Thursday, 6 December 2018

Should you allow people to be anonymous in company online forms?

Is anonymity a good thing in online organisational (in-company) knowledge sharing forums? I suggest it is not, and my reasoning is below.

Public domain image from SVG
When you first set up knowledge sharing forums, it can be tempting to allow people to contribute anonymously, to reduce their fear of exposure. But is this a good idea?

Please note I am not talking about public forums, where people may want to talk about personal problems - relationships problems, abuse, addiction - which they do not necessarily want their family and neighbours to know about. Nor am I talking about anonymous activism, or Wikileaks. I am talking about knowledge-sharing communities of practice as part of an organizational Knowledge Management framework.

There are arguments for and against anonymity, and lets look at those first.

Arguments for anonymity

  • In a toxic culture, where knowledge is power, it can be a risky act to challenge the status quo. To ban anonymous comments, is to remove the possibility of honesty. An anonymous forum creates a safe space for knowledge sharing.
  • In a non-Western culture, where admitting mistakes is not acceptable, it can be very difficult for people to admit they don;t know, and to ask for help. Anonymity again gives a safe space for asking.
Arguments against anonymity
  • People are more likely to share positive knowledge if they get credit for it (see my blog post on keeping the name with the knowledge).
  • People are more likely to use the knowledge if they trust it, and if they trust the source. I remember, when testing an anonymous knowledge asset in an organisation, how people responded "Why should we trust this, if we don't know where it comes from".
  • It is very difficult to learn from the written word. Most effective knowledge systems allow you to find the contributor of a lesson, a good practice or a document, and to speak with them to learn more. With anonymity, this is not possible.
  • If the culture is difficult, toxic, or intolerant of mistakes, then an anonymous forum  acknowledges publicly that you have to be anonymous to share knowledge, and so to an extent perpetuates the culture. Conversely, if people can see knowledge being shared openly by brave souls, and those brave souls being praised and rewarded for it, then you have the potential to change the culture.

That last one is the clincher for me.

If you need to be anonymous to share knowledge in your organisation, something is badly wrong. Work with the culture, sure, for example providing named individuals who can share your knowledge for you if you are not brave enough, or provide alternative safe spaces where knowledge can be discussed and shared without anonymity, but don't reinforce a bad culture.

Instead, seek to influence it; seek to change it.

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