Transparency, Confidentiality, and Consulting

Tomorrow I arrive for a week in the Republic of Korea on UN business. The purpose of this blogging intensive is to make my work more transparent, but this is one of those moments where I just cannot be very transparent … yet. This is the reality of the consulting life. Working with institutions and companies, you often find yourself in situations where confidentiality is essential. I’ve even had consulting engagements (and this trip to South Korea is obviously not one of them) where I was not permitted even to talk about the existence of the engagement — or even to say that I had been in a certain city at a certain time.

It sounds like secret agent stuff, but it’s not:  it’s ordinary course of business in some areas of business and political decision making. For example, there are times (and again, this is not one of them, I won’t be hinting anything here!) when funding, hiring, sourcing, or other decisions are at play, and too much transparency can actually *increase* the risk of corruption, undue influence, or influence peddling.

And there are of course a host of other reasons for confidentiality — but the main one is more or less the same as the reason your grandmother or grandfather might have not wanted you in the kitchen while she/he was cooking that special dinner:  watching the process disturbs the process. S/he would rather just present you with the wonderful result. Getting more people involved in the process would create a classic “too many cooks” mish-mash. Writers are like that too:  If I tell you too much about the book I am writing now, I may never actually finish it.

But often, after the fact, the cloud of confidentiality is lifted. Usually not all the way, but somewhat. I can tell you now, for example, that we’ve been assisting Levi Strauss & Co. with their sustainability strategy, benchmarking, and training over the past few years. And at the moment, I feel especially good about that relationship. You may have noticed that Levi Strauss just went public with a major initiative to raise the bar — dramatically — on corporate sustainability standards, moving toward alignment with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and challenging all companies to do the same. The best way to get updated on that is to watch the 3 min. video at their corporate website (lower left corner as of today – search on YouTube if you’re reading this later on in history):

http://www.levistrauss.com/

Or read the short blog post from CEO John Anderson:

http://www.levistrauss.com/blogs/next-20-years

When clients make decisions like that, it make a consultant feel very good indeed. Please note:  I don’t want to overstate our role, either in this specific case, or in any client situation. The responsibility of an external advisor is always strictly limited to exactly that:  advice.  And again, consulting advice is often given under conditions of confidentiality precisely because it is the client who must weight a large number of inputs (including the inputs of multiple consultants, internal experts, stakeholder groups, etc.), make a decision, and face the consequences. My usual jest is that when things go well, the client rightfully takes all of the credit. When things go wrong, well, we consultants are partly there to help take the heat, or at least some of it.

So over the next week, I’ll be blogging and tweeting as normal, for this intensive … but mostly about other things, and about impressions from my first-ever visit to South Korea. Someday, maybe, I’ll be able to tell you more about it.

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