I can't tell you how often I'm in a conversation or presentation with a major corporation's senior management team and the first topic to arise is frustration with a lack of effective internal communication and information sharing.

I'm not talking mushy mission statements or "touchy-feely" HR messaging. I'm talking hardcore operational data you need to drive business and--more crucially--the anecdotal material that's often talked about at the water cooler but never makes it to the people in charge. It can be as mundane as needing more microwaves in the café--anything that impacts productivity and success.

Information has no value unless it's successfully communicated.

These execs literally say they (and other in-house decision makers) don't know what their organization knows and, try as they might, haven't found an effective solution. They acknowledge, even in the best businesses: Quality of information deteriorates as it rises in the organization.

This system-wide breakdown results in:

  1. Missed opportunities, duplicative efforts and misdirected expenditures.
  2. Inappropriate communications, false starts and other initiatives which eventually need to be walked back from the brink.
  3. The old standby where "the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."

It's inefficient, unprofessional and beyond embarrassing. Frankly, it's a growing competitive disadvantage for any business. Data is the oil of the digital age, and if you're only seeing part of the story, you're in serious trouble that will only get worse.

Data alone won't do it, of course. Your system needs to turn data into information and information into knowledge. Knowledge only becomes power when it's used, and unlike every other part of any creation and production process, knowledge isn't subject to the law of diminishing returns.

As the outside world's information flow becomes more streamlined and comprehensive, not having timely and accurate data about your internal operations can demoralize employees; anger customers; confuse partners and vendors; and comfort your competition.

I tell our member companies at 1871, where I'm the CEO, that only two words matter today: transparency and efficacy. A fair assumption is that everyone everywhere will know what you're doing and how well you're doing it. If you don't, shame on you.

You'd think addressing this kind of shortcoming would be a priority, but the lack of existing tools or technologies to help address the problem has pretty much remitted it to being a known concern with no known solution.

Apologies for the slightly Rumsfeld-esque reference.  

There are several reasons for this persistent problem--certainly not restricted to "big" businesses--which seems to be recurring for millions of businesses regardless of how "open" they claim to be.

Some of the practical impediments to timely sharing are structural and logistical, including cases where surveys are manual, respondents are multi-lingual or employees are in different time zones.

Others are procedural or hierarchical: There's a reluctance to confront senior managers, a sensitivity around relationships with other departments, a culture that prefers peace to progress and quiet to confrontation.

Additionally, there are "kill the messenger" concerns where nobody wants to be the one to deliver bad news.

Last, but not least, are managers who don't want to know. Even though confusion is a higher state of knowledge than ignorance, these folks say: "Don't confuse me with the facts."

But there's good news on the horizon

An 1871 company, Baloonr, has built a system enabling rapid-fire anonymous (but trackable) idea and feedback gathering from inside the company (and outside, if desired). Any group of any size can be accommodated.

Talk about a "right now" solution. It's already being used by a variety of organizations--ranging from startups to universities to Fortune 50 companies--and the results have been impressive. My favorite quote from an early user: "It was like putting on glasses for the first time."

As proposals advance through the system, they gain support and weight from various quarters and can eventually be claimed and properly attributed to their authors. Credit ultimately goes to whom it's due and nobody is penalized or stigmatized for suggestions that don't make the cut.

The system's most immediate advantage is actually the simplest: It's like a "secret ballot" on steroids. The initial cloak of anonymity enables everything to be shared without reservations and for the best suggestions--regardless of origin--to float to the top.

While we keep hearing how introverts are great untapped resources at many companies, this system permits even the most reticent to participate and contribute for the greater good. All the constraints relating to status, authority, gender, position, etc. are effectively removed.

Finally, and even more importantly, high-speed iteration is enabled with participants across the entire enterprise joining and adding to the conversation.

If knowledge is power, Baloonr may hold the keys to the kingdom. Because today, it's what you don't know that you don't know that can kill your business in no time at all.