Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leadership and the balance between transparency and confidentiality

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 12, 2011

Businesses accumulate confidential and proprietary information, and both about their own services, products and functions, and about their customers and others who they connect with. Their internal confidential information and processed knowledge includes planning and other future oriented resources as well as information of immediate, current utility and concern. And these types of information are dispersed throughout the organization, and generally on a need to know basis of some sort.

At the same time these same businesses and organizations hold large amounts of information, knowledge and perspective that should be openly visible and available to all – and if not to the entire world, at least internally within and across the entire organization. Strategic goals and priorities cannot work if the people who would have to achieve them do not clearly know what they are. For this type of information and insight, transparency makes the business function and barriers to them simply create avoidable disconnects, frustrations and problems. For this, opacity and barriers to knowledge sharing can only reduce a business’ capacity to compete and its overall effectiveness.

• Where do you draw the line between transparency where that makes sense and opacity and confidentiality where that does?

My focus here in this posting is not in developing a more effective information control and access policy, though that is an area I will be delving into too – in future postings. This is not, for example, about separating individually identifiable customer information that must remain confidential from anonymous demographics level data and knowledge that can and should be shared when developing marketing and tracking its effectiveness.

My focus here is in how this plays out in the executive suite, and as the senior leadership of a business decides what to share and with whom as to their thinking and planning.

• A CEO and members of their executive team should build transparency into their processes and planning, and with explicit guidelines outlining what they can and cannot share and with whom.
• This policy requires input and advice from legal council
• Policy developed would operationally be owned by Human Resources insofar as it would be applied throughout the organization, and this is a situation where overall consistency in process and throughout the organization is important.
• Transparency and information security and confidentiality policy also need to connect explicitly to corporate culture, and in ways that would prompt everyone to do this right as a standard matter of hands-on practice.
• And good practice here from the top sets a very important example and standard to follow.

In practice, this is not about need to protect confidentiality from the top as much as it is about maintaining openness and transparency, and in maintaining active lines of communications where they would be needed. Default decisions tend to block information flow more often than they lead to at least intentional disclosures.

Effective leaders are first and foremost effective and even compelling communicators who know how to craft and share a message – but who may need policy to consistently know what message to share and how to coordinate this communication with that of others on their senior executive team.

And as a final thought, effective and open communications from the top can go a long way towards addressing the problems that silo walls and counterproductive turf ownership can create.

You can find related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and at Business Strategy and Operations – 2, with this posting listed on the continuation directory page.

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