Completely unofficial: grass-roots WOL in a large organisation

This morning, I received a special email from the University of Melbourne that contained two videos and a blog post about their experience with Working Out Loud. They're so good on so many levels, I had to share them.

I loved learning about how and why they started, the advice they would give to others, and the individual changes they experienced that can help change their culture too. The personal stories in the videos brought it all to life.

They’ve done it all on their own. Now I hope I can help them adapt and spread the practice. If I’m lucky, I’ll see them in Australia next year.

Their stories inspire me. I hope they inspire you too. 


Completely unofficial: grass-roots WOL in a large organisation

by Mark Brodsky, ML Huppatz and Margaret L Ruwoldt

August 2016

For non-academic staff at the University of Melbourne, the first months of 2015 were unusually difficult. Around 3000 jobs had been redesigned, a new shared-services business model was introduced, cost-saving targets were announced, and many people felt exhausted by change and uncertain about the future.

The University was urging staff to think differently about their work practices and we had a relatively new Chief Operating Officer whose personal working style incorporates elements of Working Out Loud. With the COO's behind-the-scenes encouragement we decided to introduce Working Out Loud (WOL) as a grass-roots initiative, hoping that perhaps a few people would be interested in giving it a try.

We held two info sessions to explain the process as we understood it (for we had not done anything like this before either). Imagine our surprise when almost 50 showed up!

So WOL was launched at the University of Melbourne with 30 enthusiastic participants organised into six Circles. As these groups worked their way through the 12-week program, ripples of influence started to appear. There was more activity in the University's Yammer network. The subject of Working Out Loud popped up at staff forums, in conversations at coffee shops and at unrelated project meetings.

Three Circle participants -- Sara, Dale and Karin -- kindly agreed to share their thoughts on those first few weeks of Working Out Loud.

In 2015 nearly 100 University staff volunteered to try a new way of working. Sara, Dale and Karin explain why they joined the Working Out Loud program.

By September 2015 interest in Working Out Loud at UoM was growing. Almost 200 people came to the WOL session at the annual professional staff conference, after which around 80 signed up for round two of WOL Circles.

As organisers, we wanted to explore different options for implementing Working Out Loud in our particular organisation. For each Circles program, we made slightly different choices around planning and supporting the groups. Here are three things we learned from the experience.

1. Build strong foundations

Some administration is required at the beginning: sorting people into groups based on their availability for the weekly meetings; explicitly confirming the meeting arrangements with each participant; and making sure everyone understands their role and the level of commitment expected from them. Pre-meetings with the people that had volunteered to lead the circles were also important in ensuring a good start.

The minimum viable number of members in a WOL Circle seems to be four. We found it best to start with a group of 5-6 people and accept that there would be occasional absences or drop-outs. Groups that started with 3-4 regular attendees were less successful, as it was more difficult to maintain enthusiasm and peer support.

2. Actively encourage growth

The Circle Guides and the book provide plenty of guidance in clear, simple language. Although this is a good foundation, we found that Circles only thrived when we provided extra community-building support.

We did this in various ways:

  • weekly emails to participants, reminding them of progress through the 12 weeks and pointing to extra reading or other resources to enhance that week's homework
  • posts to the WOL group in UoM's Yammer community, linking to interesting articles or videos and answering questions
  • holding 3-4 meetings with Circle Leaders to discuss how their groups were progressing, elicit cross-group suggestions and build peer support among the leaders
  • hosting information sessions where Circle participants could share their knowledge and learnings with the broader group

Acknowledging milestones is also important, especially the start and end of the 12-week program. Milestones are good opportunities to share stories about personal journeys, helping to renew people's energy and commitment.

3. Learn as you go

Working Out Loud can be adapted to suit the particular culture and circumstances of your organisation -- and there's nothing wrong with adjusting your approach along the way.

For example, because of the recent restructure, many Melbourne University participants chose goals that focused on understanding the new business model and establishing new connections within the University. This made social media, especially external channels like Twitter and Facebook, less useful. Instead we saw networks developing via Yammer, email and catch-ups over coffee. We also produced a handout listing the different ways of sharing documents and ideas within the University: shared drives, internal email lists, and so on.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the new ways of working, we found that establishing trust between group members was essential. As organisers we tried to encourage this by showing our own vulnerability and by being highly visible as participants in our own Circles. We also emphasised the importance of using Circle meetings for the more valuable interaction and peer-coaching activities, rather than using that time for the individual exercises.

The Melbourne experience: outcomes and new challenges

In the last 18 months we've heard many great stories about how Working Out Loud opening up new opportunities for our colleagues at Melbourne University.

In the second part of their video Sara, Dale and Karin describe how Working Out Loud has changed their working lives.

At the end of the 12-week Working Out Loud program Sara, Dale and Karin reflect on what they’ve learned and how their work has been enriched by the experience.

We've heard similar stories from many other participants:

  • Kate found the confidence to give presentations in front of large audiences.
  • Danielle figured out how to tackle a challenging project -- and found other people who were keen to help with delivering it.
  • Ben was invited to give a presentation at an international conference of leaders in 360-degree photography.
  • Rochelle and Belinda changed career paths and Eliana led a successful, high-profile project to redesign a key business process.

To date Working Out Loud has touched only a small proportion of staff at the University of Melbourne. Meanwhile surveys continue to show that many of our colleagues are searching for an increased sense of connection with other parts of the University. The central human resources team has expressed interest in rolling out Working Out Loud as a University-level professional development program.

And our own stories? Working Out Loud has changed us, too. ML and Margaret are planning to convene WOL groups across multiple universities over the next 12 months; and Mark is in the midst of his own career change. We’ve learnt new skills and have started sharing our work in different ways. We're moving on, working out loud as we go.

This article is based on a presentation to the Knowledge Management Australia annual congress held in Melbourne, August 2016.