Anonymous Posting in the Corporate Environment

Anonymous Posting in the Corporate Environment

Is it worth it to allow (encourage?) employees to interact with each other and ideas anonymously? That was the question posed to me yesterday as I was keynoting an event on Enterprise 2.0. The question made me pause. After all, most organizational surveys (effectiveness etc) are anonymous. Most public surveys are anonymous or at least promise to protect your identity and only use aggregated demographic information. The reason for this is pretty clear: Anonymity acts as a catalyst freeing up information (and ideally honest evaluations in the case of surveys).

But what about when we interact with blog posts or wiki edits or ideas posted to a working group or project team? What about when the boss asks you what you think (if you are the faceless masses of employees who report up to him/her)?

I'm not sure yet and I'm interested in what others think but I'm leaning towards the perspective that anonymity doesn't belong in Enterprise 2.0 technology. It *does* belong in Web 2.0 technology but not when it is used in the workplace by employees for employees. Why? Several reasons.

1. You are already a known entity in the workplace. You were hired to do a job, to influence, to solve, to produce. You Johny Q. So you're already known. Start with that. There is no reasonable expectation of electronic anonymity when you are doing your job (most HR and corporate tech policies outline this already). Furthermore in phone calls, face to face interactions and email interactions (again, colleague to colleague B2B and E2E not B2C or C2C) your identity is not hidden. It is an asset. An email from Sam in R&D carries a certain gravitas especially when talking about code or performance or bugs where as an email from Patricia at the front desk on the same topic does not carry the same weight. It's not that Patricia's ideas on bug solutions are not valuable, but they are subject to a greater burden of proof. I want to know the proverbial "says who?"

2. In many e20 technologies not being anonymous is not the same as being known. Take wiki technology. In order to edit our internal Oracle wiki I have to log in with my user name. It's not anonymous. But neither is my name plastered all over the entries I create or edit. They are buried in some log file somewhere mainly so that if I write something stupid or criminal I can be held responsible. But here is the key: the internal culture of Oracle is such that there is no "chilling effect" on me (that I am aware of anyway) that keeps me from saying what I know is true and appropriate. I suspect the same is true of *most* places that have an enterprise wiki. So corporate culture is key, but if you are working in a repressive "YES-MAN" kind of a job my guess is that you're probably not allowed to read this blog either so we can chat in 5 years when your business catches up with the rest of us.

3. Even where there are outliers they get rightfully marginalized as more users participate. In the work environment, if Billy tags a document with the word "ass" it's probably an outlier. It will become statistically and influentially marginalized as a tag (or useful search term or accurate metadata) as more users tag the document more accurately. This gets to the core of the good behavior argument I hear so often about Enterprise 2.0 technology. "What if someone posts a picture of their XXXXXX on our intranet?" Sorry not a new kind of question. The scenario and technology has changed, the core issue has not. And the reality is that there are already mechanisms in place to deal with poor behavior in most work places. Anonymity in this case is an invitation for more not less misbehavior because of the lack of enforcable oversight.

4. Going anonymous gives up huge amounts of potential in business intelligence, efficiency, prediction markets and expert systems. Take a simple thing like a 5 star rating system for a web site or document or picture or product idea or whatever. There are times when it is vital that everybody gets one vote. But what if votes were weighted based on expertise which was determined by the votes of others who interact (produce/consume) with similar information? Bex suggests that the semantic web idea has legs just because Sir Tim Berners Lee "voted" for it so long ago and that it cannot stand on its own merit. That might be true, but it is of vital interest to me and many others that someone of TBL's expertise has thought and voted for the Semantic web. Reminds me of a Simpson's episode. How many investors follow the lead of Warren Buffet? We need experts and their opinions have weight. Inside the business you can tap that expertise but only if you know who is an expert. Then you use that along with the rest of the inputs from non-semi-partial-and sometimes experts (pundits) to weigh and evaluate your decisions. I think it just makes sense.

5. there are still times when anonymity is important but it's probably still tied to web 1.0 technology like organizational surveys. And if you're the kind of person who can only say the truth behind a shield of "ANON" then you should think about taking some conflict communications classes or looking for another job. I think it is incumbent upon us as employees to be in a constant feedback cycle with our immediate bosses and constituents to provide constructive feedback not "you're an idiot" feedback in the "do you have anything else to add" section of a survey sent out by HR once a year.

Please comment - anonymous comments welcome but I'll make fun of you.

Comments:

The biggest differences between Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 are scale and the approach to anonymity. These two factors are the main reason why simply deploying a Web 2.0 technology on a corporate intranet won't suffice. The enterprise operates at scales orders of magnitude times smaller than the public web. And enterprises operate by making certain assumptions about employee roles. Allowing anonymity on the company intranet deprives people of contextual information. It matters whether somebody from marketing is talking about the failure of the last print ads, for example. It helps you evaluate whether that person is speaking from a position of authority or expertise. If employees ask for anonymity because of fear of reprisal from coworkers or bosses, you've already got a toxic corporate culture in place. (Or possibly toxic employees.) No amount of E2.0 tech will help you get past that problem. Perhaps that organization shouldn't pursue E2.0 in the first place.

Posted by Dean Thrasher on January 30, 2009 at 02:01 AM CST #

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