Business experts recommend transparency as a way to strengthen engagement by keeping employees in touch with the meaning and value of their work, and to help hold decision-makers accountable for their choices. It’s a valuable tool for keeping a company running more smoothly, with benefits in the here-and-now. Katherine Maher, however, has a more long-term view thanks to her role as Executive Director of Wikimedia Foundation, an organization built to continue far beyond its founders and current management team. In her Big Think+ video, “Create a Culture of Accountability,” she says, “I don’t know what Wikipedia will look like in a hundred years, and I don’t know who’s going to be stewarding it. But we know that transparency… will mean that there will always be accountability to the creators and to the public to make sure that it’s in a healthy place.”
Transparent From the Start
“Transparency has been a part of who we are since day one,” explains Maher. “We think of ourselves as temporary stewards of something that will live far beyond us.” With it built into all decision-making, small and large, planning, and even the naming of officers, everything is available for “conversation, dialogue, assessment.” While it’s no surprise that openness is built into the Wikipedia platform itself — with each page’s contributors and history plainly displayed — this attitude extends to the entire operation, from funding choices to the way individual projects are managed.
Why It Works so Well
In her video, Maher lists a couple of especially powerful benefits of transparency.
“Transparency,” Maher points out, “allows us to also correct when we go off course, which we have in the past. It forces us to be honest about the mistakes that we’ve made, which is actually really good as a learning opportunity and thinking about how not to repeat them.” Part of this is that decisions are available for others to examine. “I like having my decisions scrutinized. It means I make better decisions.” This is not to say it’s always a friction-free process. “I sometimes disagree. I sometimes have to go home and think about it, but it’s always going to make for a stronger decision, a healthier organization and a more effective mission whatever that mission is.”
Second, at Wikimedia, “There’s nothing that gets done in smoky back rooms. It’s all out there in the open.” Disagreements are, after all, inevitable, but full openness helps neutralize lingering bad feelings on the part of those who weren’t involved in a decision, or those who disagree with it. It’s because, Maher says, “it confirms to everybody that even if you didn’t agree with their opinion, their opinion has been heard and the decision ultimately might’ve been based on factors that they disagreed with, but they have information about what those factors were.” It’s also easy to see how having access to such inside intel helps even those on the outside feel like a respected part of the process.
So Worth the Effort
“Transparency is hard,” admits Maher, “I’m not going to say that it’s fun all the time. In fact, I have some of the bruises and scars around what it feels and means to be transparent. But what I can also say is that it always comes out better in the end.” Maher also notes that organizations choosing a more tightly controlled approach may find uncomfortable information slipping out anyhow, and often in the worst ways. “It might not come out right away, it might come out a few years down the line, but it’s going to come out.”
In any event, being “critically prepared to talk about how you would have done things differently is actually a position of power and strength,” asserts Maher. It leads to more solid decision-making today, and provides future management the historical insight they’ll need to follow in your footsteps.