Why would these manufacturing companies want to Work Out Loud?

This month I began working with three new clients: a mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company. These are not the kind of clients I ever expected to have, and yet there I was, helping each of them spread Working Out Loud Circles

Why would they care?

In the mining company, it’s HR sponsoring the initiative. They’re integrating WOL Circles into a graduate training program and a digital leaders program, and both groups are looking for ways to help employees be connected, effective, and engaged.

The Chief Digital Officer sponsored the kick-off in the chemical company. They have a wide-reaching remit, including expanding the use and impact of the internal social tools, and Circles will help them tap into more intrinsic motivation for using those tools.

The steel company was different. The initial effort was sponsored by the head of internal communications, who wanted to drive adoption of tools and make the culture even more open and collaborative. But HR was also involved, and we quickly began talking about other challenges where WOL could help.

There is no one best way to introduce Working Out Loud into an organization. It depends on the people, the environment, and the culture. Sometimes WOL is another skill you can learn in the corporate training academy, and sometimes it’s integrated into an existing program like one of these:

  • On-boarding
  • Graduate training
  • Digital transformation
  • Career mobility
  • Talent development
  • Leadership development
  • Diversity
  • Innovation
  • Mentoring

To find your own best way, join a Circle yourself or spread the first few at your organization. A mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company are all ready to try something new: scalable, hands-on, social learning to help their people develop new skills and make their organizations better. 

Are you and your organization ready? 

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.