Design an organizational culture for Wikileaks


Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange as a platform for whistleblowers to share facts and information they believed the public should know. It was hailed as "a turning point in investigative journalism" and while their reason for existence was transparency, the culture of the organisation was not.

Mcshane, Olekalns and Travaglione define organisational culture as "the values and assumptions shared within an organisation". It serves three functions: to act as a control system that influences employee decisions and behaviours; the social glue that connects employees and binds the group; and to assist employees to understand why things are done the way they are.

O'Toole, 2009, states that "organisations who fail to achieve transparency will have it forced upon them; there is just no way to keep secrets in the age of the internet." This is the crisis point at which Wikileaks now finds itself.

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In order for Wikileaks to improve its credibility as a transparent organisation, Mr Assange will need to realise that the "ability to keep secrets is changing - in large part because of the internet" (O'Toole, 2009)

By observing the elements of culture using O'Toole's model, the transparency of Wikileaks can be examined through analysing the following:

Telling the truth: O'Toole (2009) states that "leaders must trust others before others will trust them." While the premise of Wikileaks is truth, this needs to be extended to incorporate their culture. Mr Assange's belief in making the truth available to all (Boyes, 2010) should make the transition into being open and telling the truth to his stakeholders easier.

Encouraging others to speak the truth to power: Again, the trust that the organisation has in Wikileaks management must be earned - this will take time and practice. Once it has been established, Mr Assange will be "rewarded with unimpeded intelligence" (O'Toole, 2009). This is an important step in an organisation's cultural development as empowering employees with the courage to question the status quo can divert disaster (e.g. bringing to light problems with a proposed plan) or empower them to bring forward innovative ideas). Mr Assange may find that not all employees want to hear everything, but good mangers appreciate such openness.

At interview,) Mr Assange said, "that Wikileaks does have its own ethical code, it has values" (Moss, 2010). Most employers would expect their employees to be good soldiers and not question company policy, but a great leader will welcome alternative viewpoints (O'Toole, 2009). Although as Mr Assange admits it is hard to get new talent quickly because everyone has to be checked out (Moss, 2010), he should encourage employees to put forward their views; listening to alternative points of view is easier than losing and replacing employees.

Rewarding contrarians: O'Toole (2009) states that "Companies with healthy cultures continually challenge their assumptions (and) that work is seldom done by one person sitting in a room".

Wikileaks employs five full time staff (and others) in a decentralised structure that Mr Assange views as "a model for many media organisations in the future" (Moss, 2010). This structure could allow for some change to the culture, if an employee or stakeholder challenges a decision, Mr Assange could reward them by promoting them. This could also encourage other employees to stand up and voice their own opinions. The different opinions can be used to identify or solve problems that may not have initially been seen.

When Daniel Domscheit-Berg questioned some of the practices of Wikileaks earlier this year, Mr Assange suspended him - accusing him of insubordination and disloyalty (Boyes, 2010). This is an area where Wikileaks can dramatically improve.

Practicing having unpleasant conversations: As the previous two steps highlight, encouraging communication and feedback - both up and down the organisational hierarchy are essential to a healthy transparent culture. However, delivering what may be received as unpleasant information is a skill that, in order to be done effectively, must be learned. Practicing these conversations will help maintain strong relationships.

Diversifying your sources of information: By consulting a range of information sources when decisions are made or strategies are adopted, the risk of making bad decisions is reduced as management has access to a greater range of viewpoints and are subject to fewer biases.

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Admitting your mistakes: Mr Assenge believes what matters first and foremost is getting the information out (Moss, 2010). As founder and the most public face of Wikileaks, he developed a siege mentality (Boyes, 2010) and continued to reinforce its hierarchical structure alienating staff in the process. In order to make the organisation more transparent, Mr Assange should admit his mistakes and move forward. By making this the norm, employees will once again begin to feel confident taking risks or trying something new, as failure will not lead to immediate sanctions.

Building an organisational architecture that supports candor: Wikileaks was founded by Mr Assange with his beliefs; based on total openness and transparency (Barrowclough, 2010) however he does not practice what he preaches. He lives his life never staying anywhere for more than two nights (Moss, 2010). The organisation has not been built as one that supports candor. Although in some way this is incorrect, his publications are open and transparent and tell the truth. Although it does not seem that way for the organisational culture. The organisation sneaks around hacking into systems and receiving information from whistleblowers. This step encourages organisations to have whistleblowers, this should clearly identify those individuals that are not adhering to the organisations policies, procedures, culture or norms. To build on this Wikileaks should only hire new employees that are committed to working in a transparent organisational culture.

Setting the information free: From Wikileaks' point of view the organisation is about setting information free, however not all information is free and forthcoming. The information that the organisation reports on contains information which has been given to them by whistleblowers and from within Wikileaks requires full confidentiality, to make obtaining more of this information accessible. However, from the public point of view the organisation does not set the information free until the information has been published. "Exemplary leaders encourage and even reward, openness and dissent." (O'Toole, 2009)

In analysing the steps detailed in O'Toole's article, it is apparent that Wikileaks current organisational culture needs a great deal of transformation to move it to move it to an open and transparent model. It should be noted, however, that complete transparency is not possible, nor is it desirable, for example Wikileaks is based on anonymous sources of information and it is essential that the privacy of its contributors is maintained.

Once Wikileaks has applied the analysis of O'Toole's model and acknowledges the need for change, a change process should be followed to ensure the transformation is successful.

Kotter's eight steps to transforming organisations provides a useful model for Wikileaks to base their change efforts. By following the steps in order, it can be successfully transformed into a more transparent, workable organisation.

The management of Wikileaks should:

Establish a sense of urgency

The first step in transforming the culture of an organisation is to establish a sense of urgency. Kotter (2009) statesby making all stakeholders aware of the urgency in changing the organisational culture, there will be a greater acceptance and active participation in the change process. The problems within the organisational structure of Wikileaks have been well publicised in the media; Boyes (2010) writes of a "siege mentality" adopted by Julian Assange. Wikileaks grew quickly, and the hierarchical structure of the organisation has "stifled the necessary discussion about roles and responsibilities" (Domscheit-Bert in Boyes 2010).

In communicating the urgency of the situation, it is also important to convey the message of why the corporation is in such a crisis and major opportunities that may arise once the new organisational culture is implemented and operating effectively.

Within Wikileaks a culture change is essential for the survival of the organisation - and due to the recent media attention, Wikileaks stakeholders will already be aware of the need to change to a more transparent culture. Until recently, Daniel Domsheit-Berg, a Senior Executive of Wikileaks, was a strong defender of the organisation but has recently publicly confirmed the company's internal struggles (Boyes 2010). In this regard, the sense of urgency has been created by external forces and is beyond the control of the organisation. All stakeholders need to be aware of the consequences of not adapting to change. These consequences will include unemployment for staff, financial loss for investors and professional embarrassment of management.

Create a powerful guiding coalition

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"It is often said that major change is impossible unless the head of the organisation is an active supporter" (Kotter 1995). Wikileaks has no option but to embrace the changes necessary to ensure its survival. With a sense of urgency established, Mr Assenge should call for senior managers to nominate for the guiding coalition. The members of this coalition should come from those who are most motivated to progress the organisation into the future and into a more transparent culture.

The importance of having this guiding coalition cannot be overstated, along with their commitment to drive the change. If the coalition is not totally committed to the process and does not fully understand the urgency, the process will ultimately fail; the urgency will recede and old familiar practices will return.

When Wikileaks was formed in 2006, it was touted as a turning point in investigative journalism (Boyes, 2010), however with the rapid growth of the organisation the closed culture became a problem - "as soon as we started to take sides" (Boyes, 2010).

Creating a vision

The vision is the glue that holds the organisation together. It must provide real guidance, be focused, flexible and easily communicated (Kotter, 2010).

The Wikileaks vision now needs to be recreated to resurrect its image and help in transforming its culture. This new vision should provide guidance to all employees and key stakeholders, where the organisation is headed and what it, the organisation hopes to achieve. In the process, Wikileaks should be focused on their goals and outcomes of the organisation and provide flexibility in their change efforts. Mr Assange has been quoted as "envisioning a time where all media would develop their own forms of Wikileaks, including creating systems for all media organisations" (Barrowclough, 2010).

Communicating the vision

Once Mr Assange has developed his new vision, the guiding coalition must clearly communicate the message to all stakeholders, both frequently and powerfully.

Mr Assange should communicate at every chance to enable all stakeholders to focus on the new direction for Wikileaks. Changes at this level need to be implemented from the top levels of management down through all other levels within Wikileaks and must therefore, believe in the change implicitly to prevent cynicism amongst the rest of the organisation (Kotter, 1995).

To have successful change processes, employees need to embrace the new vision, and will not willingly change unless they believe that the changes are in their best interest (Kotter,1995). In communicating the vision all forms of communicating within the organisation - both formal and informal - should be used to ensure everyone get the message.

Empowering others to act on the vision

When all stakeholders are responsive to the sense of urgency and a committed guiding coalition has been put in place, to drive the change and communicate a clear vision to all stakeholders, empowering employees to meet the vision is the next step. To motivate employees and others within Wikileaks to act on the new vision, management should:

Remove any barriers that may prevent employees from embracing the new organisational culture. Examples of this can include rotating staff to parts of the organisation where they can use their skills to best advantage or encourage those who don't share the vision to consider moving on or provide opportunities for them to understand the benefits of the changes

Review or eliminate any systems (for example, the way of gathering confidential information) that weaken the companies new vision; and

Provide scope to allow tasks to be done differently. Employees should be encouraged to 'think outside the box', use their initiative and take risks as long as it supports the vision and the new culture (Kotter, 2010).

If Wikileaks is able to empower their employees in believing in and meeting the new organisational vision then the improved organisational culture too will be implemented and over time will remain in place. This is due to the fact that the new vision is part of the new culture.

Plan for and create short term wins.

The process of implementing change, at this level, is a complex process and will necessarily take time and effort to be accepted as their new culture. A long drawn out process can make stakeholders feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel and lead to a decrease in the sense of urgency. Additionally, by implementing many changes at once, change fatigue is a real possibility (Beaudan, 2006).

By implementing short term wins, the enthusiasm and energy levels of those involved in the changes can be maintained and benchmark goals achieved can be celebrated. This will also assist in changing the attitudes of those who are still resistant to change, as they will have to acknowledge the achievements. Kotter (1995) suggests these short term wins can be measured by initiatives such as having clear performance improvements, establishing goals, achieving objectives and rewarding those involved through recognition, promotion and money.

Little should be left to chance - document plans, communicate expectations and advertise successes. This will boost the credibility of the renewal process (Kotter, 1995).

Consolidate improvements and produce still more change

At this stage, Kotter (2010) highlights that "resistance is always waiting in the wings to re-assert itself" and good leadership is crucial in this step. It is important that more projects are developed, ensuring that the organisation is successfully implementing the necessary changes.

A common mistake at this stage is celebrating too early, causing employees to feel the change is complete - however, any resistance at this stage can derail efforts to ensure the changes become embedded into the culture and may cause disillusionment amongst stakeholders (Kotter, 1995). The guiding coalition of Wikileaks needs to clearly identify what it is changing and communicate the message to all stakeholders. Once these changes have been implemented another target timeframe needs to be identified. Four stages in the change process: develop, implement, evaluate and monitor - these stages are ongoing. Just as the change is taking shape, changes can occur such as technology or goals, this starts the process again.

During this process, feedback is sought from those affected and issues identified can be addressed.

Institutionalising new approaches

In this final step in changing the organisational culture, the initiatives that have been introduced throughout the process need to be anchored into place in order to ensure compliance. This is done through practices such as continually encouraging and promoting the reinvented culture, through the creation of policies and processes, so that they become habit by the existing staff, and will obviously be normal practice to any new stakeholders that join the organisation. Changes can also be institutionalised through authority figures talking about the progress the organisation has made, sharing success stories during the change, and through promoting the new culture when training or interviewing new staff.

Creating a transparent organisation requires ongoing effort, sustained attention and constant vigilance (O'Toole, 2009). If Mr Assange and Wikileaks are to continue to deliver the truth to the world, it must develop a culture that can stand the analysis that their charter advocates - transparency. Without this, the forces of globalisation and technology will surely bring about its demise.