Listening to the widely circulated telephonic exchange between Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam last month evoked a range of sentiments. There was the sense of disappointment many felt in a former titan of consulting, the Indian success story that so many business school professors had lauded in their classrooms. And there was the lament about how these years of integrating ethics into MBA education seemed to have had little impact on the alumni who are still steering most of industry’s ships.
But as the recordings were retweeted, IM’ed and Facebooked across the globe, some of us also started to experience that sensation you have when you gaze at your plate getting too full at a wedding dinner. We didn’t want to hear every little nuance of tone, each contemptuous and complaining inflection in their voices, over and over again. But we couldn’t help consuming the greasy content coming our way. And we ended up feeling just a little queasy.
A popular acronym used by the instant messaging and texting generation when you share one too many personal detail is TMI—“too much information.” Our brave new networked world seems to also be unwittingly giving us TMT—too much transparency. Over the last year, the Niira Radia tapes’ 5,000 recorded phone calls served up a good entrée of the 2G spectrum scandal, but came along with an unsavory side of Radia’s DMK gossip. While WikiLeaks will probably change the way our world leaders interact, it has done so by sharing more than we wanted to know about their opinions regarding each other.
Gazing through our most recent digital looking glass, the text of Gupta’s revelations to Rajaratnam about Wachovia and Berkshire will certainly be relevant if the Feds make their criminal case and if Gupta’s countersuit against the Securities and Exchange Commission goes forward. Perhaps, as discussed widely online, so will the intonation in Gupta’s voice when certain things were said. But did we really need to be subjected to the opinions about Anil Kumar’s value and the whole “mini-Rajat” business? That was just too much transparency, and probably shaped public perception about Gupta at least as much as the insider trading allegations.
This is just unfortunate. Yes, you can celebrate transparency when it reveals information that might make a future US administration think twice about ignoring reports of torture. But we really don’t want to be privy to the fine distinctions that the Libyan leader makes when hiring his “medical aides”. The trouble is that while the Internet is a wonderful technology, you just don’t seem to be able to turn it off, and it doesn’t have a conveniently located volume knob. Or better yet, an intelligent relevance filter.
Sure, there are arguments that can be made in favour of this excess of transparency. In his wonderful Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Larry Lessig makes a convincing case why technology and its capabilities can be just as powerful as legal restrictions or social norms in having a regulatory impact on what we do and don’t do. But when we look forward to this new technology-enabled openness being a deterrent to future criminals, one fears the hope may be misplaced. The irony of the Gupta and the Radia scandals is that all the damage was done using good old-fashioned phone-taps.
As these gigabits of babble, of details that shouldn’t matter, flow through our social media, they present a new reality for institutions that are linked with the individuals at the centres of these digital fishbowls. In today’s transparent times, ideas, perceptions and judgments can be formed, shared and coalesced into collective action outside the boundaries of the traditional organizational chart. This calls for a nuanced approach to institutional governance, one that has consultative mechanisms that are explicitly designed to heal fractures that emerge along the critical paths of authority.
Of course, this is easier said than done. As our colleague Vijay Gurbaxani recently reminded a group of chief information officers from India, “If Facebook and Twitter can democratize a country, think about what they can do for your company.” The new reality is that traditional approaches areto managing the voice of a collective are, by construction, not as effective any more, and in principle reflective of a larger tear in the social fabric. Virtually every organization that had Gupta on its board felt this in some way or the other. Institutions such as the Indian School of Business faced a deep moral dilemma when the news broke. After all, the school owes its existence to his grand vision and his persuasive doggedness in the early days.
Gurcharan Das was on the money in reminding us about the Difficulty of Being Good. Not even the great Yudhishtra was without his fondness for the game of dice. True, our favorite epic doesn’t have much praise for Dhritarashtra, and transparent is indeed better than apathetic or opaque. But these days, we sometimes find ourselves longing for just a little information translucency, for some way of lowering the digital blinds.
Ravi Bapna & Arun Sundararajan are business professors at University of Minnesota’s Carlson School and New York University’s Stern School, respectively, and conduct their India-based research through the SRITNE centre at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org