller you may be a little more forward, some may say Boastful, about your Competitive Advantages.
    However you should not have to divulge the "The Algorithms” that give you that advantage.
    Now if you are a Buyer you too need to be Transparent with what your Decision Criteria is, What the Decision Process is, The Time Frame for a purchase and what you intend to spend.
    You can’t keep a “Curtain” in front of the Target and tell all the sellers to Keep shooting and we’ll let you know if you hit the Bulls Eye.
    You see this transparency discussion is really predicated on “Earning the right” to get more and more information about each other as Trust Builds.
    With to much Transparency revealed to quickly you run the risk of Shallow Broken Relationships.
    However when you reveal an appropriate amount of information and build trust you will eventually gain the Transparency that you earned whether you are Buying or Selling.

  3. @Alberic: completely in line with you. At issue is, for many of the 'older' generation, to know how to let go and allow the personal to enter the professional sphere. And for the younger gen, it is sometimes a question of restraining oneself to retain the intimate and private information. A question of balance.

    @Jack, Great points. There is indeed a speed at which transparency is best delivered, according to the context and history. If you come from a place of deep mistrust, it is not likely that transparency itself will be perceived as trustworthy material — certainly not by itself. Trust is a slow build and "earning the right" is indeed a cornerstone philosophy for gaining that trust. Trust comes from three main sources: institutional, situational and personal. At all times, I tend to believe that authenticity is also a stalwart accompaniment to transparency in the desire to build a trusting relationship between any two individuals.

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  5. Transparency is something that can (and should) be required in the public space: the workings of democracy through elections, the workings of government through the composition of laws and the acquisition and spending of funds, the workings of the judicial system in interaction with its citizens in how it enforces the law.

    Transparency in the private sphere is something that citizens can choose or have inflicted on them. The choice is evident everywhere in today’s world. Many people readily give away many or all of the details of their private lives through ignorance, desire to communicate with friends or affection for the public scene developed through various media. Efforts are being increasingly made to ensure limits on involuntary transparency. Transparency has always invaded the private space when the law was concerned, now increasingly with progress of technology: following communications, DNA analysis, etc. This latter development is both a positive development and a threat, depending on the balance of powers in its use.

    Finally, transparency in legal interpersonal behaviour is a question of choice, and we may have feelings about how it evolves, but that is a matter of opinion rather than principle. An individual choice about how much one exposes of one’s private life to a global audience is just that. One person may find it thrilling to see, read or learn about the intimate details of the life of a person half the globe away; another may find it objectionable, and another will be simply indifferent. The main issue is informing people on what they are choosing or what irreversible choices they are making.

    Consequently, as you have said, transparency is not a good or bad thing in and of itself. It is good when it serves the public good (of which the representative is, for want of a better one, the legal system in the country in which one lives); it is decidedly pernicious when it takes away individual rights and choice as we have collectively defined them (identity theft, unwanted publicity, unknowing dissemination of private information).

    So, you have tackled a fundamental issue, and one that is very interesting. But I would maintain that it is important to look at it through the lens of the construction of democracy itself.

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