“So she posted her solution online, and then...”

Catarina Mota on TED.com If you watch TED talks, you’ll hear this phrase over and over and over again. People who are aspiring to make a difference will share their work online so others can use it and improve on it.

Yet it’s a phrase you might never hear at work.

Why not? And what can we do about it?

Eliciting contribution

What the people who deliver those TED talks know - and what any open source developer or student of the Internet knows - is that when you share your work online, you tend to identify relevant experts and elicit contribution.

This may seem obvious for famous examples like Wikipedia and Linux. But it’s true for an incredible range of things. Drones, genetics, gardening, production methods and materials, education. There’s even a blueprint for an entire civilization. Almost anything you can think of can benefit from the contribution of other people.

Given the incredible diversity of examples on the Internet, it follows that people doing similar project work for their firm would also benefit by posting it online where other employees could see it and build on it. And that firms would benefit from a culture of sharing and contribution.

3 barriers to sharing at work

Of the many possible reasons why people at work don’t emulate what we see on the Internet, there are 3 reasons I come across most often:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.

"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.

"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

One way to start improving contribution

Instead of trying to convince everyone to share and then hoping that specific topic-based networks form, you can form those networks first. Then you focus on helping a few people in that network lead through contribution. (This assumes you have a social platform at work. If you don’t, this might help you implement one.)

Here’s one possible sequence:

  • identify a specific role or kind of job at your firm
  • create a role-based community of practice to connect those people
  • teach people in that community to work out loud - making their work visible and narrating their work as they do it
  • help the community manager recognize contribution and share stories of personal and commercial value
  • work with community leaders and your initial contributors to teach others

This approach addresses the top 3 barriers. By focusing on a smaller group of people, you can better help them work out loud effectively. By concentrating the effort in a role-based community of practice, the relevance of the contribution - what you might contribute and who might use it - is more obvious. Now, individuals who are contributing don’t have to figure out how to identify relevant people because you’ve already created the exact network they need to leverage.

And credit? This comes in several forms. Social recognition from relevant peers is often powerful enough to drive continued contribution. Beyond that, though, it’s the role-based community that knows about all the good jobs within the firm. When individuals contribute, they do so for their own reputation and their access to opportunities in addition to the good of the community.

To get started, you don't need everyone to contribute. And you’re not trying to convince people about the value of social media or connecting. It's just the Internet at work.

Community by community, you're simply helping people apply the tools and practices we see on the Internet to make work better inside our firms. The value that will create is what will power a movement towards greater openness and contribution at your firm.