Digital Age | Managing Opacity: Information Visibility and the Paradox of Transparency in the Digital Age

Cynthia Stohl, Michael Stohl, Paul M. Leonardi


Organizational transparency is in vogue. When technologies make it possible for information about actors’ behaviors, communications, decisions, and opinions to be visible to interested parties, those actors and the organizations in which they work will presumably be forced to behave more responsibly because they can be held accountable for their actions. The assumption traditionally held by scholars who theorize the relationship between visibility and transparency is that more visibility results in higher levels of transparency. In this paper, we question this assumption. We begin by distinguishing between transparency and visibility and offer a conceptualization of visibility as the combination of three attributes: availability of information, approval to disseminate information, and accessibility of information to third parties. Although transparency is generally believed to be achieved at high levels of each of these attributes, we demonstrate how highly visible information can actually increase opacity and how each attribute of visibility independently and/or co-jointly contributes to the degree to, and manner in which, the relationship between visibility and transparency is managed. Our discussion surfaces a phenomenon we call the “transparency paradox” in which high levels of visibility decrease transparency and produce opacity. The theorization of this transparency paradox and the mechanisms through which it operates have important implications for theory and practice surrounding the role of technologies in organizational action in the digital age. 


transparency, digital age

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