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Information Flow

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This article describes how information and information flow are used in different management paradigms and organizational contexts throughout the journey of evolution.

Historical perspective

Every historical stage has given birth to a distinct perspective on Information Flow, and to very different practices:

Red Organizations

In Red Organizations, information and information flow are controlled by those with power, and are used to control and manipulate people. Information is controlled and propagated through storytelling, issuing orders, making threats, bribing and by spying. The boss usually has ownership of information and controls the means of communication. Power is used to keep followers dependent and aligned. The objective truth of information is often less important than its subjective value, i.e. the truth has no value or meaning if there is more to gain from telling a lie! In this context, people only attend to the information which they perceive as serving their own personal needs.

Amber Organizations

In Amber Organizations,information is more widely distributed and there is a respect for logical argument. Different viewpoints are acknowledged, but there is only room for a single truth, or set of truths. Information is controlled and communicated via the organizational hierarchy. Respect for the concept of objectivity emerges, together with competing views of the orthodox and the heretical. The truth of statements issued by those in authority may be questioned, within strict limits, but the decisions and opinions of those in authority must be respected; if not, dissenters may be punished!

Orange Organizations

In Orange Organizations, information serves primarily as a measure for “predicting and controlling”, with the credo: the more information, the better! Using measurement information, people can design a blueprint for the organization as though it was a machine. Information owned by or coming from those of higher rank in the organization is considered to be of greater value.

Green Organizations

In Green Organizations, information serves as a currency for cultural value, with the purpose of inspiring members of the organization. Information flow through the system is founded on “open book” management, with inputs from all stakeholders being given equal consideration. The information content of the "open books" is still defined by "rulers" in a hierarchical structure, but those in positions of authority focus on listening to, encouraging and motivating their teams. With “family” as the guiding metaphor in Green organizations, stories are shared and everyone can ‘sing around the campfire’.

Teal Organizations

In Teal Organizations, information is made available to everyone equally, on an “as-is” basis. There are no secrets, and information flows where it is needed without boundaries; this is one of the fundamental prerequisites for self-management of organizations. Members of Teal organizations still respect a distinction between the sharing of information which belongs in the organizational context, and the confidential sharing of personal information; grey areas are handled with sensitivity and integrity. The dubious value of “hearsay” (second-hand reports of unrecorded verbal communication) is clearly understood.

In practice

Share All Information!

"If you empower people but don´t give them information, they just fumble in the dark." (Blair Vernon)

Self-managing teams need to have all available information to make optimum decisions on a strategic and day-to-day basis. This means that all members of the organization must have access to all data related to the financing and operations of the organization, including salaries and performance of individuals and teams. Freely sharing information helps to build and maintain trust within the organization, and reduces the likelihood that informal hierarchies will re-emerge.

In Teal organizations, there is a culture of trust, not fear: freely sharing information does not harm anybody, and there is no need to protect sources of information through anonymity or disguise. People are trusted to handle information with integrity, and to deal with both the positive and the negative implications of all the information available to them. In this way, people have a clear of view the information that affects them and others within the organization, and no-one develops a false sense of anxiety or security.

When information is analyzed, contextualized and interpreted, this is not seen as a way of establishing the truth, but as a way of making the information more valuable. Valuable information flows naturally to the places where it helps to solve problems, meet challenges, drive innovation. Simply: information can now circulate freely and serve its purpose.

Discuss and Debate! Rank-free!

When there is new and important information to share, “all-hands” meetings are a standard practice in Teal organizations. Quarterly results, the annual values survey, a strategic inflection point and so forth are discussed and debated in a meeting with no script or agenda of control. This is much more than simple information exchange: instead of “predict and control”, the guiding principle of information flow is “sense and response”. If information is being shared in a way which does not serve the purpose of the organization, this can be debated openly and changes made as needed.


Frequently asked questions

What are good daily practices for sharing information?

All-hands meetings, stand-up meetings, open intranets, discussion forums, open task or work logs, blogs, open webinars.

What indicates that information flow is "stuck"?

Quiet meetings, culture of fear and blame, complex hierarchical decision-making processes, frequent rumours, compulsory employee surveys.

Concrete examples for inspiration

Here are some practical examples from organizations that have adopted Teal information flow practices.

Patagonia

Apparel -- United States -- 1,350 employees -- For profit.

Extend information flow throughout the market, incorporating suppliers and customers

Patagonia has gone beyond the boundaries of the organization with its "Footprint Chronicles". Information transparency has been extended to suppliers and customers. Customers can see where everthing is made, how it is made, what the conditions are like, what the impact of transportation and water usage is on the overall carbon footprint. A major part of the organization's purpose is served by employing this radical degree of honesty with regard to information and information flow when dealing with outside parties. Information exchange with suppliers and customers via email and internet is used to fuel continous improvement.

Buurtzorg

Health care -- Netherlands -- 10,000 employees -- For Profit.

Uses information structure and transparency to provide the best service to the customers

At Buurtzorg, all data concerning performance of all the teams is put on the company's intranet. A team that struggles in one area can identifiy a team in the neighborhood with outstanding results (which is not a threat, but an offer) and can ask for advice and best practices. If there is an need for a decision, the request is posted on the intranet. Teams can see every month how their productivity compares to that of other teams. The data of other teams is not anonymized or averaged out. Employees are trusted to handle the positive and negative impacts of information with integrity.

FAVI

Metal manufacturing -- France -- 500 employees -- For profit.

Information flow in time of crisis.

When Jean-Francois Zobrist, the CEO of FAVI, was faced with difficult and critical decisions at the company, he readily admitted he needed help to find a good answer. More than once, on impulse, he went around the shop floor, asked everybody to stop the machines, climbed on a soapbox and shared his problem with all employees, trying to figure out a course of action.

In time of crisis, he openly shared information with all employees about the reality of the situation, trusting them to handle it. As a result, employees did not retain a false sense of safety. Everybody, regardless of any rank, could take the opportunity to sense the impact of the information offered and resonate to it. People in the audience shouted questions and proposals. Together they found a collective course of action to overcome the crisis.

Related topics

Notes and references