Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Principle of Transparency: A Tale of Two Employers

Social Media practitioners use the word “transparency” frequently, but it seems to mean different things to different people. To me, transparency isn’t something organizations bring to their Social Media efforts but instead is a fundamental change in corporate mindset being accelerated by Social Media’s growth and adoption. It isn’t a choice made on Twitter but the way an organization may choose to live. In short, transparency is a principle, not a strategy or tactic. Some recent experiences with Fullhouse and Forrester, my current and future employers, have helped me to recognize the meaning, value, and importance of transparency.

Over the past two months, I’ve had the very good fortune to be part of the intensive recruiting process of market research firm, Forrester. As readers of Experience: The Blog know, I will start with Forrester in the San Francisco Bay area in mid-November. I feel very lucky and excited to be joining a firm I hold in high regard.

There are many reasons that I respect Forrester, but one is quite personal: the smart and respectful way their analysts responded to a blog post in which I critiqued their guidance on Sponsored Conversations (AKA Paid Blog Posts). I noted that they support Sponsored Conversations on blogs, so I jokingly offered to pay Forrester for coverage on their own Groundswell blog.  Of course, I knew Forrester would never accept such an offer, but I hoped my approach might spark dialog about one of the hottest topics in Social Computing.

It certainly would have been easy enough to consider me a nuisance and opt for an opaque or translucent response, such as ignoring the post, contacting me privately, dismissing me as incorrect or uninformed, or perhaps even firing off a “cease and desist” letter to demand I discontinue quoting material from the Groundswell blog. Instead, Josh Bernoff and Sean Corcoran responded both on my blog and on the Forrester blog, and they did so in a public way, inviting response and interaction from others and engaging in open dialog.

Josh and Sean lived the transparency they recommend to their clients; they treated all voices in the debate as equal and informative, discussed rather than defended, listened, and considered. Not only did my deliberately cheeky blog post not earn their animosity, it was among the reasons they included me as a candidate for the analyst opening.

Meanwhile, as the recruiting process with Forrester grew more serious, I made the decision to be transparent with my current employer, Fullhouse. I felt I could be open about my career opportunity because the agency is a caring and transparent place. Of course, my bosses were not excited about the possibility of losing an agency leader, but they opted for support and transparency over alternatives such as showing me the door or making it difficult to take the time I needed to meet with Forrester. In the words of my boss, “Had you told me you were interviewing with the agency across the street, I’d kick your ass, but I recognize why Forrester would be such a great fit for you.”

By making transparency a part of the culture at Fullhouse, its leaders gained quite a lot: They were aware of and could plan for my departure rather than finding it a surprise; they fostered an environment of trust and respect; they reinforced why Fullhouse is such an excellent place to work; and they made my decision more difficult. Fullhouse may have lost an employee, but they continue to have a raving fan.

For Forrester and Fullhouse, transparency is a part of the culture and is represented by their care for those inside and outside the organization, their willingness to meet stakeholders halfway, the respect they demonstrate for individuals and ideas, and a commitment to live by principles that consider others’ interests, not just their own.

Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting once shared his definition of a principle, and it is one that stuck with me: “A principle isn’t a principle unless it could potentially cost you money.” Transparency can certainly cost an organization money in the short run, but a commitment to transparency will bear benefits in the end.

In an increasingly social world, brands and companies cannot build networks, earn trust, create fans, or foster influence through defensiveness, self-interest, close-mindedness, or other opaque attitudes and actions. Transparency isn’t easy, but as demonstrated by Fullhouse and Forrester, transparency is a principle that is increasingly vital in a world of frictionless communication.

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Steve Grobschmidt said...

Augie, what a great post. You certainly live up to your principle of being transparent, from everything I've seen.

Lots of people or places throw that word around, but fall short. I think about your forthrightness on Twitter about Fullhouse job cuts, and how somewhat shocking that was at the time.

Usually places feel the need to be clandestine about such things, often not even telling their own employees, and there you were, being frank about it on social media.

That goes a long way in showing sincerity and integrity on the subject of transparency. The corporate world in general is sorely lacking in that regard.

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