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Open for business: transparency in the digital age

By Michael Marchionda - The immediacy and accessibility of the internet makes it an ideal medium for transparency, whether intended or not. While organizations need to be aware of the possible risks, there are several benefits of increased transparency that an organization should consider before it decides that transparency is “not for them.”

  • Given the profile of the recent Wikileaks scandal it’s easy to understand why many organizations would view the internet as a medium for letting the wrong information get into the wrong hands, allowing sensitive data to be made available to competitors or leaving them vulnerable to criticism. Unfortunately these fears creep their way into organizations’ decisions to limit their level of transparency on the internet. Their preoccupation with maintaining confidentiality is a legitimate concern, but before electing to shut off information, it’s important to remember that having an organizational presence on the internet is essential to remaining competitive in today’s market, and doing so comes with inescapable risks

  • Transparency is an essential component of building trust with customers and building the company brand

  • Employees often make the best spokespeople for an organization

  • For every example of transparency gone wrong, there are many examples of transparency used successfully.

For some organizations, the key to successful transparency is not to batten down the hatches, but to educate employees and show them how to properly use social media, which are tools of transparency. At the November 2010 Webcom conference in Toronto, Ontario, Shel Holtz delivered a presentation on transparency and used two memorable examples which demonstrate this point. Before turning to these examples, we must first define transparency.

What is transparency?

Broadly speaking, transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability. In the context of organizations, transparency is defined by Holtz as:

  • The degree to which an organization shares the information its stakeholders need to make informed decisions

  • The degree to which an organization provides access to those in the company who can deliver that information.

Also, transparent organizations

  • do the right thing

  • acknowledge inescapable fact

  • trust employees

  • have an “open-book” mind set

  • have leaders and employees that are accessible.

Note that these definitions do not state that transparency is full disclosure. Transparency is about disclosing relevant information to the right people, the right way at the right time. As illustrated below, some organizations have taken these principles and applied them to their social media.

Transparency in action

One example of organizational transparency is the blog Running a Hospital, which is a no-holds-barred look through the eyes of Paul Levy, CEO and president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), a large hospital based in Boston. Levy received much media attention for his unorthodox suggestion of asking employees to sacrifice a portion of their salaries and benefits in order to allow lower-paid employees to remain on staff during the recession (A Head with a Heart). The outcome of that suggestion is one example of the type of content he regularly posts to the blog, which was created to motivate and reward his staff by showcasing their successes online. Knowing that their success was being publically documented, the medical staff felt an additional resurgence and enthusiasm for meeting their goal (Running a Hospital, Social Media Style).

As one would expect, there were some objections to his approach, but Levy’s level of transparency was generally well-received by employees, and has resulted in real benefits for the organization. The employees’ acceptance of transparency is due to the open culture of the organization that existed long before the blog: “I like to think that my blog is consistent with a long-standing social culture of openness and friendliness at BIDMC”, said Levy (An Inside Look at Running a Hospital). Levy’s words reinforce the idea that the degree to which an organization is open should reflect the degree to which the company culture is already open (How Open Should You Be in Social Media?). The blog has also had an impact on the hospital’s business and revenue, as one health system began to send its patients to the BIDMC emergency room instead of a competitor they had long been referring their patients to. This referral shift caused a 10% increase in patient volume (Running a Hospital, Social Media Style). This example shows that transparency can increase camaraderie and have a direct impact on employees’ performance by heralding the organizations’ successes and taking accountability for its failures.  

The U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) is an organization one would expect to be leery of transparency. But in February of 2010, the DOD increased its transparency by allowing users to access common social media tools and other Web 2.0 platforms from non-classified government computers (New Policy Authorizes Social Media Access, With Caveats). DOD now has a vast social media presence and an accompanying, publicly available social media policy. The policy formalizes social media practices for military personnel and reflects DOD officials’ newfound consideration for social media as a serious communication tool. The following paraphrase, from Jack Holt, DOD Senior Strategist of Emerging Media, summarizes the two approaches they could have taken: “Will we treat social media as a fortress to be defended or as a field of maneuver?” Ultimately they chose the latter approach. Holtz makes the comparison that if the DOD regularly trains soldiers to be safe and effective in many different environments, then they can be trained to operate safely and effectively online (Social media: A fortress to be defended or a field of maneuver?). Here are some of the benefits that the DOD hopes to realize with their decision to treat social media as a field of maneuvering:

These two examples are noteworthy because both institutions regularly deal with sensitive information, but have decided to use social media to increase transparency. Their decision to become more transparent is an invitation to other, less guarded organizations to reconsider their level of transparency and reap the same benefits. Essential components of transparency are educating employees, choosing a level of transparency that is relative to the organization’s current culture, and articulating to employees how social media can be used effectively and safely.

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