I'm a big believer in corporate transparency as a means to increase trust and communication with customers.  Can a big corporation be better at transparency than a open source group today?  Where should groups at Microsoft or other corporations draw the line?  What does transparency really mean? These questions are often subjects of much debate.  This is the first round of my four part exploration on corporate transparency.

What's needed is a way to define the term and discuss the intricacies. Today I see very few meaningful conversations with people around why or why not a particular aspect of a business is worth being transparent about. I’m tired of the same old black and white porn VS art debates that occur today. Let us now examine the definition of transparency.

Basic Definitions

Dictionary.Com Says: "The full, accurate, and timely disclosure of information."

Oxford English Defines being transparent: Ignoring definitions that involve degrees of opacity to light... "Frank, open, candid, ingenuous." and "Easily seen through, recognized, understood, or detected; manifest, evident, obvious, clear." and "Obvious in structure or meaning; that can be extrapolated from surface structure; "

Wikipedia on Transparency: "In sociology, politics, ethics, law, economics, business, management, etc., transparency is the opposite of privacy; an activity is transparent if all information about it is freely available. Thus when courts of law admit the public, when fluctuating prices in financial markets are published in newspapers, those processes are transparent; when military authorities classify their plans as secret, transparency is absent.  Some organizations and networks, for example, Wikipedia, the GNU/Linux community and Indymedia, insist that not only the ordinary information of interest to the community is made freely available, but that all (or nearly all) meta-levels of organizing and decision-making are themselves also published. This is known as radical transparency."

 

The Intricacies of Transparency

The basic definitions are useful, but they don't help one decide whether or not to be transparent about something and how transparency you are being.  It doesn't help you decide whether or not to blog about something or post that cool video you took of your triage meeting. To do this you are going to have to look at the various aspects of being transparent. Let’s create a tool that will help everyone do an analysis on the value of being transparent about something.  I'll start by suggesting a breakdown where each item could be rated on a scale of 1 to 5 where 5 is the highest score. More importantly, however, is the discussion that each item should force on your decision.

Reflection of Reality

Since accuracy is a component of transparency then you should ask "How closely does the resource provided to customers mirror the reality of your business?"  Let’s practice scoring this on the MSBuild Triage video we released.  I suggest the video would score 4 out of 5.  It was a real triage meeting, but in reality the triaging of those bugs would have taken far less time.  The view is a little distorted because of the extra time taken to explain the decision making process to the camera. I would also suggest that because of the small sample set of bugs examined the view presented is also askew.  If triaged was filmed daily it would start to be closer to reality.

Ease of Understanding

The oxford-english definition includes the terms "Easily seen through, recognized, understood" and "Obvious in structure or meaning". Good transparency is easily understood and not obfuscated behind complexity. If only 1% of your customers will ever understand the information you are trying to convey then is that much better than just hiding the information?

There is a balancing act here. Releasing product source code may be very transparent, but is it easily understood (as is) to a majority of customers? If the triage video was filmed as if there was no camera there would as many people have understood it?  The extra information provided that distorted the reality would help to lower the bar of understanding.  I would measure this by making a call on the percentage of target customers you believe will understand what and how you are presenting information to them.  Everyone can watch the triage video and time is taken to explain the actions taken, but everyone might not understand the complexity of the bugs being discussed. Let’s score the video a 3 hear and move on.  

Timeliness

It's very cool that Raymond Chen routinely gives people a glimpse inside some of the trade-offs made in previous windows releases, but is this a "timely disclosure of information"? How useful is this information to people who are developing on Windows XP today? How many people are developing for Windows 95 today?

If the information you are choosing to release to customers comes straight from a meeting where the decision was discussed and gives your customers a chance to get their opinions heard before it is too late then the resource provided would score a 5.  If the information is released shortly after a decision was made, but still gives customers plenty of time to prepare for the outcome... 4.  Is the information being released still relevant and helpful to customers making decisions today... 3.  Better late than never gets a 2 and reserve a 1 for information that is so irrelevant it would be of little use to anyone and possibly confuse customers today. 

Completeness

This is the “full” part. The difficulty here is going to be how you decide to scope your expectations of the resource being considered for release. How complete a picture are you forming for your customers when it comes to your product?

If there was a goal to give customers transparency into the bug triage and review process at Microsoft then the video above doesn't score very well on its own. For starters, it's missing the higher and lower levels of triage.  It doesn’t show you how a tester decides something is a bug or how the process is changed later in the process to include a wider group and product level triage?

The bigger the black box left for your customers about the process the lower the value and score of the resource in this category.  Consider a good score being transparent in an end to end fashion that lets customers reconstruct a full image in their heads.  A low completeness score would be a resource with so many holes that customer imagination would form an inaccurate picture that distorts the reality.

Part One Concludes

So, what we have now are the basic definitions of transparency and the beginnings of a tool for discussing the levels of and values in corporate transparency. Thanks for reading this far into my little thought experiment. I’ll welcome any discussion along the way.

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