Beyond privilege: managing information asymmetries

The nature of societal and business transactions, indeed any human interaction, is that there will always be information asymmetry. In simple terms, an information asymmetry is a situation where one party has more, better, or more relevant information than the other and therefore has an advantage in a negotiation or a transaction.

Information asymmetries are everywhere – the 70-80% of all jobs that allegedly are ‘hidden‘ or ‘never advertised‘ but get filled; the insider trading scandals which highlight how a firm’s executives, or indeed  others with informal channels into those firms, an unfair advantage over ordinary shareholders for their stock purchase or disposal plans; or even trunk shows or advance sales for a privileged few before hoi polloi begin their scramble for bargains.

Information asymmetry is an essential characteristic of the human condition. But, so is the human endeavour to manage it.

In a conversation last week, a British-Indian entrepreneur and philanthropist recounted how in the late 1970s, India was effectively controlled by a thousand business houses and families, and then there were the great unwashed. The control was maintained impressively as these families chose to transact business and marriages with one another. This was not very different from the marriages of state or consanguineous marriages that commonly took place, and still take place, in Europe and elsewhere for strategic reasons of keeping political and economic control within a small group.

In the new order in India, people who attend the IITs and the IIMs* in India are the chosen ones. They come from all kinds of families, not just rich ones. These institutions have catalysed innovation, and disbursed entrepreneurship and access to the possibilities of making money to many more. Above all, their alumni networks are enviable. Information asymmetries arise through limited privileged access to these networks. In the UK, this privilege belongs to Oxbridge**.  ‘Oxbridge is an important filter for Britain’s governing class‘, writes a commentator. Degrees from these institutions are signals to the market of greater inherent value.  Some however allege that these institutions have created a new kind of asymmetry – that of intellectual elitism. I think they miss the point of ‘signals’ being an effective tool to counter asymmetries, in these cases, for instance, the hegemony of monied families.

Information asymmetry, I believe, is an essential characteristic of the human condition. But, so is the human endeavour to manage it.

Businesses operate in a constantly morphing environment, with variously manifest information symmetries. The consumer is already exploiting them to her advantage. It would be silly to assume that a small ‘privileged’ group has access to all the ‘privileged’ information. Information is abundant and proliferating through many networks, including those we may not belong to or those we may shun altogether.

Managing information asymmetry for businesses, when the asymmetry does not benefit them, is about active risk management. Here are some ideas on how businesses could do this better.

Businesses can manage information asymmetries better through innovative hiring strategies, understanding and adopting technology, and engaging meaningfully with their publics.

Design and execute a better people strategy

It is easy to recruit people that look like the recruiter, dress or talk like the recruiter, and think like the recuiter. This explains why women or minorities report finding it hardgoing being hired into organisations with a certain ‘type’ of people. But if two great minds think alike, surely one of them is redundant! To compete in a time of rapid change, organisations need fresh thinking, and creative and effective ideas for anticipating and solving problems, not the same-old, same-old.

Certainly, hiring from institutions that have served an organisation well in the past is a safe strategy. But are you keeping track of how, if at all, those institutions are changing to keep producing relevant potential employees for your purposes? Or should you tap new networks, new ideas, new people?

In other words, organisations should review their hiring strategies. People really make the organisation. Their diverse skills aid an organisation in understanding things better, their diverse networks may well get the organisation access to information the privileged ones may not have.

Technology is your friend

In the past few months, a well-known multinational bank experienced a hack – a heist was the sensational term preferred by mainstream media – which cost them a lot of money. While their risk managers got on with cleaning up the mess and working to prevent any recurrence, social communities were abuzz with gossip. Did the bank know about the gossip? From what I heard, it is unlikely they did.

The bank is not alone. They have plenty of company in similar, large organisations that have no idea how to use emergent technologies to keep track of conversations. They deem, wrongly in most cases, that the emerging social tools are the domain of the young and the nerds. In reality, there are more than a few people, neither young nor nerdy, who walk the crossover zone very comfortably.

Clearly, organisations need to identify these people but more importantly, they need to understand how to deploy technology to their advantage to gather information, to process information and – something few are doing yet or doing well – to influence those conversations and discussions to their advantage.

Engage meaningfully with your publics

Above all, organisations need to understand – and not ignore or dismiss offhand – their publics. All publics, not just their shareholders. Shareholders may not get on Twitter and discuss the share price but customers sure will get on there and complain about bad experiences.

Organisations also need to remember that the publics are sophisticated. Ergo, symbolic gestures of ‘engagement’, such as formal customer reviews, may earn them more sneers than plaudits.

Organisations therefore need to engage meaningfully, not cynically, with their publics. There is no better way to tap the emergent intention economy.

After all, is this not the point of a business? Selling goods and services, that serve a need in the market and for which someone is willing to pay?  Managing information asymmetries would help ensure that a business is not disadvantaged in the pursuit of its aims.

What do you think? Is this too obscure for management to worry themselves with? Or are we on to something?

Related reading:

JP Rangaswamy’s Musing About Collective Intelligence

JP Rangaswamy on Thinking Further About Syndication

Jeremiah Owyang on Social media adoption in corporations

The Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Locke, Searl and Weinberger – the definitive book on conversations, ahead of its time in 2000, but never more relevant than now


To Nikhil Narayanan for his kind help in researching some links!


* Guilty as charged. 

** Doubly guilty.

9 thoughts on “Beyond privilege: managing information asymmetries

  1. Hi Shefaly

    Thanks for sharing your insights on information asymmetries. I find
    that the concept is particularly relevant in markets where there is an
    absence of a regulated exchange for managing trades.

    For example, if one compares the direct investment real estate market
    with the market for trading securities on a regulated exchange, there
    are far more opportunities to make profits for the informationally
    advantaged in real estate. There is typically a greater degree of
    information asymmetry, and a longer lag in closing information gaps,
    that distinguishes the real estate market from securities exchanges.

    It would make for interesting research to determine the portion of
    profits that are attributable to information asymmetries in different

    Keep up the interesting blog postings
    Kind regards
    Troy Dyer


  2. Information asymmetries become of much greater importance during times of slowdown and job losses.It matters a lot to be an ‘information have’ and not a have not.

    Right to Information act (India)is a major step ahead in bridging this divide at least in information related to govt.(departments)

    Thanks for the mention.



  3. Interesting what you write about the organisation hiring just a certain “type” of people. I have seen this too often..and if an odd person of another “type” gets in, then he tries hard to fit in, at least superficially into the mould. I feel this kind of thing is harmful for companies as those who are rigid about this tend to stifle creative and orginal thinking.


  4. Shefaly you only have to look at the reporting of the “Credit Crunch” and “Banking meltdown” to see the problem with information.

    Was Northern Rock a sound banking operation that was brought down by Robert Preston’s reports on the BBC or a regional player trying to make headway in the national market who over extended itself?

    When it comes to reputation management too many firms believe that it is the role of the PR agent rather than a core part of the executives role. Just look at corporate blogs and the use of twitter and you will see that on the whole these are areas devoid of strategic input. The only time that they seem to think about it is when the press grab a story for a personal blog or Facebook and run with it. For example the Great Communicator Richard Branson and his Virgin Businesses were found wanting when a group of staff complained about customers on Facebook and had to respond by firing the staff for misconduct. Branson does not seem to understand the Web and so has not engaged with it thus the information he has available is limited.

    At times do we not filter information so as not to hurt others; a white lie here another there and soon we have to remember what we said to whom?

    How often do you hear someone say that it is my job to recruit people better than me so that the business can grow? What happens in recruitment is that a B class manager hires a C class report so that they know their job is safe. All to many times the recruitment is undertaken via an agent who is not independent but rather interested in maintaining revenues from that client. How else can you justify the appointment of some under performers in very desirable jobs? The nature of business means that you cannot advertise every post and so at times there needs to be some secrecy.


  5. Hello there!

    Found you on Nitawriter’s blog.

    You have a beautiful, very organized blog here; great theme.

    The comments on about page are disabled and I had no time to fill that contact form! So, I am writing here only! Feel free to delete/edit this comment; it’s incongruous here.

    This is a very scholarly blog dealing with topics probably not very relevant to me; what the heck I am subscribing to your feeds!

    BTW, you have a beautiful name (and a beautiful face too if I can hazard a guess from the sneak preview!). 😀


    P.S.: You may want to use the commentluv plugin. Your readers and commenters will love it. Also odiogo!


  6. @Nikhil’s comments:

    I’ve a huge experience with the RTI act. I have filed more than 30 RTI petitions (amounting ot more than 200 pages) to various govt. bodies!


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