Why Sharing Information is So Terrifying, and Essential?

I’m working on a “10 Year Project”(that’s the working title) where I’m collecting some 20 data points for some 650+ graduates from an institution of higher learning to see if I can develop a predictive modeling approach to identifying the best candidates (for this program) on the front end. As part of this data pool, I was hoping to compare this with information from comparable schools. So I emailed contacts at those locations. The result—despite my guarantee to share all our data and the findings—was a big, fat, net ZERO. 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 then 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, retention of key employees (or turnover)—you are immediately open to an Apples-to-Apples comparison. And the results might get ugly.

So, instead, we hide our data, or simply chose not to capture it. We don’t talk about graduates placed in their respective fields of study, or even about degreed graduates. We just talk about “alumni”—and use the loosest definition for that: namely, anybody who took a single course, ever.

Or in the business world, the pattern is to spin whatever metrics make us look best. For example, Toyota claims 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 90’s weren’t great years for Toyota.

Of course they don’t answer that question for us. We have to piecemeal 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 of 2011, Autoblog reported that Toyota expects 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 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 hide 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’ll 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 down—is actually the first, needed step toward change and improvement. We have to stop being afraid of the possibility that others are going to copy us. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Then again, if we are an always changing organization, then competitors are only ever imitating our last best thing. Messages can be copied. Institutes can be mimicked, but core values of organizational life give the flesh and blood behind these forms that will ultimately grow and retain our customer base.

Because we’re Not Prepared to be Self-Reflective
Necessity is the mother of invention. Ignorance is just the step-brother 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 the other 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 who 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.

Essential…because Otherwise 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 (late-90s), my primary care physician—Dr. Duff Austin— was a (at least) 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. He remained this way until his death.

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, corporate growth 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 eventually to history.

So, what questions do you need to ask about your church, company or organization? How up to date are the roles, enrollment numbers, member participants, etc? Who is in a position to analyze the metrics being used, and the adequacy of information being captured by those? It's never too late to ask good questions, but tomorrow always puts understanding one day further out from today.

(I just listened to a great, free, webcast that applies to this topic. It was with the author of Now You’re Thinking, Judy Chartrand; and with Col. US Marine Corps David Bellon. It totally applies to this topic.)