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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What is the value proposition for a community of practice?

The whole purpose of community is enabling people to help each other.

Vkw.studiogood [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The primary vision of Community is a group of people who help each other.  This might be an Amish community raising a barn, pooling their strength and skills to help each other.  Or it might be a rural community pooling their money to fund a village hall, or to buy a village pub in order to keep it running.

In the case of a Community of Practice (CoP) it is a community of practitioners in a specific area of practice, who pool and share their knowledge in order to create a greater knowledge base as a resource for all members.

The value proposition of a CoP is therefore to increasing the effectiveness of its members through access to common and co-created knowledge.  By making the community members more effective though access to common knowledge, the organisation becomes more effective.  The value proposition is therefore firstly to the members, and as a byproduct to the organisation.

A community does not necessarily hold a collective performance objective with the business (although come communities voluntarily choose to do so) but allows each member to deliver better against his or her own individual performance objectives, by giving them access to the knowledge base of the community. 

Specifically the community offers

  • Help in solving problems 
  • Faster learning through observing interactions between others
  • Access to experience and expertise 
  • Access to proven practices 

Membership of a CoP should pay its way. If you don’t get benefit from being a member, then the CoP is not working. Many communities have voluntary membership on this basis, and it serves as a self-regulating mechanism.

  • If the community adds value to the members, the old members stay, new members join, and membership grows.
  • If the community does not add value to the members, then members leave and the community dies.

If the community becomes effectively a blog run by a single person, it’s not working as it should, and it has become a teaching platform or a communication platform and not a community.

If a community is only a means of publication of news, its a newsletter and not a community.  Communities can use newsletters, but are not created by newsletters.

If a community is concerned only with doing tasks such as writing best practice documents, its a virtual workgroup and not a community.

It’s a community if the members hold their knowledge in common, using it to solve each others’ problems, and therefore delivering value to the members.

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4 reasons why communities of practice can die young

It is not uncommon for communities of practice to start with passion and intent, and to fade away and die out over a period of months. Here are 4 possible reasons why.

Image from wikimedia commons

I have just been reading a very interesting article entitled The Rise and Fall of a Community of practice: A Descriptive Case Study, by Alton Chua. I can’t find an online version for you, I’m afraid, but the article describes the experience of developing a community of e-learning instructional designers at Holden College, and why the initiative, which seemed to enjoy a promising start, fizzled out completely in less than one and- a-half years.

Unfortunately this seems to happen all too often. I have spoken with many companies, with experience of attempting to use Communities of Practice, only to see them fizzle out and die.

The Holden College example shows typical reasons for failure, which can be summarised as follows.

1. The Community of Practice was too small. It covered a very narrow element of practice – the creation of e-learning content – and so only had 25 potential members. There is such a thing as Critical Mass for CoPs, which varies depending on the urgency of the topic and whether the CoP can meet face to face, but generally the Bigger the Better for CoPs. Shell, for example, started with 300 small CoPs, but when these struggled, amalgamated them into a handful of giant CoPs. The Holder college CoP was too small to live. 

2. The domain was not really a practice domain, more a task domain. The members were primarily lecturers and teachers – creation of e-learning was a task (and for some an unwelcome task), and not a practice area that the members identified with. The CoP would not pass the “I am a …” test. There was therefore little identification with the subject matter for the CoP. 

3. The CoP had the opportunity to meet face to face, but found it difficult to organise meetings (partly because of reason 2 above – people did not identify with the topic, so did not prioritise it), and therefore fell back on electronic communication. Critical mass is far greater for CoPs that interact online, and the fate of the Holden College CoP was sealed at this point. 

4. The leader and core group of the CoP decided to focus on “creating deliverables”. The interviewed members said that they had joined the CoP to learn from each other, and yet here they were being asked to do additional work. Given that the CoP was voluntary, then people who were already busy, and who would get limited value from the deliverable, voluntarily resigned. Communities operate best though Pull of knowledge – in other words through solving the problems of the members. Once they become Push (publication) mechanisms, they lose a lot of value.

Contrast this with a CoP which I continue to monitor, which started on 1997 and is still going strong 16 years later. It contains nearly 2000 members, covers an area they identify with, has occasional face-to-face conferences, and is focused on solving the problems of the members.

That’s how you give a Community longevity.

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What you need to know about social tools and KM

Here is a very interesting article from HBR entitled “What managers need to know about social tools” – thanks to Anshuman Rath for bringing it to my attention.  It’s well worth a complete read.

Image by Codynguyen1116
on wikimedia commons

The article by Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley, from the Nov/Dec issue of HBR last year, looks at the way companies have often introduced social tools – often because “Other companies are, so we should too” or “That’s what you have to do if you want to attract young talent”  – and describe some of the surprising outcomes.

Here are some of the points the article makes, with excerpts in quotes:

  • Use of these tools make it easier to find knowledge, through making it easier to find knowledgeable people.

“The employees who had used the tool became 31% more likely to find coworkers with expertise relevant to meeting job goals. Those employees also became 88% more likely to accurately identify who could put them in contact with the right experts”

  • Millenials are not keen adopters of enterprise social tools.

“Millennials have a difficult time with the notion that “social” tools can be used for “work” purposes (and are)wary of conflating those two worlds; they want to be viewed and treated as grown-ups now. “Friending” the boss is reminiscent of “friending” a parent back in high school—it’s unsettling. And the word “social” signals “informal” and “personal.” As a 23-year-old marketing analyst at a large telecommunications company told us, “You’re on there to connect with your friends. It’s weird to think that your manager would want you to connect with coworkers or that they’d want to connect with you on social media [at work]. I don’t like that.”

  • How people present themselves on internal networks is important to developing trust.

“How coworkers responded to people’s queries or joked around suggested how accessible they were; it helped colleagues gauge what we call “passable trust” (whether somebody is trustworthy enough to share information with). That’s important, because asking people to help solve a problem is an implicit admission that you can’t do it alone”.

  • People learn by lurking (as well as by asking).

“Employees gather direct knowledge when they observe others’ communications about solving problems. Take Reagan, an IT technician at a large atmospheric research lab. She happened to see on her department’s social site that a colleague, Jamie, had sent a message to another technician, Brett, about how to fix a semantic key encryption issue. Reagan said, “I’m so happy I saw that message. Jamie explained it so well that I was able to learn how to do it.”

  • The way social tools add value to the organisation and to the individual is to facilitate knowledge seeking, knowledge awareness, knowledge sharing and problem solving. The authors give many examples mostly of problem-solving, and about finding either knowledge or knowledgeable people. One example saved a million dollars, and i will add that to my collection of quantified value stories tomorrow.

  • The value comes from practice communities. The authors do not make this point explicitly, so perhaps I am suffering from confirmation bias here, but they talk about the “spread of knowledge” that they observed as being within various groups covering practice areas such as marketing, sales, and legal.

The authors finish with a section on how to introduce the tools, namely by making the purpose clear (and the purpose may be social, or it may be related to knowledge seeking and sharing), driving awareness of the tools, defining the rules of conduct, and leading by example.

The article reminds us again that social tools can add huge value to an organisation, but need careful attention and application. Just because Facebook and Twitter are busy in the non-work world, does not mean similar tools operate the same way at work.

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2 types of community of practice.

There are two main types of community of practice depending on how knowledgeable the community members are.

One type of community of practice exists to connect knowledgeable people, so they can share knowledge with each other and act as a resource for each other. The other type exists to connect learners, so they can learn together. In this example much of the knowledge comes form outside the community. We can call the first type a Knowledge Community, and the second a Learning Community.

Type 1

The standard view of the Community of Practice is that of a network of people who collectively act as a mutual knowledge resource. Within the Community is a wide range of experience – from highly-experienced old-timers, to relative newcomers – experts and newbies sharing the same community. Through asking and answering questions, they provide each other with useful knowledge that helps each practitioner to perform their work better. Often the answers to questions come from the more experienced staff, but this is not always the case, as I explain in my blog post about the Long Tail of Knowledge.

This is the model of Community of Practice that we see in the standard case studies, from the likes of Shell, IBM, Fluor and ConocoPhillips.

The role of the leader or facilitator in a Community of Practice such as this is to provide the conditions (culture, technology, behaviours) that allow conversation to happen, and then sit back and watch it happening, intervening only if necessary.

This is a knowledge community. Everyone is a knowledge user, everyone is potentially a knowledge supplier. The knowledge flow is multi-way, and the knowledge primarily comes from within, and circulates within, the community.

But this is not the only sort of Community of Practice.

Type 2

Takes for example another famous case study, the US Army “Company Command” CoP. The Army creates 2000 company commanders a year – it is the soldiers first command assignment – and they stay in post for 2 years. There is therefore a CoP of about 4000 Company Commanders, with an average of 1 year experience in the role.

This is not a CoP that holds the knowledge itself. The CoP is not the primary source of experience, because they are all learning together. The Community, in this case, exists to support the individuals on their learning journey, rather than to be a closed system of knowledge exchange. This is a community of learners – almost everyone is a knowledge user and only a few are knowledge suppliers. Plenty of newbies, no experts.

The role of the leader or facilitator in a Community of Practice such as this is to promote and facilitate the learning journeys of the members. So for example, in Company Command, they provide the following learning tasks.

  • Quizzes
  • Discussions initiated and coordinated by the leaders
  • “Book clubs”
  • Interviews with leaders
  • Video interviews
  • “Challenges” – discussions on typical scenarios a Company Commander will face
  • Community blogs
  • Community email newsletters
(Please note that the Community leader is not Teaching, but is still actively facilitating and directing the learning activities). You will see few if any of these activities in the Flour/ConocoPhillips style of CoP, because their communities contain experienced people rather than being a community of the inexperienced.

Company Command is not the only example of this type of Community of Practice, and it will be a useful Knowledge Management tool in any organisation which regularly has to provide knowledge to a large population of inexperienced staff (see my blog post on the influence of demographics on KM – this type of situation is likely to be more common in the Far East than in Europe or the US).

So, as always, choose “Horses for Courses” as we say in English. Choose the KM approach that suits your organizational context. That may be type 1 or it may be type 2.

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Analysing questions in a community of practice

An analysis of searches and queries can tell you a lot about the knowledge topics which are of the greatest value in your organisation.

Analysing patterns of searches helps you to identify the emergent knowledge topics, the knowledge gaps, and the “hot potatoes” in your organisation, your community, or in society.

We tried this approach by analysing questions within a big community of practice . The queries to the community forum were already characterised into topics, because when you ask a question using the forum software, you have to choose which topic it is related to. So that saved us having to assign categories.

We divided these topics into four quadrants;

1. Topics where there were few questions, but each one got lots of answers. These tended to be areas of common knowledge, where most people knew the answer and only a few new people did not. For these topics, we could write guidelines, knowledge assets or FAQs for the benefit of the new staff

2. Lots of questions, lots of answers. These were the important and evolving Knowledge topics where it was worth while setting up community meetings such as Knowledge Exchanges so that we could start to exchange and document best practice.

3. Lots of questions, few answers. These were the problem areas, where some more research or action learning was needed to start to develop solutions.

4. Few questions, few answers. Our assumption was that these are not particularly important areas, but that it was worth watching them in case they developed into problem areas.

This was a very useful analysis and led to a greater understanding of the important evolving and problem topics within the community.

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A story about the long tail of knowledge

Here’s a story about how Knowledge can be found in the Long Tail within a community of practice.

The Long Tail by Chris AndersonI blogged recently about the Long Tail of Knowledge, and how a Community of Practice can find answers and advice from practitioners other than the core group of company experts.

Here is a story from a young man I interviewed many years ago, explaining how, although only a recent graduate, he was able to share results of a study with another business unit, and so help them make the correct decision.

“I had been involved in writing a report on the success of fishing for stuck pipe* in the Gulf of Mexico. I had written this report for a manager who needed to pull together lessons in order to make a decision of whether to fish or not, and I was able to use some of the tools that we have to capture our experience, and also to go back to the databases and make some statistical analysis of our success rates. 

“One day a question comes through on the online Community of Practice forum, and the question was “what has been a success rate of fishing for stuck pipe in different areas”, and this came from another business unit on another continent. Basically it was very close to the my scenario, so I could share what I had done with them.  

“You feel the power of knowledge, and the value that this may represent, when you receive a response back saying ‘Thank you very much for your reply, because it actually helped us to make a decision’. It was an incredible experience to be able to answer a question on the forum, even with having very little experience, 2 1/2 years of experience, and already I am able to advise the whole world on some of the things that we do and how we do it”.

The last sentence shows some of the spin-off cultural benefit. This young man is now a real believer in knowledge sharing, having been “part of the process” depsite being (in experience terms) a long way down the tail.

* (Fishing for stuck pipe is what you need to do on an oil well if the drilling equipment breaks off while drilling. You can either try and fish it out (a difficult task!) or start the well over again (an expensive task!). Making the correct decision here is not easy)

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The Long Tail of experience in communiies of practice

Part of the value of communities of practice is proividing access to the Long Tail of experience

There is a tendency in many companies to see Knowledge as being the province of the Experts.

As a result, they set up expert centres to look after the knowledge, and expert networks to share knowledge between experts around the organisation.

However one of the big culture shifts within Knowledge Management is the recognition that Knowledge is the province of all Knowledge Workers, not just the experts. Expert networks will access only a small part of the knowledge of the organisation, the remainder  (the “Long Tail”) will be held by the non-expert Knowledge Workers.

Take the example shown in the graph here. The graph represents 50 workers within an organisation, with varying levels of experience from 30 years to 1 year. Initially the company decides that they will share knowledge by setting up a small network between the four experts – those with 15 or more years of experience (the red bars). Between them, these experts have 88 years of experience.

After a while, the company decides to replace the expert network with a full community of practice, where all 50 of the knowledge workers take an active role. The total years of experience within the community is now 274 – more than three times the experience than that held by the experts alone.

The value of this added experience comes when it is applied to knowledge in the work context. Knowledge is contextual – the application of knowledge changes on where it is applied, and when, and to what. The larger community has seen many more contexts, and the person who gives the advice is not necessarily the person with the longest experience, but the person with the most relevant context. Maybe that person has only been in the company a year or two, but if they have had relevant experience within that short time, they can answer the question, offer the advice, and add real value.

This is the concept of the long tail of knowledge.

The “long tail” is a term that has has gained popularity in recent times as describing the retailing strategy of selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each – usually in addition to selling fewer popular items in large quantities. The long tail of knowledge is a knowledge sharing strategy of offering a huge amount of knowledge transfer opportunities, with relatively small numbers of each particular question/answer exchange. It allows niche knowledge to be sought and found, provided the community of practice is large enough and broad enough.

Large online communities of practice allow access to the Long Tail.

Small expert groups access only the short head.

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Why is a Charter so important to a Community of Practice?

One of the most important elements for a successful community of practice is the Charter. But why is this?

Setting up an online Community of Practice can sometimes feel like going out to sea in an open boat. You are never sure what is going to happen. There are lots of unseen forces out there. All will be well if things are calm, but what if things get stormy? How will you cope with bad behaviour, or with apathy? Will you, and the community, become overwhelmed, or swamped?

These are valid worries. As I explained in this post, there is something about online dynamics that means that sooner or later, things will start to degenerate, and conversation becomes trivial, argumentative, entrenched or off-topic to an extent that the community cannot deliver its purpose. This is where the Charter comes in.

Our KM surveys identified the community charter as one of the items that made most difference to the effectiveness of a CoP (see chart above).  When group dynamics start to degenerate, the CoP leader can use the charter as a reference point and a definition of the agreed ways of working in the CoP – the unofficial “rules of engagement” if you like. It can be used as a reminder of how the CoP members collectively decided how they want to work together, and as a touchstone for community culture.

So some of the early activities you need to set up to safeguard the life of the community are as follows:

1) Agree a charter, or “rules of engagement”. This should cover the aims and objectives for the community, the roles and processes that will be employed, and also the behaviours the community members expect of each other. The great things about the charter are that firstly the new community members are clear about “what they are joining”, and secondly the community sets boundaries so that it is clear when people stray beyond them. The charter should be a foundational document for any community, and it acts as a shield against things going wrong.

2) Appoint a facilitator, or moderator. This person is appointed by the community, to help it run well. The facilitator is not a dictator, nor a policeman, and is the oil in the community wheels, and the social energy source for the community. However if serious trouble arises (flame wars, insults, spam, persistent off-topic material) the facilitator is the person who deals with it on behalf of the community; initially by reminding the offender of the charter, and at a last resort removing offending posts or even asking the offender to leave the community.

3) Regularly revisit the charter, and check that the community is working well, and adding value to the members. If the charter needs tweaking, then call a meeting of the community to rewrite it, or conduct an online discussion.

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