How can enterprises balance the good and the bad of digital transparency?

This post is part 3 in a 5-part series focusing on the potential impact of social media within the enterprise. Part 1 dealt with a framework for understanding how social media supports relationships and content in ways that both enable and constrain employees. Part 2 addressed the multiple types of relationships that social media supports, compared to earlier generations of collaboration tools. This third installment focuses on the implications of presenting and protecting content on organizational collaboration. This series is based on an article published in Vol 14, No 1 (2015) of MIS Quarterly Executive.

Information placed online often takes on a life of its own. When I attended business school in the late 1990s, the rule of thumb was to never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your spouse or your boss to see.

Today, we admonish both employees and children alike to take great care about what they put online, because it is not easily controllable once in cyberspace and may be online forever. Perhaps the adage should be revised in light of current capabilities — never put anything online that you wouldn’t want your future spouse or future boss to see.

The transparency and permanence of digital content, however, can have its benefits for organizations. When information behaves in unexpected ways, it can also find its way to places it can be beneficial that were not identified beforehand. While email tends to lock information into very private silos of knowledge intended for specific persons and purposes, social media tools can often liberate that valuable information for use elsewhere in the enterprise.

Transparency can allow others to benefit from information shared in normal interaction. For example, Discover Financial Services learned that allowing people to “overhear” the conversations of others as they occurred led to a massive increase in an awareness of who knows what in the organization.

Permanence also allows this information to be used by others at a later time. For instance, the German chemical company BASF found that when project teams used social media platforms for collaboration, it was easier for new members to get up to speed quickly with the project team.

Of course, transparency and permanence are not always a good thing. In one company I have worked with, the more transparent communication led to increased fear and anxiety among employees that senior management was monitoring them — a fear that had some merit.

In another example, one company’s social media platform led employees to engage in rampant self-promotion that choked off productive conversation. While people actively contributed to the site, our data showed that people actually stopped paying attention to the platform because it was full of noise associated with “building one’s personal brand.” The most active collaboration took place in private groups that were shielded from this self-promoting behavior.

Current platforms often provide very powerful tools for controlling the level of transparency and permanence for shared content. As companies begin to adopt more sophisticated communication tools for collaboration, considerable thought is needed to embrace the right amount of transparency for particular purposes. There are merits and drawbacks to both public and semi-private communication (i.e., within a project groups) for different business purposes in most organizations.

Taking it one step further, there are likely merits to supporting secure, private online communication within the firm. These features would be similar to Mark Cuban’s new venture, CyberDust, a platform that guarantees that messages will not be saved or preserved. Any employee who has hesitated to share sensitive information via phone or email can recognize the value of a robustly implemented secure private messaging in organizations.

Authenticity, Anonymity, and Pseudonymity

In most enterprise social media platforms, there is a high degree of authenticity in online profiles, in that employees’ identities online typically match their offline identities. Nevertheless, many platforms support varying degrees of anonymity. Anonymous communication platforms, such as YikYak, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Of course, consistent with previous research on online anonymity, it often leads to antisocial and extreme behavior, because people know they will not be accountable for what they have said.

On the other hand, the research also shows some benefits of anonymity as well. It also allows people more freedom to express their ideas without fear of repercussions, which leads to greater creativity and more novel ideas.

For example, many companies have experimented with prediction markets, where employees make bets on the likelihood of certain events that are relevant to the company. Anonymity is critical in this situation, because it allows employees to make unpopular predictions. Anonymity can also free employees to share valuable information and honest opinions, because it can protect them from the political ramifications for doing so. Members of a project team, for instance, can use this mechanism to predict that that their project will not finish on schedule. These employees might be reluctant to share that information if they know their manager is aware they are expressing that sentiment, yet it could prove invaluable for upper management — and anonymity can help to encourage the necessary communication.

A compromise position between anonymity and authenticity, however, may be pseudonymity — where the online identity is not connected to the employees' offline identity but it is consistent within the platform (and often known to the platform operators). Examples of pseudonymity include Wikipedia user identities, Xbox gamer profiles, or World of Warcraft characters. It can encourage employees to express themselves more freely, but it also may limit the worst excesses of anonymity by being able to rein in or cut off abusive accounts.

The Adaptive Enterprise

Current collaboration platforms provide considerable control over who can access information, as well as identifying who shared it. This control allows managers to better adapt enterprise collaboration to certain types of collaborative goals. One set of features may be appropriate for one type of collaborative goal, while a different set of features may be more appropriate for another. Getting the right set of controls in place for the right set of goals can help share information across the enterprise, create more robust and efficient project teams, and unlock employee creativity — all at the same time.