Is Enterprise Anonymity an Oxymoron?

As I’ve discussed here a few times, individual enterprises have a couple big advantages over the Internet as a whole as they work to encourage the use of new platforms for communication and collaboration.  Business leaders can shape their companies’ cultures and incentives to drive blogging, tagging, wiki contributions, podcasting, etc.  On the Web, in contrast, cultures have to be built from scratch (as this memoir from Larry Sanger makes clear, culture-building at Wikipedia has been intense, ongoing, and contentious) and incentives come mostly from within contributors themselves —  their desires to be altruistic or more productive.

The obvious big advantage of the Web over the enterprise is its massive scale.  With hundreds of millions of people online, it’s not too surprising that about 2000 of them have apparently devoted much of their lives to Wikipedia, becoming what that community defines as ‘very active users.’  Some other Web-wide platforms are also big enough to benefit from the power law of participation and so gain the benefits of emergence.

Another big advantage of the Web so far, and one that’s a bit less obvious, is the fact that its participants can choose their levels of anonymity.  As a New Yorker cartoon pointed out in 1993,  "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog."  People can choose exactly how much they want to reveal about themselves as they participate in Web platforms.  It’s perfectly possible for me to maintain my anonymity and set up a blog, comment on others’ blogs, rise up through the ranks of Wikipedians, set up a MySpace page, look for a mate or a date on Craigslist, post a bunch of photos to Flickr, etc.  As I did all of this, any required communication could happen via email, IM, IRC, etc. using aliases that hid my true identity.

Of course, this is a huge double-edged sword.  Anonymity and the difficulty of ascertaining true identity are great boons to trolls, terrorists, spewers of hate speech, spammers, predators, hackers, and all the other folk who reverse network effects and reduce the Web’s value for the rest of us.    

The drawbacks of the Web’s anonymity are real, but so are its advantages.  Anonymity lets people express themselves without fear of reprisal, and without being subject to the possibly harsh judgments of their peers.  It can let them bring important truths to light and whistle-blow without fear of losing their jobs, demolishing their careers, or losing their standing in a community that means something to them (recall that Mark Felt was a high-ranking FBI official while he was acting as Deep Throat.).

It can also let them be several people at once.  Many people have interests wholly unrelated to their professional lives, and would prefer that the two not mingle.  It’s not that these outside interests are sleazy; it’s just that they involve different communities, different vocabularies, different norms, etc.  Web platforms can be a great way to participate in many separate communities without having them bleed into each other.

In short, online anonymity has its drawbacks, but it accelerates self-expression and the good that goes along with it.  But anonymity is very hard to come by inside the enterprise, and digital anonymity is close to impossible.  Let’s say I wanted to send our new Dean Jay Light a note telling him some things I think he should know about the burdens and oppression suffered by HBS junior faculty (this is a purely hypothetical example; we actually have a great working environment).  I’d want him to have confidence that the note actually did come from a junior faculty member here, but I wouldn’t want him (or anyone else) be able to trace it back to me; I’d want to be the Deep Throat of HBS.

So what would I do?  A paper letter or an email from a Gmail or Yahoo! account could have come from any Yahoo.  An email from my HBS account, however, immediately identifies me.  I don’t have any good way to digitally communicate within this community as a member of the community, but with anonymity.

Now let’s flip the problem around and imagine that Dean Light wants to get the most honest responses possible from the junior faculty (or the  research assistants, current MBA students, staff, alums, etc.)  on issues he considers important.  What would he do?  Have lots of one-on-ones?  Set up a suggestion box?  Set up a special-purpose email address?  And what if he wanted us to  be able to react to each other’s answers?  Would he set up focus groups facilitated by a third party?

Each of these methods would probably yield some useful results, but they all fall short of fostering maximum freedom of expression while at the same time ensuring that all contributions actually come from within the community.  

These two goals are actually not mutually incompatible.  In fact, they can both be easily realized with current tools.  The key is to include a third party into the mix in addition to the enterprise and its workforce. The role of this third party —  let’s call it a go-between — is to provide assurances to the enterprise that communications are actually coming from designated contributors while also assuring contributors that they’ll remain anonymous to the enterprise, and to each other.  

The mechanics are pretty simple.  If Jay Light wants to find out what the HBS junior faculty think about a set of issues, he directs the go-between to send each of us an email with instructions, a password, and a URL within the go-between’s domain name.  We go to the URL and enter our passwords.  We’re then assigned special-purpose usernames (something like ‘juniorfac1xx”) and given access to all the platforms (discussion boards, wikis, blogs, chat sessions, etc.) and channels (Web-based email) that Jay has set up.  If he wants us to see each other’s replies, he uses platforms; if he doesn’t, he uses channels.  We then fire away.  If he wants to follow up with any of us the go-between forwards his email to us and lets us reply using our special-purpose usernames.  

To reassure me that HBS couldn’t use its servers’ log files to find out who was saying what, I’d want to make sure that all my contributions were made within the go-between’s domain name.  And Jay would want to be sure that if anyone started using the platforms to post threats or harassments, then HBS could learn their true identity and take action to protect the community.  This implies that the enterprise, the workforce, and the go-between would have to agree in advance on a few rules of engagement.  And that we’d all have to trust the go-between to respect them.

In this scheme, the fact that true identities could be revealed would probably be enough to keep most people from using the go-between to pursue vendettas or launch personal attacks.  The role of go-between is tailor-made for software as a service.

I’m excited about Enterprise 2.0 because I think it allows legitimately new modes of collaboration — it lets people work together in ways that were just not previously possible.  The capability to have anonymous online contributions and dialogues within the enterprise is potentially a quite valuable addition to the Enterprise 2.0 toolkit.  This capability would let companies have difficult conversations even when there’s not a high level of what my colleague Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety —  "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."  IT certainly doesn’t make this shared belief any less important, but it can be a substitute for it in narrow but important ways.