Friday, 10 February 2017

Anonymity vs. Attribution

In an earlier post, we looked at the importance of accountability to good knowledge management (KM).  Accountability underpins the effective management of anything at all – money, people, safety and definitely knowledge.
I’m now going to examine two related opposing concepts and how they can affect KM – namely, anonymity and attribution.

I’ll first look at each concept in turn, pointing out its effects and how those can be both positive or negative, depending on the context.
Then, I’ll look at how good KM is helped or hindered by them, with some suggestions on when one should be preferred over the other.


A piece of work is anonymous when its author’s identity remains unknown to us, the readers.  This has two important effects:

1.       The author can write whatever they like, released from the consequences that might otherwise result from that such freedom might have if we knew their identify;

2.       We, the readers, are forced to judge the piece of work based on its content alone, and not the identity or background of its author.

We can consider either of these effects positively or negatively, depending on the situation:

1.       Consequences

a.       Positive – a ‘whistle-blower’ is able to raise concerns about wrongdoing or crimes, protected from possible coercion from those involved;

b.       Negative – social media ‘trolls’ can abuse or threaten people online, or can spread lies or other misinformation, without consequences;

2.       Content alone; no context

a.       Positive – biases, prejudices or other ‘mental models’ cannot act as filters, which open us up to reading content we might otherwise miss;

b.       Negative – we have no way of knowing whether the writer is experienced or qualified, let alone credible and may simply be wasting our time.


A piece of work is attributed when its author’s identity is known to us, the readers.  This also has two important effects which are of course the ‘flip side’ of those relating to anonymity, above:

1.       The author is no longer free to write whatever they like, for they remain tied to the consequences that might flow from our knowing their identify;

2.       We, the readers, can now judge the piece of work in context, not solely on its content but also by taking into account the identity or background of its author.

Again, these effects can be positive or negative, depending on the situation:

1.       Consequences

a.       Positive – attributed works are generally more likely to be considered, responsible and thoughtful, since favourable reception enhances the author’s reputation;

b.       Negative – there is a risk of euphemism, obfuscation or even dishonesty, as people seek to protect themselves from negative reactions were ‘the truth’ to come out;

2.       Context applied

a.       Positive – contextual consideration helps us to understand and judge a work; focusing on those from people with credibility and expertise; as well as enabling us to follow up with the author, asking questions or offering further insight;

b.       Negative – ‘group-think’ may occur, as fewer sources are considered, thereby increasing the risk of missing a perspective that might be valid but never gets heard.

How do these affect KM?

I’ll now run through a list of KM interventions or tools, highlighting the use they make of anonymity or attribution:

·        KM Assessments – at Knoco, our assessment and benchmarking service involves interviewing people drawn from across the client organisation, to understand how they work with knowledge and identify areas for improvement.  The output, either a written report or slides, or both, contains anonymised quotes from these interviews help to bring the report to life and show what things are really like.  For example, whilst the report might state refer to ‘silos’ and ‘inter-departmental relationships’, a killer quote really makes the point far more vividly, thus: “Tribalism is a problem here still; everyone knows this but it's not acceptable to say so publically; it's an undiscussable. It persists because top management do nothing to address it.”  Here, anonymity gives senior management an insight that normal, open reporting channels would not permit.

·        Knowledge-harvesting Interviews – these are a very effective way of getting knowledge out of people’s heads and into a form that can reach far more of their colleagues than would be possible face-to-face.  We would almost always recommend that the output be attributable, so that readers can follow up with the interviewee if they have questions or comments.  Also, it means that the output is more credible because the readers know who it came from – usually an acknowledged expert in a particular field, hence the interview.  When attributed interview transcripts are typed up and distributed or posted online, the interviewee should always have the right to review and edit the output for the simple reason that others will not engage if they hear that they might be misquoted or have their words used against them in some way.

·        Knowledge Assets – these are often created with reference to many different interviews and other KM capture activities and, as with interview transcripts, should generally be attributed, for the same reasons.  Providing the contributors’ name and contact details enables users to get in touch and offer further insights or feedback – something that is not possible if the content is all anonymous.  Also, anonymous content, unless it has gone through an established and credible validation process, will always lack the credibility of its attributed counterpart.  People need to know where the guidance and advice is coming from, otherwise they will be reluctant to use it.

o   Case-study – Some years ago, working as an analyst for the British Army’s newly-formed Lessons Exploitation Centre, I helped to produce a series of ‘Good Practice Guides’, full of anonymous insights and advice gleaned from Post-Operational Reports and Interviews.  It took time for us to earn a reputation as a credible source of knowledge and, with hindsight, I think we should have retained the source and author of each ‘nugget’, in order to show its provenance and enabled readers to follow up.

o   By contrast, a Battlegroup from my Regiment (The Rifles) produced a very helpful and credible post-tour handbook, full of insights, advice, tactics and case-studies – each of which was fully-sourced and attributed, enabling readers to judge the validity for themselves.

·        Lessons – At Knoco we help organisations capture lessons at the end of projects through the Retrospect process – a facilitated discussion between project team members, to identify learning points and make recommendations for the future.  Facilitation is needed to help participants examine events in a structured way, and this outsider, with no direct knowledge of the project, can ensure that lessons are written for the benefit of future users as opposed to recording events merely for posterity.  Lessons will be written up so as to balance the candour needed for effective reflection whilst protecting participants from direct quotation.  Like with interviews, draft lessons are returned to a project team member for review and editing, to ensure accuracy whilst reassuring future participants.

·        Knowledge Exchanges – these events bring people together to focus upon and discuss one particular topic, to facilitate the creation or update of a Knowledge Asset (see above), or to enable direct transfer between those with knowledge to those in need of it.  As with any KM activity, Terms of Reference help to ensure that all participants understand the event’s purpose and approach.  Notably, some events may use what are termed here in the UK as ‘Chatham House rules’, which means that formal capture and publication of any content may be allowed, but only without attribution.  The aim of such an approach is to enable speakers to do so more freely than they otherwise might, if they thought their every word would appear in print in due course.

·        Discussion forums – available across the internet as well as within medium or large organisations, these enable users to raise questions or start a discussion on a particular topic.  Most internet forums enable users to use an anonymous ‘handle’, thereby leading to honesty that may be painful, the ‘trolling abuse’ mentioned above, as well as running the risk that contributions are either unhelpful or even mendacious.  Some forums nowadays enable users to score both individual users and their contributions based on how ‘useful’ they have been.  Over time, this enables users to acquire ‘credibility’, thereby addressing, albeit partially, the issue of whether users should trust advice from an anonymous source.  Internal forums usually retain users’ identity, to enable subsequent follow-up and offline discussion, as well as ensuring that debate remains, for the whole part, civilised.

o   Case-study – Mumsnet is a well-known parenting forum where users can seek help or ask for insights on virtually any topic, albeit with a domestic bias.  99.9% of users have anonymous handles and debate is forthright.  Interestingly, users can and do change their name at any point and many do so, temporarily, in order to offer contributions that they feel unable to make from behind their (still anonymous) online persona.  Proof perhaps that sometimes we don’t like having to remain accountable for things we say, even amongst people whom we have never met.

A final observation – I used to work as a trained Samaritans volunteer, something I’ve mentioned before with relation to KM, here.
There are a number of factors that combine to enable Samaritans to do their job, which is to provide emotional support to people in crisis, including those that may be feeling suicidal.  However, the most important one, in my view, is the fact that callers and visitors to Samaritans centres can be 100% anonymous if they wish, and can share as much or as little about their lives as they wish.

This freedom means there is no comeback.  Which means they can be 100% honest – something they can’t be with their husbands, wives, partners, friends or colleagues.  It’s very hard to let those to whom we are closest see us at our most vulnerable but, somewhat paradoxically, it’s far easier to do so with complete strangers, to whom we shall probably never speak again.

I hope I have shown that neither anonymity nor attribution are always appropriate.  What matters is the outcome that we as KMers are trying to achieve – if we need warts and all honesty to understand truly what happened, then anonymity will help but we run the risk the output may not be wholly credible. 

Conversely, if we want to enable feedback and continued engagement with credible sources, attribution will be needed, with the understanding that there may not be full transparency, at least not until trust has been established.

For a conversation about anonymity and attribution and how they affect KM, please contact me direct or via the Knoco website.

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