Information placed online often takes on a life of its own. In the late 1990s, the rule of thumb was to never put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want your spouse or boss to see; today, we admonish people to take great care about what they put online because it is not easily controllable and might be in cyberspace forever.
Perhaps the adage should be revised: 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 benefits for organizations.
While e-mail tends to lock information into private silos of knowledge intended for specific persons and purposes, social media can often liberate that valuable information for use elsewhere in the enterprise.
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.
Of course, transparency and permanence are not always a good thing. In one company, 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 contributed to the site, our data showed that employees stopped paying attention because it was full of noise associated with “building one’s personal brand.” The most active collaboration took place in private groups shielded from self-promoting behavior.
Current platforms provide 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 public and semi-private communication (i.e., within a project group) for different business purposes.
Taking it one step further, there are probably 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 messages will not be saved or preserved.
Any employee who has hesitated to share sensitive information via phone or e-mail can recognize the value of secure private messaging.
Authenticity, anonymity, and pseudonymity
In most enterprise social media platforms, there is a high degree of authenticity in online profiles, in that employees’ online identities online typically match their offline ones. Nevertheless, many platforms support varying degrees of anonymity.
Anonymous communication platforms, such as YikYak, have become popular in recent years. Of course, it often leads to antisocial and extreme behavior because people know they will not be accountable.
On the other hand, research shows anonymity allows people more freedom to express their ideas without fear of repercussions, which leads to greater creativity and novelty. Anonymity can free employees to share valuable information and honest opinions.
Members of a project team, for instance, can use this mechanism to predict 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. Anonymity can help to encourage the necessary communication.
A compromise position between anonymity and authenticity might be pseudonymity — where the online identity is not connected to the employee’s offline identity but is consistent within the platform (and often known to the platform operators). It can encourage employees to express themselves more freely but might also limit the worst excesses of anonymity.This article draws from “Digital Transparency and Permanence,” Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. It is the third of a five-part series on enterprise social media. Copyright 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. All Rights Reserved.