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.

One thought on “Should ESNs Allow Anonymity?”

  1. Hmmm…yet another topic for us to add to our list of things to explore.

    I really to like this as a question to think about – especially in the context of an ESN where you might have both options: Using names in some cases, being anonymous in others. I suspect also that within an organizational ESN, there is always the question of whether “anonymous” is truly anonymous (i.e., does the poster trust that their identity is confidential?). But a great question to explore. Thanks for the thoughtful start.

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