An 18 year old paper in social anthropology by Marilyn Strathern (then at Cambridge) had the intriguing title of ‘The Tyranny of Transparency’. I suspect it will not be well known in management circles because Social Anthropology is seen here as Exotic Travel that ends in a book, followed, if you are lucky, by doing consumer research for Uniliver.
Strathern did indeed do exotic travel. She spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea, place that has surely seen more anthropologists than indigenous people, and then came back to also exotic United Kingdom where she lectured and wrote. That paper shoots at the nineties government-enlightening discovery of league tables and targets. In particular, for her, the measurement of the efficiency of university education via number of publications (outputs), quotations (position in the social network of academics) and pupils who want to join a discipline (market demand).
The mantra was, and is, to ‘make it visible’. ‘It’ being the whole complexity of academic life and accompaniment of students with their emotions, feelings, journeys, discoveries, frustrations, rebellions, aha moments, passions, imagination, experiences and learning. The invisible translated into number of publications. And that was even before the current full tripadvisorization of society
It does not take much to draw a parallel with organizational life where Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are dominant, a sign of rigour and a proxy for success of failure. But beyond these shared points with academia and league tables of anything, there was, and is, also the dominant language of ‘transparency’.
In those and other territories, transparency suddenly gets glorified to not least than a key value in itself. We then aim for transparency, so we ask for KPSs. We want the invisible to be visible, and we ask for what can be visible. But anthropologists, clever observant of the invisible, may tell you that transparency may in fact conceal reality, a thought almost impossible to conceive in an MBA curriculum.
I have not been in Papua New Guinea myself but have spent years amongst exotic people in the payroll and I have developed a few rules of thumb (let’s call them heuristics to sound smarter), for example: for everything said, what is the unsaid. As organization architect, I am terribly interested in what is never said, or discussed, or on the table, perhaps taboos with small t or big T. So, for everything transparent, what is that has been concealed? What ‘transparent outcomes’ have in fact let people off the hook, not having to dig into the invisible, perhaps more real?
One of the advantages of Social Anthropology is that it does not owe anything to managerial logic. So a social anthropologist would tell you without a blink that asking for transparency means trust is low. This logic is not the managerial logic where asking for transparency means ‘evidence’, which means, visibility, which means measuring, usually what is both measurable and visible. Allow me to provoke this corollary: the more transparency you ask for, the more invisible things you’ll miss; there will be more proxies and more vicarious life. Transparency will be indeed tyrannical, as Strathern called it. Trust will be eroded, not boosted.
We may be here in the same ‘Organizations wired wrong’ paradoxes of yesterday where input and output are mistaken.
Before you send me to Papua New Guinea for good, let me call it out: transparency is an outcome, a desired state, an output. As outcome, it requires amongst other things high trust. Boost trust, get transparency and you won’t even have to name it. Ask too much for transparency, get the tyranny of the visible and the concealed realty for which KPIs are the safe solution to management un-thinking.
Wish me safe travels
PS1. For the record, I have never said, I am defending opacity.
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