Should ESNs Allow Anonymity?

When designing a knowledge management solution for our team case in #MSLOC430 at our recent onsite with my teammates, Pooja Patankar, Lynne Levy, and Laura Peppers, one of the items we discussed was whether ESN users should have a feature allowing the ability to share anonymously.

Since our discussion, my mind keeps going back to this concept. This idea originally stemmed from an article I read (I cannot for the life of me remember which publication nor find the article on the Internet) about a program for pilots where they could anonymously report mistakes that they had made or witnessed. After doing a bit more research, I learned that this vital initiative, aptly called the Aviation Safety Reporting System, has generated over a million public reports and no identity information has ever been revealed. The existence of such a system means that if a pilot almost accidentally drives off the runway because they are looking at their iPad and didn’t realize the plane was still slowly moving can report this mistake without fear of retribution. Other pilots can in turn be reminded to double check the system and not make a dire mistake. Such a system could also alert manufacturers that pilots are struggling with a certain system and help alert them that an update or new technology is necessary. Similar systems have been developed, for instance a more all-encompassing Internet tip line exists that allows for the anonymous reporting of workplace safety, ethical, and harassment violations (but this is a general website for all workplaces).

An anonymous feature seems to be an important feature that is lacking for many enterprise social networks (ESNs). For instance, some quick research revealed that neither Chatter nor Yammer possess an anonymous posting feature (although they both allow anonymous polling). Although I understand that one of the main purposes of any ESN is to encourage collaboration and the creation of personal learning networks, there are just times when something needs to be said anonymously. This might be especially true when crowdsourcing for suggestions or ideas in response to a sensitive question (with answers that are best answered in free form text). An anonymous ESN would also be helpful when someone is reporting a mistake they made or a problem they are having or witnessing others having due to a current process or technology (such as with the above reporting system for aviation).  An anonymous feature would also be helpful when an organization wants to shift to a more open, transparent culture with the help of an an ESN when the current culture is one of fear or distrust. The anonymous feature might give these organizations a chance to start the conversation given the current climate, before perhaps switching over to a more open ESN once trust has been built and anonymity feels less necessary. Although an organization could create a separate system for anonymous sharing of mistakes or problems, this seems unnecessary. All such information should be housed in one system to ease the user experience.

There are definite challenges to successfully utilizing an anonymous feature within an ESN. For instance, the very organizations that might benefit most from such a feature would likely be the ones least likely to implement it because they wouldn’t want their employees to have the opportunity to air their grievances with management in an open forum or undermine their leadership. Similarly, an organization would not want an anonymous feature to create a forum just for complaining or whining – the purpose would be for constructive feedback and sharing of learning opportunities, but it could certainly be abused. During our original group discussion, the biggest potential downside we saw to an anonymous ESN feature was the fact that it might take away from collaboration and community building, which is often one of the main purposes for such a system.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has successfully implemented an anonymous ESN or similar system in their organization (both in terms of how it was utilized and if any guidelines were put into place). While I think an anonymous feature would need to be monitored carefully, I believe it might be necessary for a number of organizations, especially those that are trying to manage change and need to hear honest feedback from their employees, whether it be about culture, processes, or mistakes.

Non-Technical Hackathons to Drive Innovation & Problem Solving

I am taking a bit of a departure from my last blog post about ESNs and the utility of the watercooler feature for remote workers because as we have moved through #MSLOC430, some other fascinating knowledge management and creation tools have really caught my attention, especially the idea of hackathon-esque events for innovation and problem solving within organizations. So what exactly is a hackathon? Google defines it as, “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” While traditional hackathons have become quite popular (for instance there are a bunch of upcoming Chicago hackathon events), organizations should consider creating events inspired by hackathons for non-technical problems within an organization or department. While the vast majority of hackathons have been created to utilize coding or technology to overcome a challenge, they have occasionally been hosted for non-technical purposes. For instance, LinkedIn hosted a 16-hour non-technical hackathon for interns as part of its 2015 LinkedIn Festival. An organizational hackathon could almost be thought of as a case competition that is used outside of the academic context and instead explored within a real-world organizational context by the actual employees.

An organization-wide or department-wide hackathon could take many forms, depending on the organizational structure and the problem (or opportunity) that is being tackled. However, the tech industry standard of providing a fun environment, including an inspiring kickoff, and sustenance like pizza and energy drinks is an absolute must. This should really be seen for employees as an opportunity to get in touch with their creative side and get out of their work email inbox; it should be viewed as an alternative to another drab meeting and allow people to work out the solution either themselves, which might allow introverts a chance to shine in a way they normally wouldn’t in the traditional meeting context, or in small teams as a way to build deeper relationships and  build collaborative problem-solving skills, allowing teams to escape their normal workload. These hackathons could be instituted to solve an existing organizational problem or they could look to uncover a new opportunity or create innovation.

A non-traditional hackathon might provide numerous benefits, beyond the potential for crowdsourcing the most innovative solution or opportunity from all of the organization’s mind power (this Harvard Business Review article explores the power of competition for innovation within an organization). A hackathon also has the potential to build relationships if challenges are solved by teams or if an ESN is utilized for chat or group brainstorming. Existing hierarchies could also be challenged in a positive way, allowing bright thinkers that might not always have the chance to show off their intellect and problem solving skills based on their role within the organization a chance to really shine. It could give these employees a chance to show what they are capable of, perhaps shining a spotlight on those with unrecognized potential and slotting them into roles that are of better use for the organization and the employees. Organization-wide hackathons might also spinoff into mini hackathons around smaller problems that could eventually become communities of practice.

Organization-wide or department-wide hackathons are not without challenges. The most basic might simply be defining the challenge. The most important might be making sure that management is on board and that workloads are adjusted accordingly to allow for the time required – whether it be one workday or a full week. Without this, a hackathon will just cause stress and not allow for the creativity and mental fluidity required to create true innovation. A second challenge is making sure the correct structure is in place, such as deciding whether the hackathon will be solved individually or in teams (depending on the overarching goals of the hackathon), and if teams are utilized, deciding what those teams should look like. For instance, should hackathon teams be composed of existing team members, allowing them to deepen their team spirit and collaboration skills, or should the hackathon be seen as a way to build relationships across departments or regional boundaries (for instance requiring a marketing manager in New Jersey to work with another marketing manager in Bangalore or Nairobi)? Another challenge is making sure the right tools are in place to encourage collaboration, sharing of ideas, and sharing of the final submissions. Finally, the organization will need to decide how to incentivize employee involvement – will they make the hackathon a competition with monetary prizes or days off or will they simply use pride and recognition as an incentive?

What do you think? Would your organization benefit from a hackathon?

Remote Workers and the Need for a Virtual Water Cooler

When Monday morning rolls aroundindex, employees in traditional office settings will inevitably spend some time chatting about their weekend. This interaction offers a chance to connect with coworkers on a more personal basis. But what about the remote workers who when Monday morning arrives are home alone, with no one to speak to and only an inbox full of impersonal emails to keep them company? For this blog, I spoke with my former colleague, whom we will refer to as Rebeca, about remote work and communication. She has spent the last three years working from her apartment in Johannesburg, South Africa for an organization based in Washington, DC.  She mentioned that the lack of communication and collaboration was by far her least favorite part of her job, leaving her feeling isolated and unmotivated. Research supports the value of casual conversations with coworkers. So how does a remote worker stay connected when they might be separated by thousands of miles and, in the case of Rebeca, a major time zone barrier? One answer is an Enterprise Social Network (ESN), such as Jive, Yammer, Slack, or Chatter.

One of the biggest potential benefits of the ESN is the water cooler (or otherwise-named space) that many of these Web 2.0 platforms share, allowing users to share informal communications, such as their plans for the weekend, thoughts on last night’s award show, or a funny story about their kids or dog. Sure, this space might be used for work-related discussions as well, but it’s often the personal conversations and connections that really matter to remote workers, such as Rebeca.

Rebeca mentioned that a lack of informal communication and connection  with her colleagues was by far the biggest struggle throughout her three years working remotely, especially because she couldn’t call people or message them in real-time since they were in a different time zone. She felt the lack of

 Inman, Mathew. ""Why Working from Home Is Both Awesome and Terrible'" The Oatmeal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Inman, Mathew. “”Why Working at Home Is Both Awesome and Terrible‘” The Oatmeal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016

group small talk and engagement has had an effect on her overall ability to communicate in groups, even outside of the workplace. Rebeca reflected that “as someone who is typically a people-person and good with groups, working remotely had a major affect on me… it now takes me a while to engage with a group, even in a non-work, social setting. It takes me a couple minutes to learn how to interact with people again. That people-person isn’t even me anymore.” Would an ESN’s water cooler have been equal to the rich communication Rebeca enjoyed when working in a typical office setting? Of course not. But it might have helped her to engage more on a regular basis and helped her to feel less out of the social loop.

In my personal experience working remotely for six months, emails, phone calls, and Skype meetings usually focus solely on business – the latest numbers, projections, etc. – and you miss out on what is going on in your colleagues’ personal lives. This is more important than it might seem. Not only does this lack of casual communication add to the feelings of loneliness and depression common in remote workers, it might actually make you worse at your job because you don’t know what is going on in terms of overarching trends in office culture and you don’t have a chance to get to know any new people except through brief online bios and work emails, which usually don’t leave much room for personality. For instance, Rebeca mentioned that she was initially supervised by a remote manager whom she had never met and her stern and serious tone in emails left her terrified. After they eventually met in person, they completely hit it off. Perhaps if they had the chance to have more informal communications through a virtual water cooler, Rebeca would have more quickly realized how much they had in common and had the opportunity to see the more lighthearted, fun side of her manager that wasn’t evident though professional emails.

I asked Rebeca if a virtual water cooler would have helped her feel more connected at work and she said that while she prefers a face-to-face communication platform whenever possible, such as Google or Skype video, she thinks it would certainly have helped, especially since she could participate in discussions a few hours later, when her colleagues were asleep, and her input would still be relevant. She said it would also help her connect with colleagues that she wouldn’t otherwise have interacted with and she would have gotten to see another, more playful side to their personalities.

With remote workers on the rise (increasing 79% from 2005 to 2012), organizations need to invest in ways to ensure all of their employees feel connected. While it may not be equal to grabbing a cup of coffee with your colleague in the break room and discussing that weekend’s football game, ESN water coolers offer a viable alternative. Maybe they are even better than the real-world water cooler, because if you hate football (like me), you can just skip that post and wait for the good one with the cat videos.