The trouble with transparency

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Good Old Trend

I’ve thought a lot about transparency lately, and why it doesn’t seem to quite work out for me. I made a bold statement when I was made CEO of Good Old (and was utterly crushed by Joakim :). I thought it would be easy to run a company differently than most others. It turns out I was right and wrong at the same time. Doing it is easy, accepting the consequences is not.

For the sake of argument I have taken the liberty of dividing “transparency” into five parts that can be applied to these issues. There may be more, feel free to add more below.

Transparency with ideas
This one is fairly easy – this blog does just that. I share my ideas on what’s going on in the world. It can be comments on news, new ideas or just a thought that I had. As this is a corporate blog my views are somewhat connected to my company, and therefore it also has a mirroring effect from our office. I suppose it tells the world “we have read about X and this is what we think about it”. This has clearly had a positive effect on the company when it comes to contacts and PR, but I wouldn’t say that my blog has brought in any new clients. Not directly at least.

In this sense, sharing ones ideas and insight is not particularly controversial from a transparency point of view. Most companies could probably do this successfully one way or another.

Transparency for a laugh
Not to be underestimated. Our photos on Flickr are there because we think it’s funny. And if someone else agrees – yay! If not, well, it doesn’t really matter.

Transparency with location/status
Communicating through Jaiku and Dopplr has a very practical aspect for me as I spend a lot of time travelling and my colleagues want to know what I’m up to. It also comes in handy when I hold presentations about that sort of thing and people ask me “who the hell can be bothered to do that sort of thing?” 😉

Practicalities aside, there is an integrity aspect to be considered. I chose (fairly) carefully what to write, especially when I’m not working, in order to stay on a level of openness that I think is fit. Some things can’t be communicated this way for other reasons that are stated below.

Transparency with clients
Being transparent with who I’m having meetings with is nothing that my clients will benefit from. I doubt that they care who I meet when I’m not working with them.

“Meeting with a new potential client in Stockholm” might be a typical Jaiku – now what’s really transparent about that? It says something – but is that something of any value to anyone? Doubtful. If it’s like the example, and I wrote the name of the company that we were pitching at, I would also be telling our competitors that they are looking for a new agency to work with (or something similar). Personally that doesn’t really worry me, but from a business point of view I can’t really justify giving out that information. The potential gain of me telling it is too small in comparison with the risk.

Some of my clients don’t want me to be transparent about them. It’s fine me writing about Good Old, but how much interesting stuff do we do that isn’t connected to a client? Not much, in all honesty. We’re consultants after all. If my client wants me to be secretive I have to respect that.

Transparency with business
Imagine that we had a major disagreement with one of our clients. Could we write about that? Should we? It would definitely be transparent as it would be reflecting the issue that probably would have taken most time from us at the time. But what would we gain from telling that story?

Or say that we were in financial trouble. No money left to pay our salaries at the end of the month. What could we possibly gain from telling the world about that? If I was a client and read my consultants blog and saw that they hardly had a dime left in their bank account – I’d get worried. I can’t really justify transparency if it risks disturbing the relationship we have with our clients.

So say that we only write about the good stuff. Well, everyone does that! It doesn’t make it more transparent just because we don’t use press releases. Most corporate blogs that I read only ever discuss their business if things are going well. Unless you’re a product company and want help from your readership in some way, but that’s not quite the same thing.

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All in all I’ve found it increasingly difficult to justify why I should, as CEO of a company, share all of this information with the rest of the world. Most of the time being transparent is easy as you are only communicating the boring everyday life. But as soon as you actually get to the juicy stuff – well, that’s when you need to start thinking. What will my company gain from sharing this information? When I do, I often find that it ends up on the minus side after all. I wish it didn’t.

This is my perspective from my specific company. I’d love your thoughts and experiences regarding these issues.

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