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?”

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