The Thistle

Why Sharing Information is So Terrifying, Essential

In working on a “Ten-Year Project”( working title), a leader sought to collect 20 data points on 650 graduates from one specific institution of higher learning to see if a predictive model could be devised. The model would help identify the best candidates for a specific degree program on the front end. In attempts to prevent confounding variables, he contacted four other institutions to compare some of their results in the same area.

E-mails introduced the field of research and benefit to all the schools. Follow-up phone calls explained the goals and outcomes. All input would remain anonymous, while all data and findings would be shared with participating institutions. All the information being sought from the other schools was publically available in annualized statements, but not broken down by program. Program-specific information would be essential for comparative analysis. There were no legal concerns, no public shame or threats to institutional security to fear. This was an offer of full cooperation in which the initiating school would provide the same data to all the other schools. The result: nothing. No institution was willing to provide the requested information. Why is sharing information so terrifying?

Because We Don’t Have It

Information is too . . . concrete. Data is too easily . . . .analyzed. And so, as a protective measure, we don’t seek it, don’t capture it, and even if we do, we don’t ask the right questions about it. It takes a lot of individual differentiation and emotional health to be able to capture the very thing that might end up showing how poorly we have performed. That is true whether you are a mom-and-pop business, a Fortune 100 company, or a school. Opening up data means you might be proven a failure. If you show what you are spending, what you are getting in return, how well your product is performing in the marketplace, what your retention of key employees (or turnover) is—you are immediately open to an apples-to-apples comparison. And the results might get ugly.

So, instead, we hide our data or simply choose not to capture it. Educational institutions don’t talk about graduates placed in their respective fields of study, or even about degreed graduates. They just talk about “alumni”—and use the loosest definition for that: anybody who took a single course at that institution, ever. In the business world, the pattern is to spin whatever metrics make us look best. For example, Toyota claims about its cars that “80% of all vehicles sold in the past 20 years are still on the road.” Great—so how many is that? How many did Toyota sell in the past 20 years? I seem to remember that the 1990’s weren’t great years for Toyota.

Of course Toyota doesn’t answer that question for us. Someone has to piecemeal together the information that is available. For example, in November 2006, USA Today reported that Toyota was eyeing 15% global market share (total), or 14% for vehicles under the Toyota brand (excluding those sold by Daihatsu and Hino Motors). This 14% represented a sale of some 75 million vehicles worldwide in 2010. Then, in January 2011, Autoblog reported that Toyota expected sales to jump to 13 million in 2011. Is that global? Who knows! The point is, you actually have to read Toyota’s annual reports for two decades to actually find the answer.

Back to the educational industry. Nothing says we might be failing like actually being able to compare reality to reality, using the same terms, in the same ways. And so, we don’t capture that information.

Because Others Might Steal from Us

So long as nobody knows how well (or poorly, as the case more often is) we are doing, then others won’t want to copy us. This “close your eyes and hope for the best” approach to institutional health is ignorance reinforced by ignorance. The thinking goes like this: “If the competition knows what we’re doing and how well it’s working, they will copy us. Then, we’ll have to come up with something new.” The whole thing smells of complacency. This kind of thinking is the beginning of the end of relevance.

Revealing the outcomes of our endeavors—that enrollment numbers or sales are up or down—is actually the first, needed step toward perpetual change and improvement. Systems have to stop being afraid of the possibility that others are going to copy them. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Then again, if one is part of a system that is always changing, then competitors are only ever imitating the last best thing. Messages can be copied. Institutes can be mimicked. Core values of organizational life give the flesh and blood behind these forms that will ultimately grow and retain our customer base and constituent loyalty.

Because we’re Not Prepared to be Held Accountable

Necessity is the mother of invention. Ignorance is just the stepbrother of stupidity. And as we are honest about the state of affairs, then we can begin to listen to the voices of others who might actually help us move in the direction of new growth. But this takes a great deal of self-reflection and a higher commitment to our constituents than to our personal opinions.

And this is another reason why information isn’t shared. Sharing information means empowering others to act. When people know how well or poorly our company is doing, there can be calls for accountability. The façade is gone. The fear associated with this process is a fear of self-protection. Self-protection requires the maintenance of the façade: nobody gets past the showroom.

Fear is a stupid reason not to look at the truth. People who think they have cancer and don’t go to the doctor aren’t cancer free. They are just ignorant. Companies that pretend that their sales are just fine, and never bother to see how they compare across the industry, aren’t doing just fine. They’re dying. Organizations, companies, and institutions—like organisms—are either growing or they are dying. There isn’t a condition called “holding steady” in real life.

Self-reflection requires a willingness to critique, analyze, and even—if necessary—to abandon endeavors that aren’t working. This is hard to do, especially when the endeavor—the marketing campaign, the product placement concept, the established idea—comes from you personally. This reveals a lot of maturity. It displaces fear, helps establish trust, and even positions us to learn from the sharing of information.

Because We are Moving Toward Irrelevance

The moment we stop assessing how we are doing—as a company, a church, a school—we have become irrelevant. No, that doesn’t mean we cease to exist immediately; it means that we’ve stopped learning. This is something that dead people do: they stop learning. In fact, it’s a key difference between the living and the dead. Ask your coworkers, “Are we continuing to learn?”

When I lived in the Mississippi Delta (in the late 1990s), my primary care physician—Dr. Duff Austin— was a 69-year old man who had been practicing medicine since . . . well, before the time of computing. But he never stopped learning. He was one of the most well-read, up-to-speed doctors I knew, and remained so until his death a few years ago.

The moment we stop learning is the moment we start dying. True learning comes through curiosity—questioning why things are the way they are, and asking how to make them better. It is exhausting because it means never being content with where you are or what has been accomplished. And the only power that is really going to hold our feet to the fire of accountability is openness about reality: our metrics, our data, and our analysis.

When we stop sharing information, we become an encyclopedia: filled with useful data as static as the day is long. Irrelevance waits for us, sitting at the end of complacency and pride—of a sense of final accomplishment. Atrophy is just one workout away—our last workout. Institutional assessment, organizational evaluation, and corporate growth all depend upon staving off atrophy and complacency.

Don’t believe me? Ask Iomega, Novell/Corel, Woolworths, Lionel, Orion Pictures, Pan Am, Rolls-Royce Limited, Auburn-Duesenberg, Studebaker, or the other truly innumerable companies that once lead their industries and eventually gave way to irrelevance, dissolution, and finally, to history. Ask the thousands of churches that slowly went from 2000 to 20 in the course of a few decades, and eventually ceased to exist. Even so, their records indicate they are large, thriving churches with as many as four times the number of members as are regularly in the pews in a week.

So, what questions do you need to ask about your church, company, or organization? How up to date are the rolls, enrollment numbers, member participants, etc.? Who is in a position to analyze the metrics being used, and the adequacy of information being captured by them?

It’s never too late to ask good questions, but doing it tomorrow always puts understanding one day further out from today.