Solid advice for any type of social software is that the greater the transparency, the greater the benefit. This means a bias toward making information available to all, not a few. It also means associating contributions to specific individuals. Visibility of contributors gives context, improves the quality of discussions and makes it easier to find individuals with ideas and knowledge on specific subjects.
But there are occasions when it makes sense to allow individuals to contribute ideas without revealing their identity, which Spigit’s platform does allow. In these cases, the ideas and related information are visible to anyone who has eligibility to see them. However, participants in the innovation community won’t know who submitted the ideas. There are two reasons companies would enable anonymous posting:
- Employees are concerned about retribution for their ideas
- Employee identity may influence the feedback others provide
While anonymity is not recommended as a general practice, it does fit certain situations, as described below.
Concern over Retribution
In an article on the University of Texas McCombs School of Business Magazine, Assistant Professor of Management Ethan Burris described a couple of illuminating studies:
He notes a study by management researchers Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich that showed 70 percent of 260 people from a variety of industries and job types hesitated to speak up about problems at work or suggest possible improvements to their firm because they feared repercussions. A similar study by Burris’ research partner, Cornell Management Professor James Detert, found only 51 percent of employees in a Fortune 100 multinational said they felt safe speaking up most of the time.
How frustrating this must be for both senior managers and employees alike. Companies that innovate well are rewarded by shareholders. Workplaces where employees can contribute more than the tasks they are assigned – where they have an impact on operations – are highly valued and have lower turnover. Yet, something is breaking down the innovation process.
Fundamentally, this is a cultural issue. Something in the environment has sent the message that execution more than participative innovation is valued. The foundations of that culture need to be addressed.
A good start, though, is to allow people to air out their ideas without revealing their identity. The act of contributing ideas they’ve had for a while is an important event. Senior managers will learn a tremendous amount about things they’re missing. Employees’ frustration over their inability to make changes they think are needed begins to be released. And when action is taken on anonymously posted ideas, it sends a signal to the entire organization about changes in culture.
In this scenario, anonymous posting is a bridge to a more transparent culture. It is a temporary feature to be turned off when the core work environment changes.
Concern about Undue Influence
One of Spigit’s clients maintains anonymity of idea submitters for the first two stages of ideas on its platform. Why? They are concerned that if employees know the identity of the submitter, that will shade the feedback they provide on a given idea. What this company wants is a pure meritocracy of ideas.
The notion that an idea is made more (or less) attractive based on the person who submits it is not without justification. If you know that your boss submitted an idea, might that not tug at your opinion of it? Either positively or negatively? How about the head of a division? Or maybe that curmudgeonly fellow who always seems to find the negative side of initiatives?
This dynamic is described by Professor Burris:
“To me, the idea of politics is the idea that decisions are not made based solely on merit,” he says. “People have ideas, and the merit of the ideas should be weighed against each other to make a final decision. But that’s often not what actually happens. There are other factors-and voice is a great example-that prevent a meritorious decision making process from occurring.”
In this scenario, masking the identity of the idea submitter levels the playing field. One likes an idea for its merits in terms of improving the company, not because of a personal relationship or the esteem one holds for the submitter.
Unlike the retribution scenario described above, addressing the case of undue influence may be one that a company maintains longer term. The downside is a loss of connecting with others that share interests. In large, distributed corporate environments, “anonymity” is somewhat achieved by lack of personal relationships with employees across the enterprise.
It’s Not the Norm, But Anonymity Can Make Sense
By far, organizations deploy their innovation management platforms with full submitter visibility. It’s a cornerstone of social software. However, as described here, anonymous posting can make sense on a situational basis.
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(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog)