Argh. When a helpful example is kept confidential

Published by Tony Quinlan on

No great thoughts today – the upcoming post on how not to restrict necessary feedback is drawing those for the moment.

Instead, an observation for those of us who use micro-narrative research for sensemaking and organisational culture. I’m engaged today in starting data exploration and visualisation for a client project. We’re running a big workshop with 100 leaders next week to make sense of the data and develop next actions, insights and organisational experiments.

First step today is the necessary, but slightly dull, task of going through the data and looking for all those stories that participants have requested stay confidential. (It’s a crucial element – giving people the chance to voice something meaningful, but in a way that helps them feel safe doing so. The signification meta-data is still viewable and helpful, even if we can never read the story.) It’s a mechanical process – go through the dataset and go back into the server to replace all story and title texts with “withheld for participant confidentiality”.

I try not to get drawn into the stories – avoiding the pattern-entrainment temptation of a good story in favour of the more independent approach of starting with data patterns. Inevitably, I catch a glimpse of the opening lines of a couple – and some of the stories are great. Both of problems and of successes: “I love working here because…”, “Someone needs to fix…”

And they’re confidential. So the client team will never see them.

Because it’s more important that people trust the tool and that when we say confidential, we mean it. Still. Great exemplars disappearing into the ether. Argh.


David Tebbutt · 4 November 2019 at 3:46 pm

Couldn’t you anonymise them?

    Tony Quinlan · 4 November 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Potentially, but I think there are three issues. In reverse order of importance:
    1. Volume – today’s dataset has over 100. Going through all 100, reading, editing, etc would take more resource than most projects have budget for.
    2. Context – anonymity is not just about your name, but a bunch of other contextual factors. Are the events in the story only visible from one role? Understanding all those identifying factors would require a deeper understanding of the context than we normally have from the outside.
    3. Trust – I’m happier letting those stories disappear into the ether in order to build trust with people rather than look for loopholes to be able to share an example that someone was anxious about. And I’d rather lose the stories (and keep the signification data) than not get the anxious stories in the first place.

    It’s a frustration – but I think a trade-off worth making. Although you’ve no doubt had more experience of anonymising things than I do – have I missed something in my simplistic interpretation of “anonymising”?

David Tebbutt · 4 November 2019 at 3:47 pm

Would help if I spelt anonymise correctly.

    Tony Quinlan · 4 November 2019 at 4:28 pm

    I tweaked it 🙂 And now I’m looking at the word “anonymise” and can’t make it look right in my head…

David May · 5 November 2019 at 6:49 pm

I’m afraid this falls even more into the “no great thoughts” department but I was struck by the possible anachronism of the vehicle: when we appear to live in a post-sense world as much as a post-fact one, is there a role for a SenseMaker? (Yes, I’m being facetious bas much as despairing.)

    Tony Quinlan · 6 November 2019 at 9:18 am

    Sadly, I think people are making their own sense regardless of the facts. And yet that’s what we’ve always done as human beings…

    It’s interesting to me that on some projects we let people tell us stories that they’ve heard of rather than have happened to them. (It’s particularly useful in situations where people feel they can’t talk about situations or own up to their own behaviour.) And we let them say “this happened to someone else” and even “this is a rumour”. The former being much more common than the latter!

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