Sharing info in organisations

Recently on the sidelines of a corporate governance King IV seminar, I spoke to an executive who told me about the corporate culture in his organisation. He revealed that more needs to be done insofar as establishing a particular organisational culture is concerned.

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In fact, most companies seem to struggle on this aspect. In a snap survey we carried out recently, we noticed that secrecy, withholding critical information, and inconsistent communication were common practice. The resultant effect of this kind of culture in any organisation is frustration among the workforce.

Organisations that fail to share important knowledge and information up, down and across struggle in the long run.

However, I must state on the onset that no organisation achieves perfection with regard to information sharing, because human judgment is involved. Obviously, some data is not appropriate for wide distribution. Sometimes, confidentiality is a necessity. Apparently, to communicate well requires time, focus and effort, which are often in short supply.

Nevertheless, some companies excel as learning organisations that openly and honestly share knowledge. The story of Pixar Animation Studios, an American film-making company, as one of the most successful film production companies of all time is intriguing in this regards. The “fraternity of geeks” who work at Pixar succeeded in transforming hand-drawn cel animation to computer-generated 3-D graphics. The string of movies thus created, starting with Toy Story in 1995, has been hugely popular and critically acclaimed. Through it all, a corporate culture that highly values information-sharing at every level within the organisation has enabled Pixar to continue to produce one hit after another.

The September 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review cited several reasons for Pixar’s sustained creative success.

Among other things, the company espouses a philosophy that “we are smarter than me”. The company believes that everyone needs to be involved in the creative process and, to that end, communication throughout all levels is imperative. This reminds me of one senior I once worked with in the civil service whose philosophy was “no one is greater than all of us”.

Coming back to the Pixar example, it was imperative that the company worked so hard to hire good people, to support its philosophy, and to foster an environment where trust and respect were a given. More specifically, those good people were encouraged to take risks, knowing that they would inevitably make mistakes. It goes without saying that talented people learn from failures and use their hard-earned discoveries to move forward more effectively on subsequent projects.

On the whole, Pixar’s culture was flat, collegial and extremely peer-oriented. Hierarchies were out, everyone was treated with respect, and both honest feedback and careful listening were encouraged and rewarded.

One very specific and practical example of the way information-sharing plays itself out is Pixar University itself.

At this institution every employee is encouraged to spend as many as four hours a week furthering his/her education.

Amazingly, Pixar University offers more than a hundred courses, from filmmaking and writing to sculpture, painting and drawing.

Pixar University epitomises the concept of broad knowledge-sharing. Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar has this to say: “The skills we develop are skills we need everywhere in the organisation. Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class doesn’t just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. There is no company on earth that wouldn’t benefit from having people become more observant.”

Randy Nelson, furthers asserts that: “The skills we develop are skills we need everywhere in the organisation. Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class does not just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. There is no company on earth that wouldn’t benefit from having people become more observant.”

In addition to excellent financial results, Pixar has earned countless industry accolades for its work, including 22 Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, and three Grammys. Every Pixar film produced since 2001 was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar and four of those movies, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, came home with the little golden statuette

Pixar provides an incredibly compelling example of an organisation that sees the critical value in gathering information from a diverse variety of sources and then sharing it openly up, down and across the company. Those individuals who hold information closely would not survive in such a culture.

Pixar’s reputation as a place where creative genius thrives is indeed well-earned.

Companies like Pixar that set themselves up as learning organisations and follow through on that commitment tend to be successful. Other organisations — where secrecy, lack of clarity, and generally poor communication all around are the rule — suffer in the end.

Where does your organisation or team sit on the communication spectrum? Do you openly share important knowledge and information in all directions? Does your culture foster honest feedback and careful listening? What do you personally contribute from a communication standpoint?

A human or animal organism needs circulation of blood and nutrients to all parts of the body in order to have full physical health. Similarly, freely flowing knowledge and information are the “lifeblood” of any organisation that hopes to achieve robust business outcomes.

Mandeya is a an executive coach in human capital development and corporate education, a certified life coach in leadership and professional development at the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on lead.inst.dev@gmail.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com.

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