Secrecy at Work
The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life
Jana Costas and Christopher Grey



The Plan

The central contention of this book is that secrecy is endemic within work organizations. It is not an anomaly nor is it only found in unusual or special organizations, but rather it is woven into the fabric of all organizations in a multitude of ways. It has an obvious functionality in, for example, protecting knowledge and information1 from competitors. It is present when information about clients and employees is restricted, and in everyday interactions, for example, when people share confidential gossip. Secrecy is a part of work, and the keeping of secrets is a form of work. But apart from being omnipresent, secrecy creates a social order, for example, by establishing boundaries between insiders and outsiders. How secrecy organizes social relations and thus brings about what we call “the hidden architecture of organizational life” is the focus of this book.

This broadly conceived understanding of organizational secrecy perhaps accounts for the paradoxical nature of attempting to study it. The paradox is that there is both a little and a lot in the way of relevant existing research: on the one hand, there is no single literature on organizational secrecy; on the other, there are multiple mentions of it scattered across many different literatures and disciplines. This presents us with a considerable challenge because our aim in this book is an ambitious one, namely to bring into focus the many ways that secrecy occurs within organizations so as to recognize both their diversity but also their unity: that which makes them all understandable as secrecy. This then leads to an even more ambitious aim, which is to suggest that, as a discipline, organization studies should incorporate secrecy as a central concept within its analytical repertoire.2

Within the scholarly literature on organizations remarkably little attention is given to secrecy, which is surprising and unsatisfactory given its ubiquity.3 This may reflect at least in part the way that the different meanings of secrecy are treated as separate topics: thus the literature on, for example, trade secrecy is rarely, if ever, considered alongside that on organizational networks. That said, it is possible to find various more or less well-developed discussions of secrecy embedded within writings on organizations that have some other primary focus—for example, Edgar Schein’s work on organizational culture or Robert Jackall’s study of corporate morality.4 Yet it could not be said that these constitute a literature on organizational secrecy. It is rather that secrecy lurks in the margins of the organization studies literature, almost as if it were itself a secret. One task of this book is to, as it were, coax secrecy out of hiding. But we also look beyond the organization studies literature. Secrecy has been the subject of considerable investigation in other disciplines, and we make use of a number of classic social scientific theorizations of secrecy, such as Georg Simmel’s sociology, Erving Goffman’s social psychology, and Michael Taussig’s anthropology, even where these are not explicitly concerned with work organizations.

In considering secrecy we can find a number of adjacent concepts, all of which relate to or intersect with secrecy and each of which is the subject of a large literature. These are of two sorts. First, there are concepts such as privacy, silence, anonymity, and taboo that overlap in some way with secrecy. Second, there are concepts such as knowledge, identity, power, control, trust, transparency, and many others which come into play whenever secrecy is discussed. These latter are manifestly not the same as nor do they necessarily intersect with secrecy, but they are highly relevant to understanding how it works.

We have recourse to a wide range of literatures within and beyond organization studies, none of which we can do full justice to if we are to retain our central focus. We therefore apologize in advance if this leads us to deal some violence to these literatures. However, there have been a string of vociferous complaints that organization studies has become too fragmented and overspecialized.5 If we want to avoid that—and, emphatically, we do—we need to work within the broad contours of the discipline and closely related disciplines and not be too concerned with the niceties of each and every subtopic. We hope that our discussion of secrecy can speak to a variety of research topics and debates within the field of organization studies and beyond.

In pursuit of the central analytic objectives, we deploy examples taken from academic research and from public, media, and fictional sources. These range from novels by Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to studies of factory workers, a secret nuclear weapons laboratory, aircraft development plants, homosexuality in corporations, and WikiLeaks, to take just a few examples.6 Apart from these, we draw especially on two empirical sources. These are studies we have ourselves conducted that exemplify the diverse ways in which secrecy features in organizational settings, namely a state intelligence agency and several professional services firms. These are not presented as case studies of secrecy but as a source of illustrative examples to leaven what might otherwise be an overly abstract analysis. Indeed, we want at all times to emphasize how rich in meaning secrecy is for organizational life, and how deep are its emotional and cultural resonances.


Let us now turn to the basic question of what we mean by “secrecy.” In her extensive and authoritative discussion of the topic, the philosopher Sissela Bok provides a first orienting definition: secrecy constitutes “the methods used to conceal . . . and the practices of concealment.”7 For concealment to denote secrecy Bok says it needs to be intentional, because people must be to some degree aware of the ways they differentiate between those with whom they share and those from whom they conceal information. It is important to stress that the term intentional does not mean that secrecy necessarily results from some kind of consciously crafted or discussed plan (although on many occasions that may be so). However, it is equally important to recognize that accidentally forgetting to mention something would not be secrecy, nor would be the omission of irrelevant information in a particular interaction.

Following this initial definition of secrecy, we can see how it overlaps with and differs from privacy. This is an important distinction to draw, especially because many contemporary public discussions of both secrecy and privacy the two are interrelated. Bok points out that this, in fact, has long been the case, because privacy entails seeking to control access to things that are taken to be in the personal domain, and so “privacy and secrecy overlap whenever the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden need not be a secret garden . . . conversely secret diplomacy rarely concerns what is private.”8

What we have then are intersecting but nonidentical concepts. We might think of the way that, in many although not all societies, certain bodily functions are considered to be private, yet they are by no means secret. Imagine that a hidden camera were installed in our houses that recorded these functions. Then, our privacy would have certainly have been violated, but no secrets would necessarily have been revealed. But of course other things that are private may also be secret—for example, our true feelings about other people—and if these were discovered, say because our diary was read, then not only would our privacy have been violated but also our secrets exposed. Organizationally (and politically), in this intersection the limits to the personal domain can be highly contested. For example, to what extent can an organization legitimately test employees for drug use outside of work?9 And, of course, where organizations do seek to intrude extensively into the personal domain it may well be that individuals seek to keep secret some facts about themselves, such as recreational use of illegal drugs.

A more specific case of such hiding of personal information concerns anonymity. Anonymity is about keeping one’s name and thus identity secret.10 This can take various forms, from being a nameless member in a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous that physically meets or participating in anonymous surveys, through to engaging in anonymous virtual interactions on the Internet, such as in chat forums or hacker groups.11 Anonymity overlaps with secrecy to the extent that individuals engage in secrecy to become anonymous. Yet such secrecy is of a particular kind in that it is solely concerned with information concerning the individual identity. Moreover, anonymity involves both keeping and revealing secrets. Participation in, say, anonymous groups or surveys involves that everyone keeps their identities secret. Thus, having a secret as opposed to sharing is common to all participants. At the same time, such anonymity allows people to reveal and share information about themselves that, if the source were identified, could potentially harm them, as with the Experience Project,12 which is devoted to anonymously sharing experience and at the time of writing contains more than 36 million entries. In this sense, anonymity may entail not secrecy but a very substantial sharing of secrets.

A further intersection exists between secrecy and taboo. Taboos, defined as “a social prohibition against a particular act, object, word, or subject,” cannot themselves be secret because to operate as taboos they must be widely, perhaps universally, known.13 However, there are complicated cases of open, or what we later term “public,” secrecy where secrets are both known and not known. Such open secrecy can serve to uphold social prohibitions and existing norms through taboos and tact. And, of course, violations of taboos may well entail secrecy because they are likely to be concealed. Organizationally this is significant when some things are regarded as taboo subjects that should not be spoken of, for example, as one study has shown, gender conflict,14 and thus secrecy is involved as a consequence. Certain uncomfortable or controversial issues may also be the subject of organizational silence.15 This silence may well be one of the ways in which secrecy is enacted. Nevertheless, secrecy is not itself just silence, both because it can involve other methods of concealment and because it also involves communication, in terms of the sharing of secrets among particular groups. Conversely, not all silence betokens secrecy—there may be all sorts of reason why we do not speak of certain topics.


In this book we are concerned with, in principle, any and every way in which nonaccidental concealment occurs within work organizations. We add a caveat, though. We do not directly deal with secret organizations, in the sense of, for example, criminal and underworld gangs,16 even though some concepts relevant to these are drawn upon. This is because our primary concern is to show how secrecy is pertinent to organizations in general rather than just to those particular and unusual cases where the organization itself exists in secret.17

This relates to another specific and possibly controversial feature of our analysis, namely that we approach secrecy as being, so to speak, “beyond good and evil.” We began this introduction by saying that secrecy is endemic in organizational life. Following this, we do not regard secrecy as being a priori ethically wrong. This is contentious in that, especially in debates of public accountability and transparency, secrecy is often regarded as being so. Yet as the earliest and most elaborate sociological theorization of secrecy, that of Georg Simmel, emphasizes, there is a need to approach secrecy not simply from the standpoint of ethics: “We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the manifold ethical negativeness of secrecy. Secrecy is a universal sociological form, which, as such, has nothing to do with the moral valuations of its contents.”18 Similarly, Bok argues that “if we regard secrecy as inherently deceptive or as concealing primarily what is discreditable then we shall be using loaded concepts before we even look at the practices that require us to make a choice.”19

Organizationally, that is easy to see. It is not unethical for a health care organization to keep patient medical records secret: indeed we would normally regard it as unethical were they not to do so. At the same time, if that organization conceals medical malpractice, then we would normally regard that as being unethical. In short, although some secrets may be ethically dubious, secrecy itself is not inherently ethically problematic. We would certainly not want to align ourselves with the increasingly vociferous “information libertarians” of both left and right: not all forms of secrecy (including those practiced by states and corporations) are illegitimate and unethical. That is not to deny that secrets and secrecy occur within an ethical terrain—but so, too, do all human activities, and secrecy is not special in this respect. Similarly, we do not regard transparency as a self-evident or unqualified good. Later we seek to go further than this by arguing that secrecy and transparency are mutually intertwined and are not binary opposites.

There is another aspect of what we have just said about secrecy and ethics, though, that may also be contentious. In aligning ourselves with Simmel we are also aligning with his claim about secrecy as a “universal sociological form.” This may be taken to imply an essentialist understanding of secrecy as being, somehow, inherent to human society. We think that this is so, but in a very particular sense. It is certainly the case that the things that are kept secret are highly socially, culturally, and historically variable. That is so whether we think about people in organizations concealing particular kinds of stigmatized sexuality or state organizations concealing particular military secrets. The ways in which those secrets are kept may also vary considerably. But that human beings and human organizations typically engage in secrecy about some things (whatever they may be) in some ways (whatever they may be) is, we think, universally true: at least, we know of no counterexamples.

Secrets and Secrecy

Embedded within the previous claims is an important distinction, which is that between secrets and secrecy. This may be understood as a difference between content and process, so that a secret is the thing that is concealed—typically some piece of knowledge or information—whereas secrecy is the act of concealment, the keeping of a secret. But this act is typically not a single event in that secrecy is usually an ongoing series of acts and, as such, may be understood to be a process. Clearly, secrets and secrecy are intimately interwoven in numerous ways. At the most basic level, it is impossible to speak meaningfully of a secret if there is not a way in which that secret is held.20 However, there is a wide variety of ways in which secrets are kept: the process through which a state military secret is kept is likely to be quite different than that relating to confidential organizational gossip. Thus secrets and secrecy are different but interrelated in general and the manner in which they are interrelated takes a variety of different forms in practice.

The focus of this book is primarily on secrecy—the processes through which secrets are kept. This means that we are interested in secrecy as an ongoing accomplishment of social interactions in organizations. On the one hand, to keep a secret requires certain social conditions (e.g., the existence of regulative mechanisms), while, on the other hand, it has certain social consequences (e.g., the production of particular kinds of group identity among the holders of secrets). This is not a linear process in which conditions lead to secrecy lead to consequences: the consequences of secrecy may become the conditions of further secrecy. It is this iterative sense of the conditions and consequences of secrecy that we explore. This is also what is intended by the title of the book: Secrecy at Work. That title denotes the ongoing social accomplishment of secrecy as well as the fact that our focus is upon secrecy in work organizations.

Because we approach secrecy in this way, we are concerned with what can broadly be called both formal and informal secrecy. Indeed we use this distinction to structure our detailed examination of organizational secrecy in chapters 3 and 4. One could hardly give an adequate account of organizational life that did not attend to both the formal and the informal, that is, its official and unofficial aspects. Drawing on this long-standing distinction, by formal secrecy we mean cases, such as trade secrecy, that are officially sanctioned and organized through prescriptive rules or laws. The secret search algorithm of Google is a prominent example of such formal secrecy. By informal secrecy we mean cases such as confidential gossip, which operate unofficially and are organized through social norms. An example of informal secrecy is the gossip about the illness of Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs prior to it being officially announced.21 As a variant of informal secrecy, we also refer to public secrecy to denote cases in which something is informally known by those involved and yet not openly spoken about. An example of public secrecy is the ways in which homosexuality in the military often remains an undiscussed yet known issue.22 It is manifestly the case that formal and informal organization are interrelated—and the same is true for formal and informal secrecy. Nevertheless, it is a heuristic distinction that helps to clarify the breadth of what we want to consider as contained under the umbrella term of secrecy. Moreover, it is consonant with our ambition to show how secrecy is embedded within the fundamental axes of organization studies and throughout organizations themselves.

Beyond Information

Although secrets and secrecy are interrelated, our focus on secrecy means that we are not as much interested in secrets themselves. Thus the content of what is kept secret is not in itself very important for our analysis. This does not mean that for all kinds of other purposes it is unimportant to consider what is kept secret. Indeed, this may well be a matter of pressing political, economic, or social concern—for example, what data governments and corporations may secretly gather about citizens, employees, and consumers. But our contention is that whether or not the secret has an importance in these ways does not affect the fact that there will be some kind of process of secrecy. It is upon this that we focus.

This is not a matter of pragmatic convenience to limit the scope of our analysis. The dominant way in which secrets and secrecy have been considered in the organizational literature has been through what we call an informational approach. That approach is based on the assumption that “the foundation of all secrets, whether related to government or business, is to protect an informational asset perceived to be of high value—whether tactical or strategic.”23 Here secrecy—the process of keeping secret—is understood to flow from the secrets themselves. Some informational asset has or is seen to have a high value and therefore it is kept secret. But we repeatedly argue that secrecy does not just come from the value of the secret held. It is also the case that things may, and often do, acquire a value precisely because they are kept secret; that they are kept secret and therefore they have a high value. That does not mean that secrets are valuable only because they are kept secret, it just means that they are not only kept secret because they are valuable. This, then, is the analytical reason why secrets are not themselves important for us: we cannot understand secrecy if we take it as given that the secrets thereby kept are valuable. This becomes organizationally significant when, for example, organizations with ingrained cultures of secrecy keep secret more than they need to for functional reasons. In such cases secrecy itself is valorized, and we miss that if we begin by valorizing the secrets these organizations keep.

The Richness of Secrecy

Some of these issues may come into sharper focus if we consider the etymology of the terms secrecy and secret, which derive from the Latin noun secretus (“separate, set apart”) and the verb secernere (se- “apart” and cernere “sift”). In this meaning, secrecy is to exclude, segregate, and distinguish—that is, to create a boundary between the known and the unknown. But this reflects only the first of what have been called the three related logics of secretus, arcanum, and mysterium.24 The term arcanum “emphasizes withdrawal from communication and knowledge by locking something away.”25 The logic of mysterium refers to secrets and secrecy in terms of the “supernatural . . . the religious or cultic,”26 so that secrecy holds an aura of mystery that can “elicit awe.”27

From these combined senses of the secret, the arcane, and the mysterious we can begin to see some of the complexity and richness of secrecy. It is about the drawing of boundaries—boundaries around knowledge, yes, but also boundaries between knowers. That secrets are held by some people and not others implies that secrecy is both about concealment from some and sharing with others. Secrecy is about the realm of the hidden and the arcane, but this realm can exist only if a boundary is drawn: to lock something away it is necessary to have a key. And secrecy is mysterious, a word that shares its root with mysticism and is ultimately derived from the Greek word μυστικό. This has as one of its meanings an initiated person, so, again, a social process (initiation) that draws boundaries between those who are in the know and those who are not. Moreover, these initiations sometimes involve the taking of oaths and a conception of sacred duty.

The resonance of some of these words serves to remind us of something that is at the heart of the claims we make in this book and our reasons for writing it. Secrecy speaks of and to something very deep within our lives. Deep within our personal but also cultural lives: the labyrinth, the hidden room and the creaking stair; the dark and the light; the things we hold innermost to ourselves and the trust we place when confiding these to others; the unspoken shames within our families and the secret laboratories of our scientists; the thick curtain and what lies behind it; initiates, cults, and priests; whispers, promises, confessions, and betrayals. Secrecy is both seductive and exciting, dismaying and frightening—something that is both a part of our everyday lives and yet also somehow extraordinary.

If this is so, then it could hardly be the case that secrecy is anything other than important in organizational life, which, after all, is not some realm separate from the rest of human experience. It also means that even if we talk about secrecy in the dry language of social science, and even if we refer to the apparently mundane practices of organizational life, we are dealing with something that has a potentially very high emotional and political charge. One has only to consider the searing pain that can come when someone betrays a friend’s secrets or the extraordinarily savage punishments that many societies visit upon traitors to recognize this. At the same time, the thrill of knowing a secret can be immense, as can be the guilty burden of doing so, as can be the desire to know what lies behind the locked door of secrecy. And beyond this there can be a seductiveness in betraying a secret, or hinting at our possession of it, perhaps to demonstrate our importance to others or to unburden ourselves to them.

The stakes here are therefore potentially high. It is this that explains why secrecy can have such potency in organizations. All this remains hidden if the focus is on valuable information and the content of secrets rather upon the always also present process of secrecy.

A Hidden Architecture

Secrecy does not just occur within organizations, but in some important ways it can make organizations. The subtitle of this book—The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life—is intended to capture something of this claim. It suggests that secrecy erects a series of more or less thick walls as well as a series of channels of communication between organizational members and therefore serves to organize social relations. Hiding information from some while sharing it with others creates particular communication grids with different channels and networks; these grids and channels are “constitutive” of organizations, as several communication scholars have argued.28

Secrecy entails, on the one hand, keeping knowledge from people—those outside an organization, perhaps, or from particular groups within an organization—and, on the other hand, sharing knowledge within an organization or among particular groups therein. Thus we can think of organization itself as having a kind of “epistemic” architecture in which boundaries between the inside and outside of an organization, or subsections of an organization, are constructed.29 We can envisage this as epistemic compartmentalization, metaphorically constructing external or internal walls—and not always necessarily metaphorically because, in some cases, the possession of secrets may itself be marked by a physical architecture (e.g., access to laboratories).

At the same time we can think of organizations as having an epistemic cabling, rather like the wiring of a building, through which secret knowledge flows, when people for various reasons and in various ways share secrets. Again one can think of this literally—for example, in terms of differential access to, say, networked databases of confidential information—as well as metaphorically, as when informal networks to share confidential organizational gossip are constituted. Thus we are not talking here about knowledge-sharing in the normal and generic sense of the word, but about the sharing of, specifically, secret knowledge.

These senses of a hidden architecture are intended to suggest that although organizations are in all kinds of way creators of secrets—generating, for example, trade secrets or utilizing confidential discussions as part of politicking—they are also in some way created by secrecy. Without secrecy in its various forms there would still be boundaries within and between organizations, but they would be different sorts of boundaries. Thus, although certainly not the only way in which social relations are organized, secrecy is an important and largely ignored way in which this takes place. Moreover, the way in which the hidden architecture of organizational life works is by creating boundaries that can cut across both the hierarchies and networks that we normally think of as constituting organizational relations. Instead, we might think of the epistemic compartments and cabling of secrecy as a social glue that binds organizations together. For example, and in particular, secrecy can initiate “concentric circles,”30 or even a series of cross-cutting concentric circles, with multiple centers and boundaries associated with them. But it is important always to understand that these boundaries are inherently vulnerable, because secrecy always creates the possibility of accidental or deliberate disclosures or revelations. In this sense, again, secrecy is to be regarded as an ongoing process through which organizations can be made, remade, or, potentially, unmade.


In order to illustrate our theoretical arguments as well as do justice to the richness of secrecy we have recourse to a variety of sources: from academic research to media to fiction. The academic examples come from a multiplicity of studies, but we return frequently to studies that we ourselves have undertaken, both together and separately. They encompass different kinds of organizations and work and speak to the diversity of issues that we are bringing together under the rubric of secrecy. In this section we briefly outline each of these sources that we mine for illustrations, so that they will make sense when they are given. In the outlines we draw particular attention to the issues of secrecy the studies give rise to, but we do not present these as case studies of secrecy (and they were not conducted as such) but simply as sources of running examples of it.31

Codebreaking at Bletchley Park in the 1940s

This was an historical study of a state intelligence agency.32 Its historical status is significant because one of the problems of studying secrecy is precisely that it is difficult to gain access to it. But an historical study, in which once secret information is now publicly available, avoids this problem. The study was primarily archive based, with some limited interview material and a larger amount of secondary source material.

Bletchley Park (BP)33 was the site where, in Britain during the Second World War, signals intelligence was centered. It is most famous now for the breaking of the various Enigma ciphers used by the German military forces, although other codes were also dealt with. The codebreaking organization, called the Government Code and Cypher [sic] School (GC & CS), between 1939 and 1945 grew from about 200 to almost 10,000 employees who were engaged in a very wide array of activities, not just codebreaking (or cryptanalysis). There were a large number of people involved in clerical and machine operating work in support of cryptanalysis as well as intelligence analysis and distribution work.

The key thing for the purposes of this book is that all of these operations were conducted in conditions of the most stringent secrecy; were there to be any hint that Enigma was successfully being read it would lead to its modification or abandonment by German forces. Moreover, the various operations were highly compartmentalized, so that as well as maintaining secrecy from the outside world there was an elaborate system of internal secrecy. This secrecy was maintained until some partial revelations were made in 1974, and since then most of the documents relating to it have been declassified by the British government.

Every person working at BP was told upon joining, and repeatedly thereafter, that they must say nothing whatsoever about their work to anyone in the outside world, including families, friends, and spouses; nor must they talk about their work to people at BP beyond those they actually worked with, and not to them when outside their working area at BP. Although they were not necessarily aware of it, everyone who worked at BP had security checks made upon them. These checks would relate to general issues of trustworthiness as well as to vulnerabilities to blackmail and political sympathies. Alongside a culture of “not telling,” the other element of secrecy was “not asking” about the work of others. This meant that the majority of those who worked at BP did not know the reality of what they were working on (some did not even know they were part of a codebreaking organization). Thus the secrecy at BP was not just secrecy from the outside world but also an internal secrecy. Many who worked at BP died without knowing what work they had been involved in. Despite the remarkable strength of the secrecy culture at BP, there were throughout the war a string of minor security breaches. Nevertheless, the most striking feature is the way that the secret persisted for so long after the war, which is remarkable considering the number of people who worked there.

So, in summary, secrecy at BP had three elements: ignorance—not knowing what was going on beyond one’s immediate work; silence—not speaking to anyone about any aspect of one’s work; surveillance—vetting checks and ongoing monitoring of behavior.

Professional Services Work in the 1990s and Early 2000s

Here we refer to a string of studies of accounting, consulting, and allied professional services firms we conducted separately, together, or with others.34 The studies were primarily interview based, with some participant and nonparticipant observation, and conducted between 1992 and 2009. The firms in question, which are not identified, were a variety of major, global organizations, although the sites studied were all in the United Kingdom. The professional service firms (PSFs), as we collectively refer to them, were very similarly organized, and it is not necessary for the purposes of this book to differentiate between them.

The PSFs are major, high-status employers of graduates who are recruited from leading universities and then undergo training, in some cases leading to a professional qualification in accounting. There is in all cases some form of “up or out” hierarchy, so that the large intake of junior staff is progressively whittled down as those remaining ascend to managerial levels, potentially culminating in partnership. One consequence of this structure is an intense degree of competition and insecurity, even though salaries are high. It is relevant to this book that this competition and insecurity is a fertile ground for confidential and semi-confidential discussions of pay, prospects, and reputations.

Work is team and project based, and junior staff typically undertake very routine tasks.35 Long working hours and high levels of stress characterize working lives, with many staff preoccupied by dreams of an escape into more fulfilling and more autonomous work.36 These dreams, however, are not publicly revealed because they would betoken a lack of commitment that would violate key organizational norms. The firms are replete with examples of tensions between the experiences of staff and what can be openly spoken of within the context of organizational norms.

These organizational norms are primarily centered around the idea of professional behavior37 within which an ideal of client service is central.38 Professional behavior is particularly envisaged in terms of outward appearance, clothing, and grooming. Hidden from view are the ways that this is taught, regulated, and enforced. Within client service and professional conduct, one aspect is the need to maintain client confidentiality in terms of both data protection and informal conversation. The presentation of a professional self is itself important in signaling trustworthiness to the client.

There is an ongoing trade or exchange of knowledge between staff about how to deliver services to clients. Some of this is codified and accessible to staff via organizational knowledge management systems that are strictly confidential to the firms because they contain commercially valuable material and client-specific data. In addition, a large amount of knowledge is shared through informal networks, and this is of two types. First, specific technical knowledge is shared informally shared between friends and networks because it is often too cumbersome to use organizational knowledge systems. Second, because of the way that work is structured, there is a great deal of informal knowledge-sharing about upcoming projects and worthwhile or prestigious assignments as staff try to navigate the career structures of the firms.39 The informal nature of these networks means that access to them is differential, with some people included and others excluded from knowledge.40

In summary, a variety of kinds of secrecy can be found in these PSFs, ranging from client confidentiality to the unspoken tensions regarding organizational norms and the knowledge sharing and hiding in informal networks.


In the remainder of this book, we explore in detail these various themes of secrecy. The analysis is structured so as to start with general theoretical concepts, then to explain how these apply to organizations, then to develop a detailed analysis of these organizational issues, and finally to pull together the different strands of the argument to articulate why secrecy is so crucial to understanding organization itself.

In chapter 1, we trace how secrecy appears in theoretical writings in the social sciences and particularly in the works of Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, Elias Canetti, Michael Taussig, and others. This allows us to develop a theoretical and conceptual vocabulary that we bring together as seven “foundations” to guide the subsequent analysis. In chapter 2, we deploy these concepts to explain that secrecy is not just something that organizations habitually engage in but can also be seen as a way of organizing. To do this, we draw upon fragmented discussions of secrecy within classic (if now sometimes forgotten or neglected) texts within organization studies by, among others, Edgar Schein, Melville Dalton, Robert Jackall, Chris Argyris, Michel Crozier, and Wilbert Moore. We call this the “bricks and mortar” of the analysis because it provides us with so many of the ideas that we later deploy.

Having established the key social scientific and organizational terms of debate, we then move to a detailed examination of how secrecy works in organizations, orchestrated by the heuristic separation of formal and informal secrecy. Chapter 3 tackles formal secrecy, showing how rational-legal processes of law, regulation, and surveillance construct organizational boundaries around secret knowledge as well as rules for sharing this knowledge within organizations. We take “walls and corridors” as the principal metaphor to connote how formal boundaries both make barriers and define paths of communication for secrets. But we also explain how these processes have an irrational and paradoxical nature, so that formal organizational secrecy does not occur on the basis of clear principles or by reason of functional necessity. Chapter 4 considers informal and public secrecy. Here the processes involved are based on trust and norms rather than law, and have ramifications for many organizational phenomena including groups, cliques, decision making, politicking, and leadership. The case of public secrecy poses particular complexities because it relates to the paradoxical situation in which secrets are both known and not known. In this chapter we again stress secrecy as both concealing and sharing knowledge; we denote this through the metaphor of “open and closed doors.”

Chapter 5 brings together the main lines of analysis to explicate the metaphor of secrecy as a hidden architecture of organizational life, that is, how secrecy can construct the social order of organizations. The focus is on how secrecy can create and be created by organizations, in the epistemic compartmentalization and cabling it involves, and also how it brings to life particular organizational experiences. What we are trying to express here is how secrecy enacts a joining together of what might normally be thought of as different domains: the inside and outside; the structural and the experiential.

In the conclusion we put forward as “finishing touches” a series of claims as to why the arguments we have developed are important for the study of organizations. We aim to show how this is not just a matter of studying secrecy per se but is necessary for studying organizations, and we present this not as a new approach but as a reconnection with a classic vein of organizational analysis. We also address the methodological issues of empirically researching organizational secrecy and invite others to pursue further the themes we have advanced in this exploratory study.


1. The various literatures relating to secrecy utilize the terms information and knowledge variously or indiscriminately. In this book we use the terms interchangeably to reflect this (because it would be very cumbersome to disaggregate the usages) but mainly because both information and knowledge may equally be subject to secrecy. It is true that it is often held, especially in computer science, that information becomes knowledge when acted upon in some way, and so, in this sense, because to keep a secret is to act, then any information that is secret must in fact be knowledge. However, in the organizational literature the meaning, distinction, and relationship of knowledge and information is the subject of considerable debate (see, e.g., Blackler, 1995; Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001), which is beyond the scope of this book.

2. Throughout this book we use organization studies as a generic term to encompass what in different communities is called variously organization theory, organization behavior, organization analysis, or, indeed, organization studies.

3. Liebeskind (1997: 625) stated that “an extensive literature search revealed that there is very little in the current business, organizational theory or institutional economics literature on the issue of organizational secrecy.” Ten years later, introducing a short special section on the topic, Jones (2008: 95) noted that “secrets are rarely studied by organizational scholars,” and one of the contributions points out that “secrets in organizations are pervasive [but] have not been studied in any systematic way” (Anand & Rosen, 2008: 97).

4. Schein (1985/2000), Jackall (1988).

5. Mone & McKinlay (1993), Weick (1996), Greenwood & Hinings (2002), Starbuck (2003), Czarniawska (2008), Gabriel (2010), Grey (2010), Suddaby et al. (2011).

6. Collinson (1992), Woods (1993), Rich & Janos (1994), Gusterson (1998), Žižek (2011).

7. Bok (1989: 6).

8. Bok (1989: 11).

9. Brewis et al. (2006).

10. Marx (1999), Nissenbaum (1999).

11. Teich et al. (1999), Scott & Rains (2005), Rains & Scott (2007), Frois (2009), Coleman (2013), Dobusch & Schoeneborn (2015).


13. Land (2008: 1195).

14. Martin (1990).

15. Morrison & Milliken (2000).

16. See, e.g., Baker & Faulkner (1993), Erickson (1981), Parker (2008), Stohl & Stohl (2011), Schoeneborn & Scherer (2012), Scott (2013).

17. It is true that one of our empirical sources is an organization whose existence was at the time secret from the general public. But, first, its existence became publicly known, and, second, it was not clandestine in the sense of being hidden from the authorities—indeed, it was a state organization.

18. Simmel (1906: 463; emphasis added).

19. Bok (1989: 14), see also Birchall (2011a).

20. Although as we later suggest, the converse is possible: there can be processes of secrecy with no actual secrets being hidden.

21. The Huffington Post (2011).

22. Zerubavel (2006).

23. Dufresne & Offstein (2008: 103, emphasis added).

24. Horn (2011).

25. Horn (2011: 109).

26. Horn (2011: 108).

27. Luhrmann (1989: 138).

28. See the literature on the “communication as constitutive of organizations” (CCO) perspective, e.g., Ashcraft et al. (2009), Cooren et al. (2011), Brummans et al. (2014).

29. We avoid the terms information architecture and knowledge architecture, which are widely used in computer science, because of their technical meanings. By epistemic architecture we denote a social and organizational architecture related specifically to secret knowledge.

30. Scott (2009: 277).

31. Those wanting to see full methodological details should refer to the studies themselves.

32. Grey & Sturdy (2008, 2009, 2010), Grey (2012, 2013, 2014).

33. We appreciate that this abbreviation nowadays is likely to connote British Petroleum, but we use it in the interests of concision and hope that readers will come to find it familiar.

34. Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson (1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006), Costas (2012, 2013), Costas & Fleming (2009), Costas & Grey (2014), Costas & Kärreman (2013, 2015), Grey (1994, 1998).

35. Costas & Kärreman (2015).

36. Costas & Grey (2014).

37. Grey (1998).

38. Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson (2000).

39. Grey (1994).

40. Costas (2012).