Privacy in Communities of Practice. Issues of disclosure and confidentiality in online learning and development.

Learners are increasingly engaged in immersive learning experiences online, sharing case studies, working their way through scenarios, carrying out assessments, but how much attention is being paid to questions of confidentiality and privacy, and how enforceable are these notions anyway?

Straightforward learning activities are easy enough, often being primarily broadcast channels, with learning being pushed out to learners, but increasingly people are engaged in dialogue and decision making in these spaces. Fully blown Communities of Practice are emerging around key subjects like Coaching and Mentoring, activities that typically involve a high level of personal disclosure and frank discussion of performance and activities. The challenge here is that we start to create indelible records of conversations, even informal ones, that may have a legacy over time.

There is great value in the types of interactions and relationships that can be built online, with the ability to liaise with people from around the world, people from other businesses who may share common challenges, or people from within your own business, but from other sites. The potential to build communities around common interests or problems is exciting, but the risks associated are also significant.

At a simple level, we may find conflicts with data protection and confidentiality legislation: remember that these forum spaces are often semi formal or informal, falling outside the typical IT infrastructure of organisations. On the one hand, they can be viewed as informal channels of discourse, but on the other, if actual individuals are identifiable from the data, they can be a significant compromise or breach of trust.

Notions of ‘protecting’ data are still vague for many people, we understand the importance of not emailing out confidential documents and keeping laptops safe, with passwords intact, but often there is less understanding of how information can be ‘farmed’ from online spaces. For example, if you subscribe to this blog, i may be able to guess your name from your email address. It may also give me your company.

With that information, i can probably find you on LinkedIn or Facebook, both of which may contain a link to your Twitter account or personal website. In short order, you can start to build a comprehensive picture of people’s online lives. I find it relatively common these days for people to ‘check me out’ online before meetings, but am still occasionally surprised when they make comments about my photography or paintings, parts of my informal online life that i keep generally separate from my ‘formal’ work spaces.

And, of course, i’m just an amateur at this. People who really know what they are doing can track down all sorts of information. This blurring of ‘formal’ online life and the vast array of informal online spaces is significant. If your manager knows that you were posting on Facebook whilst you were supposed to be working on the shop floor is one thing, but if it becomes clear that someone is discussing elements of performance management or personal development online about you, even in a constructive manner, what are the implications of this?

People often don’t appreciate what a good job the search engines do these days. Searching for my name will not only bring up my website and work profile, it will bring up every Tweet i’ve ever made and much of my Facebook activity too. But it may also bring up places i’ve posted on forums and obscure papers i published ten years ago. My online profile is largely out of my control.

Creating online Spaces, Communities of Practice, where people can safely interact and develop ideas, build solutions and challenge each other to achieve more is a great opportunity, but not without it’s own risks. Understanding and remaining safe in these spaces is essential.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
This entry was posted in Community, Community of Practice, Formal Spaces, Forum, Privacy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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