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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5 types of conversation – only one works for KM

Knowledge Management is a combination of content management and conversation management, but which sort of conversations do we need?

Conversation is widely recognised as the best Knowledge Management tool there is. Tacit knowledge and true understanding can be shared through conversation, but not through every type of conversation.

The problem is that conversations do many things, and knowledge sharing is only one of them. Understanding how conversations work, and being able to influence conversations styles through facilitation, are vital tools for the knowledge manager.

Here 5 common types of conversation. This is not an exhaustive list!

  • Small talk. Small talk is the social communication where the fact of communicating is more important than the words. “Hi, how are you? What a nice day!” all really mean “I see you, I recognise you, I have, or want to create, a social bond with you”.  Banter is one type of small talk. Gossip is another (though gossip is also a form of reporting and debriefing). Much of the interaction we see on Facebook, for example, is small talk (lol). Small talk has a vital social role, but does not share knowledge.
  • Social cohesion. Social cohesion conversation is like small talk, but the purpose is to gain social cohesion through agreement. Reminiscence is a social cohesion tool – “Hey, do you remember when …. Did you see that moment in the second half of the game where he ….”. The “Like” button is a social cohesion tool – “I am on your side”. The problem with social cohesion conversation is that it can completely mask the truth. The Solomon Asch experiment showed how social pressure means that individuals will often agree to something they know to be incorrect, in order not to disagree with the rest of the group – not to be “off-side”. Facilitators in knowledge management sessions such as Knowledge Exchange and Peer Assist need to be very much aware of the social cohesion aspect, and actively search for the dissenting voices. The only “side” to be on, in knowledge sharing, is the side of the truth.
  • Reporting and debriefing. These are conversations (or more often, serial monologues) where people state facts and occasional opinions. Most project meetings are like this. These meetings are vital to have, but are only very superficially “knowledge sharing” meetings. Facts are shared, deep understanding generally is not shared. People go away “better informed, but none the wiser”. If reporting and debriefing is the only type of conversation which happens in your projects, you need to introduce some  different processes, such as After Action Review, and Retrospect.
  • Argument and debate. These are the “win/lose” conversations. Someone has an opinion, and defends it against alternative opinions. Very often this is tied into the issue of status – “I am the expert – my opinion must be defended as it gives me my status; if I lose the argument my status will be weakened”. Debate is a milder form of argument, but both debate and argument carry the concept of winning. In debate and argument, people listen to and question their opponents statements in order to find weaknesses and loopholes. Many of the discussions on Linked-In are arguments, debates, or serial monologues. Argument and debate are hopeless for knowledge-sharing. As Thomas Jefferson said – “”I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument.” The body language in the picture above suggests that this is a debate or argument.
  • Dialogue. As described in this HBR article, dialogue is the primary tool for knowledge sharing in organisations. The goal of dialogue is not winning, nor convincing, nor agreeing, but reaching a deeper level of collective understanding. In dialogue, people listen to and question the statements of others in order to understand why they hold these views. Dialogue requires listening skills as well as debating skills. In dialogue, people allow their opinions to be challenged (and indeed, welcome that challenge). In dialogue, everyone leans in to the conversation. Dialogue requires trust and openness. Dialogue is a very difficult conversational style to achieve, and until it becomes second nature in an organisation, the role of the facilitator may be vital. The facilitator watches the conversation, defuses argument, challenges group-think, ensures assumptions are questioned, seeks out the dissenting voices and the unshared opinions, and keeps the process of the conversation on track to it’s stated goal – that of building shared understanding. 
Without good facilitation, dialogue can easily degenerate into debate and argument, or even further into opinion-stating, social cohesion and small-talk, and the opportunity for effective knowledge sharing is lost.

Ensure you focus on Dialogue as part of your Conversation Management

Contact us for KM process facilitation, or for facilitator training.

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