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One of the key differences between models for agile organizing and classical, hierarchical approaches is how information is used and processed across the organization. We introduce two preconditions for transparency in the workplace, which go a long way to boost information sharing and enable effective collaboration.


Transparent information sharing on the job: traditional vs. agile organizations

In traditional organizations, information flows officially follow the “chain of command” defined by the organizational structure and depicted in the organization chart (typically there are other information flows as well, but the chain of command is the dominant route for information flows to support decisions and get work done). The idea behind this is simple: the organizational structure represents a pre-defined system for the division of labor within the organization. And based on this division of labor, different units only get the information that superiors deem relevant and required for them to do their jobs.

In organizations with a high degree of decentralized authority (either by design or by virtue of their culture, size, or the strength of their informal networks), information flows are mainly determined by what decentralized organizational units deem fit or necessary. These organizations operate on the general principle of open access and transparency. Organizations like this believe that people and units facing tasks and decisions will know best what they need (or at least better than any manager they would report to in another setting), and grant them the ability to access what they require.


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When effectiveness is missing, efficiency becomes irrelevant: workplace transparency and its problems

Frequent criticism of such increased transparency claims that full access to internal information reduces control, creates unnecessary noise, and raises issues of confidentiality. London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw discusses three instances where increased workplace transparency could lead to unintended negative consequences: full access to business data (leading to slower decision-making), salary transparency (leading to perceptions of unfairness), and full visibility in creative processes (hampering free expression of ideas and adversely impacting the inherently open-ended nature of the creative process).

One could argue that in each of Birkinshaw’s examples there are remedies to manage the unintended consequences without throwing the child out with the bathwater - and without reverting back to the information-hoarding, silo-defending hierarchy. But the more fundamental point is the following: in fast-moving environments, the risk of information getting out of control is irrelevant because the half-life of information is short. You either act on that information NOW, and create a new situation, or there’s a high risk that the information will quickly become worthless anyway. Sharing and using information is directly related to the effectiveness of the organization. And where there is no effectiveness, the question of efficiency becomes irrelevant.

This is a key insight from Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams about the American army’s approach to special operations in the Iraq war, and the installment, despite many internal impediments, of a multi-silo task force to continuously share information in order to counter a fast and nimble adversary.

How to successfully increase transparency and extensive information sharing: two indispensable preconditions to put in place

McChrystal’s strategy and other examples hold some key insights for how to make increased transparency and extensive information sharing for organizational agility work. There are two preconditions that are essential management tasks to take care of.

  1. First, there should be a discrete work product, or a good understanding of the general interdependencies of work products, that give rise to information sharing. This can be a product development process, a key client relationship, or any form of task force with a discrete output. Within the scope of this work product (understood in the most general sense) there is no case for opacity between the involved internal units. In line with the joint output, there should be joint responsibility and thus a shared mandate to receive all related information.

  2. Second, there must be dedicated management and leadership work to make collaboration (and information sharing) happen in pursuit of the joint work product. The elements of this must not be taken for granted. It starts with the capabilities and experience of working in an open, transparent setting; if it’s not there (and if people have been trained in other environments), training and development investments are needed. The process of collaboration may require facilitation and lateral leadership. Attention and time should be dedicated to creating a shared understanding of a group’s purpose and joint commitment. Joint rules are helpful. Infrastructure and resources must be available.

These two preconditions are especially relevant in organizations that have a poor record of running successful collaborative efforts. Extensive workplace transparency can only become the norm if there is a sufficient level of comfort with the required management practices. Over time, people will learn what it takes to open up and frame their use of open access in a way that avoids unintended consequences.


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Also read on our blog:

  • Getting transparency in the workplace right - key tradeoffs: High levels of transparency are a hallmark of agile workplaces, as transparency and the availability of information allows decentral actors to make better decisions. As a concept, workplace transparency comes with a few tradeoffs that org designers and leaders need to reflect in their communication rules.

  • How transparent is your workplace? Consider three key dimensions - the WHAT, the HOW and the WHO of workplace transparency - to create conditions for agile, decentralized decision making across your organization and prohibit a lack of transparency in your organization.