Leveraging the 1% rule

While more organizations are investing in digital tools so people can collaborate, most of them find themselves confronting the same obstacle: participation inequality. 

If you’re a member of an online community, you’re already seen this. The term was introduced in 2006 by the Nielsen Norman group, known for their work on intranet design and usability, in an article titled, “The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities.” It’s often generalized to “the 1% rule.” 

“In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

So what do you do if your organization is spending money on tools for people to collaborate, and yet so few people are contributing?

Attempting to change the rule

There is a lot of good advice on driving adoption of new tools. I’ve even written some myself

For example, you might focus on training, so people know how to use the tools. Or you could start with processes, so use of the new tools is embedded in the work people are doing. You may even focus on a new class of professionals, community managers, whose role is to encourage online participation. 

All of these are good ideas. In practice, though, they don’t seem to be enough to help organizations realize the potential of collaborative technologies.

What if, instead of trying to get everyone to participate, you focused on helping 1% participate in a way that was more effective? In a way that could spread more readily?

A different approach

You can do this by spreading Working Out Loud Circles, the peer support groups in which individuals choose a goal and deepen relationships with people related to that goal. (There’s a variation of this process for shared goals, teams, and leaders too.) 

The Circle Guides help individuals use the tools in ways that are intrinsically appealing, ways that more clearly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

When I work with organizations, we customize the public guides so they are specific to the organization’s goals, culture, and technology. We use their examples in the exercises, highlighting different ways to contribute ideas, issues, and improvements.

The Circles are still confidential, and they’re still designed to tap into each person’s sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It’s just that the customized guides make it easy for individuals to know what to do and to feel positive about doing it

The Circle Guides essentially encode collaborative behaviors into a self-directed social learning process. The Circle members’ personal experiences, as survey results show, help them see these behaviors as good for them and good for the organization. The personal fulfillment they experience, plus the repeated practice in the Circle, help the new behaviors become habitual.

When 1% of your organization Works Out Loud

“Good for them,” you might say. “But what about everyone else who isn’t in a Circle?”

This is where the leverage comes in. 

By equipping your 1% with the set of specific collaborative behaviors in the Circle Guides, you’re making those behaviors visible. Rather than just hoping for meaningful contributions, you’ve helped people make them in a systematic way. 

Those contributions - sharing work that can be helpful to others -  are what the other 99% will be seeing. That social proof will help other people know what to do, and motivate yet more people to join circles, so the 1% becomes 2%, then 3%. (One company approaching their 100th Circle observed how Circle participants were using their social intranet: “Many of them we hadn’t seen before.”)

Because of participation inequality, even 1% of your company working in an open, networked way can make a difference in your company’s culture, and can unlock more connections, contributions, and collaboration from the rest.