Of the five big issues that are important in online communications, transparency is the hardest. I have been preaching a mantra about the five big Internet issues for a number of years. They are:
Reach, speed, porosity and agency and Transparency. Transparency has an ethical dilemma's attached.
All organisations have information that they would rather keep confidential. For most it is about sustaining a competitive edge or a financial advantage.
I once has a CEO who used to drive marketing managers nuts because he would entertain competitors and was quite happy to take them through the drawing office and onto the test track.
His view was quite simple. It will take them a long time to replicate what I show than and by then we will have moved on. We learn what they are doing by their questions and so, they will always be second.
He did the same with customers. But this time he would ask if the benefits the company was designing into the product would solve their problems.
It meant that the design and development staff knew that they were not in competition with other suppliers but did have a a close and transparent exchange with customers.
It did make being a PR manager easy except for one thing. Every customer wanted to be included among the application studies we wrote to show how well they had understood the designed in advantages and how it made their businesses more competitive. It played havoc with the PR budget.
Today, one would see this exchange as part of the continuing conversation.
So how do we, ethically, draw the transparency line?
In looking at what needs not to be transparent in an organisation the rules should but the community first and commercial advantage second and competitive advantage third. But this does not mean that all organisations have to be, or should be completely transparent.
It is actually about culture. Organisations have cultures. This is a culture developed as people inside the organisation interact and talk about what they do. They talk about things that have an explicit description and implicit values.
This culture, when acceptable to the the wider culture militates for the organisation. Professor James E Grunig has been making this point since 1992.
If people can communicate inside an organisation, including in conversation with the 'dominant coalition' and can hold symmetrical conversations with external audiences, cultural convergence will be powerful. It will make the relationship value drive turnover and profits and, guess what, a mutual understanding of the line between secrecy and transparency will emerge.