The WOL Pilot Program: 25 People in 6 Countries

It was much more intense than I expected. For five days in a row, 25 of us from places as far apart as Auckland, Stuttgart, and Palo Alto worked on how to spread the practice of working out loud.

It was intended as a pilot for a course and certification program, but it may turn out to be something more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 5.05.03 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 5.05.03 PM

The planned program

The original idea for the program included training, support, and certification.

Training would be delivered via video over a week, with new content prepared specifically for it. Support would last for 6 months after the training, and participants would join monthly calls and get support from me via email. Certification meant recognition on workingoutloud.com for those who completed the training, participated in a circle, and had experience spreading it.

It seemed pretty straightforward. Over the last few months, I prepared for the training, offered it for free, and spent last week delivering it.

What actually happened

Like any course, there was an agenda and material for each day. The technology, thankfully, worked beautifully. But the best part of the week were the things I didn’t expect.

The learning came from everywhere. People didn’t just learn from me or the material. We all learned from each other. Every day,different people presented what they were doing inside their organizations, and we all learned about ways to start, scale, and adapt the practice. This included, for example, detailed techniques for collecting data on circle effectiveness and for nurturing circles as they spread.

It was personal. We got to know each other, and the stories of how people were applying the practice were incredibly varied and inspiring. On listening to people share their personal motivations, one person said, “I sat there with my ears and mouth open, listening to their stories. I am just beginning to realize where WOL can take me.”

New possibilities already appeared. Perhaps most surprising was how several participants already created new possibilities for themselves as a direct result of spreading working out loud. We heard stories of people who spread the practice and gained influence or responsibility. Several participants proposed spreading it and got new jobs or projects. Independent consultants created new opportunities with big clients.

The next 6 months

As one person said during the week, it felt like a community of practice, people who came together to advance the state of a practice we care about.

Now it’s time for all of us to take some steps. That will include the monthly meetings and other support for the next six months, and we’ll expand both ideas. Each month, we’ll feature presentations from other organizations and work through specific coaching examples. We’ll use several collaboration platforms to stay connected, and we’ll expand a common library of material. Some of that will be public, and some will be private within the community so we can share a broader range of examples and content.

The key is that as each of us tries something - spreading working out loud in an organization, adapting it for a client, advancing our individual practice - we’ll know we can rely on the community and a wealth of resources to help us.

The next time the program will be offered

Everyone who participated in the pilot made a contribution that will make future offerings even better. I’m deeply grateful for that and for the entire experience last week.

At the end of the training, I asked people for anonymous feedback as to whether they would recommend the program when it is offered for a fee. They all said yes. My favorite response was “Absolutely, fundamentally, unequivocally, without hesitation….Yes."

They all see that Working Out Loud helps people access more opportunities and feel better each day. Increasingly, they’re seeing that more organizations want to spread the practice - and the benefits of increased engagement, digital literacy, ability to collaborate, and more.

Some organizations will hire people to deliver customized programs for them. Some will try it on their own. And now some will have an option of sending one or more of their employees to become part of a community that will help them and their organization succeed at a fraction of the cost of traditional development or change programs.

I’ll send out an announcement when the next session will take place. In the meantime, you can register your interest with a comment below.

I’m looking forward to our community of practice getting bigger and better.

The Value of Collaboration #5: Using purposeful communities to optimize spend

Finding & fixing holes at work In some cases, collective efficiency is about specific kinds of cost reductions - printing, mobile bills, service costs. But sometimes it can be about a general technique you can apply to a wide array of costs.

This post describes how purposeful communities can make improvements that could easily be in the 10s of millions.

The problem

As a firm gets larger, there’s usually more distance between the people who pay for things and the people who use those things. That’s certainly true for personal consumption (printing, etc) and previous posts described ways to reduce that kind of spend.

But the problem is even bigger when it relates to consumption at the team level or at the departmental or firm level. The cost of that server or database license, for example, is something that individuals don’t think about or have much control over. They just order it to get their job done. (The government mechanic doesn’t want to spend extra for a hammer, but he has no idea how to procure a cheaper one.)

To control costs, firms typically focus on policies, contracts, governance processes, and vendor management groups. While these approaches can be useful, they typically don’t leverage the knowledge of people actually using the products and services. Now, it’s easier than ever to do that.

The solution

One way to bridge the gap between a firm's consumers and payers is to organize communities around specific kinds of work. Then, you influence people in the communities to look for ways they can eliminate waste or otherwise get more value for money the firm spends related to the work they do.

Two specific kinds of communities include role-based communities of practice and vendor communities. For example, an IT department would have communities organized around specific roles such as developers, testers, and project managers. As a natural part of doing the work - e.g., posting questions, sharing lessons - community members can expose process deficiencies and work out better ways of optimizing the use of shared resources.

Another way to organize communities would be to connect people who use the products or services of a particular vendor. Far too often, it’s the vendor who knows more about how their products are being used inside the firm and they’re motivated to increase revenue, not reduce costs. So if Oracle, say, is one of your top providers, you’d want to identify and connect your top users of Oracle products and have them actively participate in troubleshooting, shaping standards, and evaluating the need for new products and services.

There's a wide variety of ways communities can find value. (Nick Milton identified “17 value delivery mechanisms for Communities of Practice”, from solving problems to collaborating on purchasing to exchanging equipment to coaching.) You can think of these communities acting as centers of excellence for every role or vendor. Except these aren’t distinct groups, separated from the work and formed by appointment. Instead, they’re made up of people deeply embedded in the work and formed by those with the most to contribute.

What’s it worth?

The benefits will range wildly from the intangible to the incredible. At Shell, for example, their communities of practice helped avoid drilling “dry wells” and saved the company in excess of $100 million.

Examples I’ve seen firsthand include a case in which started with a post in a testing community about the acquisition of expensive software. The subsequent discussion prompted members to form a working group which came up with a better licensing arrangement and saved several million dollars. In other cases, teams avoided spending hundreds of thousands on new equipment because experts in the community solved performance problems shared online.

Like the Shell example, hard dollar savings in a few communities could add up quickly with even a few wins. Large firms can easily spend more than $50 million with major vendors like Oracle, IBM, and HP. And so connecting the experts in your firm who are most familiar with how those vendor offerings are used can make it possible to find your own "dry wells".

In addition to the big wins, we also see many, many small improvements with harder-to-quantify benefits. Things like faster access to expertise by new joiners, shorter problem resolution times, and incremental process improvements.

In one case, for example, a community member posted a simple complaint about poor response times from a 3rd party service provider. The post received 2500 views and comments from dozens of teams sharing their own stories of waste and frustration. That made the problem and its consequences so visible that management announced changes to the vendor engagement.

When management announced the change in the community, their post received over 4000 views and dozens of comments like “thank you for making us more productive”. How much did we save by improving the productivity of dozens of teams and turning their frustration into gratitude?

Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Etienne Wenger, who’s the intellectual father of communities of practice, wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2000 about the 3 reasons why they aren’t more prevalent.

“The first is that although communities of practice have been around for a long time—for centuries, in fact—the term has just recently entered the business vernacular. The second is that only several dozen forward-thinking companies have taken the leap of “installing” or nurturing them. The third reason is that it’s not particularly easy to build and sustain communities of practice or to integrate them with the rest of an organization. The organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference.”

That last reason is the one we’ve struggled with the most. Communities aren’t so much about systems as they’re about people. People need recognition, role models, support, and much more to maintain the structure and vitality found in successful communities. And so we've found it difficult to build and sustain role-based and vendor communities.

But they're worth it.

Leveraging a 1000-year-old idea at work

Photo credit: Joachim Müllerchen If you wanted to be a metal-worker 1000 years ago, your best chance was to join a guild, a community of other metal workers from whom you would learn your craft.

Today, when you aspire to rise through the ranks in your firm, you get a short orientation and are left to figure things out on your own. Sure, you attended university but nothing prepared you for how to navigate your particular firm, understand its practices, and get things done. As a result, you may spend years, even your entire career, on a grossly unproductive meander in the hopes of becoming more effective.

Inside firms, the modern equivalent of the guild is the community of practice. It’s a construct so incredibly useful and powerful that every firm should implement it. But few do - and even those few rarely realize their full potential.

Even better than guilds

Guilds were extremely useful as centers of knowledge. Early guilds led to universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 13th century. Our ideas of apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen were born and institutionalized in the guilds. A masterpiece was, literally, a piece of work that you had to create to demonstrate your mastery of the craft and earn a place in the guild.

But the key to the guilds’ success was control. Control of information allowed them to preserve control over their trade. And that control, in time, actually made trade less efficient while creating rigid social structures. People as different as Adam Smith and Karl Marx grew to reject guilds.

Communities of Practice address that. Like the guilds, it’s “through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.” But now they can do so in an open, accessible way. Using modern tools, a single Community of Practice can help thousands of people in a firm get better at what they do while fostering meaningful, purposeful relationships at work.

Why so few of them?

The body of evidence about the value of communities is growing. More and more people are writing about them since Etienne Wenger’s seminal books over a decade ago. Harold Jarche, for example, writes about how they enable the integration of work and learning. Nick Milton writes about their business benefits, what makes them successful, and provides a rich set of resources for managing them.

I’ve written about communities of practice, too, as we’ve implemented them at our firm. In the year that's passed, they've been valuable, but something’s been missing.

What’s makes communities of practice powerful is that they tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to become better at what they do and to connect with people like them. But in the effort to avoid impinging on that motivation, they are too often distanced from the authority and resources of the corporate hierarchy. (Nick Milton writes: “all products they create are for the benefit of the community members. Communities of practice generally are voluntary, and often have little or no funding from the host company.")

In an attempt to make them less formal, we have too few of them in most companies. And the ones we have are too often weakened adjuncts at work instead of at the core of work.

Imagine this

I’ve experienced both the promise and the pitfalls of Communities of Practice. And so this is something I’m working on: trying to preserve communities as an important part of a more humane and effective workplace while also relating them more explicitly to existing organizational and performance management structures.

Imagine if, when you joined your firm, HR directed you to an online community of dozens (or thousands) or people who had jobs at the firm similar to yours. Imagine all the material you needed to do your job was there - the templates, the processes, the policies. But so was all of the training relevant to your job and views from peers on what was most valuable. All of the formal certifications people got to mark their advanced proficiency. All of the people who could help you when had a question about work. All of the jobs.

Imagine if HR, instead of compartmentalizing what they do for employees into different subdivisions, actually created the human centers that bring all that work together. And imagine if communities, instead of being volunteer armies off to the side, actually included community roles recognized by HR and determined, for example, HR training curricula and job certifications based on proficiency instead of corporate title.

Do you have communities of practice at your firm? If not, why not? If you do, what’s working and not working?

After 1000 years, it’s time to finally make this powerful idea a formal part of how we all get better at what we do.

Leveraging a 1000-year-old idea at work

Photo credit: Joachim Müllerchen If you wanted to be a metal-worker 1000 years ago, your best chance was to join a guild, a community of other metal workers from whom you would learn your craft.

Today, when you aspire to rise through the ranks in your firm, you get a short orientation and are left to figure things out on your own. Sure, you attended university but nothing prepared you for how to navigate your particular firm, understand its practices, and get things done. As a result, you may spend years, even your entire career, on a grossly unproductive meander in the hopes of becoming more effective.

Inside firms, the modern equivalent of the guild is the community of practice. It’s a construct so incredibly useful and powerful that every firm should implement it. But few do - and even those few rarely realize their full potential.

Even better than guilds

Guilds were extremely useful as centers of knowledge. Early guilds led to universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 13th century. Our ideas of apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen were born and institutionalized in the guilds. A masterpiece was, literally, a piece of work that you had to create to demonstrate your mastery of the craft and earn a place in the guild.

But the key to the guilds’ success was control. Control of information allowed them to preserve control over their trade. And that control, in time, actually made trade less efficient while creating rigid social structures. People as different as Adam Smith and Karl Marx grew to reject guilds.

Communities of Practice address that. Like the guilds, it’s “through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.” But now they can do so in an open, accessible way. Using modern tools, a single Community of Practice can help thousands of people in a firm get better at what they do while fostering meaningful, purposeful relationships at work.

Why so few of them?

The body of evidence about the value of communities is growing. More and more people are writing about them since Etienne Wenger’s seminal books over a decade ago. Harold Jarche, for example, writes about how they enable the integration of work and learning. Nick Milton writes about their business benefits, what makes them successful, and provides a rich set of resources for managing them.

I’ve written about communities of practice, too, as we’ve implemented them at our firm. In the year that's passed, they've been valuable, but something’s been missing.

What’s makes communities of practice powerful is that they tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to become better at what they do and to connect with people like them. But in the effort to avoid impinging on that motivation, they are too often distanced from the authority and resources of the corporate hierarchy. (Nick Milton writes: “all products they create are for the benefit of the community members. Communities of practice generally are voluntary, and often have little or no funding from the host company.")

In an attempt to make them less formal, we have too few of them in most companies. And the ones we have are too often weakened adjuncts at work instead of at the core of work.

Imagine this

I’ve experienced both the promise and the pitfalls of Communities of Practice. And so this is something I’m working on: trying to preserve communities as an important part of a more humane and effective workplace while also relating them more explicitly to existing organizational and performance management structures.

Imagine if, when you joined your firm, HR directed you to an online community of dozens (or thousands) or people who had jobs at the firm similar to yours. Imagine all the material you needed to do your job was there - the templates, the processes, the policies. But so was all of the training relevant to your job and views from peers on what was most valuable. All of the formal certifications people got to mark their advanced proficiency. All of the people who could help you when had a question about work. All of the jobs.

Imagine if HR, instead of compartmentalizing what they do for employees into different subdivisions, actually created the human centers that bring all that work together. And imagine if communities, instead of being volunteer armies off to the side, actually included community roles recognized by HR and determined, for example, HR training curricula and job certifications based on proficiency instead of corporate title.

Do you have communities of practice at your firm? If not, why not? If you do, what’s working and not working?

After 1000 years, it’s time to finally make this powerful idea a formal part of how we all get better at what we do.

The story of Jordi Muñoz, CEO

Jordi Muñoz Jordi Muñoz was born in Ensenada, Mexico, didn’t speak English well, didn’t go to college and, at 19 years old, was newly married with a baby on the way.

5 years later, he became the the CEO of a multi-million dollar robotics company founded by Chris Anderson, best-selling author, speaker, and former editor of Wired Magazine.

How did the editor of Wired ever find a 19 year-old robotics engineer from a high school in Tijuana? How did he know he would be the right person for the job?

Answers to those questions may mean a lot for how your firm finds talent - and how you find your next opportunity.

How does your firm find talented people?

For a long time, the most common way to find talented people was to go to prestigious places, typically famous universities or companies. Everyone knew that, so there was a “War for Talent” at such places. Investment banking analysts used to refer to MBA recruiting events as “shrimp wars” as firms tried to outdo each other with bigger buffets just to attract attention.

There may be fewer shrimp now, but firms are still relying on schools, brokers, and executive search firms to filter candidates. When firms use LinkedIn or monster.com, it’s still typically HR that’s doing the searching and acting as an intermediary. And if managers hire directly, they rely heavily on their personal networks, which are incredibly small compared to the pool of qualified candidates.

So you either have the wrong people looking or you’re looking in the wrong places.

A different way

Jordi, Linden Blue (co-owner of General Atomics), and Chris

Jordi and Chris didn’t use a broker or LinkedIn. Their was no one who connected them. Instead, they were connected by their interest in robotics, more specifically in drones.

Chris had become interested in drones (auto-piloted aircraft) as a hobby and started an online community called DIYdrones.com, a place where other hobbyists could share information and learn from each other. In “Makers”, he describes how he first noticed Jordi in that community based on the designs he was contributing. (“I made an autopilot for my RC [remote-controlled] helicopter with accelerometers extracted from the NunChuck of Nintendo Wii”.) Jordi would apologize for his poor English but other hobbyists cared more about his designs which they said were “excellent” and “cool”.

Chris was impressed with his contributions, corresponded with him, and then collaborated with him on some projects. When Chris later decided to start a company, he decided to ask Jordi to co-found it. And it was only then that he learned about his background.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The story of Jordi Munoz is an excellent example of someone working out loud and shaping their reputation (or, in this case, creating one) via their contribution; of someone  leveraging an existing community to create new possibilities.

Go where they are. See what they do.

Where are you looking for talented people?

In large companies, there’s a lot of talk about the need to attract and retain the best and the brightest. But, for the most part, the “Talent War” is a lot of sound and fury that doesn’t add up to much. The system is optimized for filling slots, not for quality of the match between the person and the job. (For many positions, excellent people are already employees of the firm but the system for filling jobs has no good way to find them.) The use of brokers combined with an outmoded, woefully simplistic interview process leads to mediocrity.

If you’re a firm, you need to go to where there are people already doing the kinds of work you’re looking for. Internally, that means role-based communities of practice. Externally, it means groups like DIYdrones or professional on-line communities. If those environments don’t exist, then you need to create them.

If you’re an individual, you need to find communities you care about and contribute. For whatever role you have at your company (or want to have), there are internal or external communities where you can contribute, shape your reputation, and build a purposeful network. Just like Jordi did.

The story of Jordi Muñoz, CEO

Jordi Muñoz Jordi Muñoz was born in Ensenada, Mexico, didn’t speak English well, didn’t go to college and, at 19 years old, was newly married with a baby on the way.

5 years later, he became the the CEO of a multi-million dollar robotics company founded by Chris Anderson, best-selling author, speaker, and former editor of Wired Magazine.

How did the editor of Wired ever find a 19 year-old robotics engineer from a high school in Tijuana? How did he know he would be the right person for the job?

Answers to those questions may mean a lot for how your firm finds talent - and how you find your next opportunity.

How does your firm find talented people?

For a long time, the most common way to find talented people was to go to prestigious places, typically famous universities or companies. Everyone knew that, so there was a “War for Talent” at such places. Investment banking analysts used to refer to MBA recruiting events as “shrimp wars” as firms tried to outdo each other with bigger buffets just to attract attention.

There may be fewer shrimp now, but firms are still relying on schools, brokers, and executive search firms to filter candidates. When firms use LinkedIn or monster.com, it’s still typically HR that’s doing the searching and acting as an intermediary. And if managers hire directly, they rely heavily on their personal networks, which are incredibly small compared to the pool of qualified candidates.

So you either have the wrong people looking or you’re looking in the wrong places.

A different way

Jordi, Linden Blue (co-owner of General Atomics), and Chris

Jordi and Chris didn’t use a broker or LinkedIn. Their was no one who connected them. Instead, they were connected by their interest in robotics, more specifically in drones.

Chris had become interested in drones (auto-piloted aircraft) as a hobby and started an online community called DIYdrones.com, a place where other hobbyists could share information and learn from each other. In “Makers”, he describes how he first noticed Jordi in that community based on the designs he was contributing. (“I made an autopilot for my RC [remote-controlled] helicopter with accelerometers extracted from the NunChuck of Nintendo Wii”.) Jordi would apologize for his poor English but other hobbyists cared more about his designs which they said were “excellent” and “cool”.

Chris was impressed with his contributions, corresponded with him, and then collaborated with him on some projects. When Chris later decided to start a company, he decided to ask Jordi to co-found it. And it was only then that he learned about his background.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The story of Jordi Munoz is an excellent example of someone working out loud and shaping their reputation (or, in this case, creating one) via their contribution; of someone  leveraging an existing community to create new possibilities.

Go where they are. See what they do.

Where are you looking for talented people?

In large companies, there’s a lot of talk about the need to attract and retain the best and the brightest. But, for the most part, the “Talent War” is a lot of sound and fury that doesn’t add up to much. The system is optimized for filling slots, not for quality of the match between the person and the job. (For many positions, excellent people are already employees of the firm but the system for filling jobs has no good way to find them.) The use of brokers combined with an outmoded, woefully simplistic interview process leads to mediocrity.

If you’re a firm, you need to go to where there are people already doing the kinds of work you’re looking for. Internally, that means role-based communities of practice. Externally, it means groups like DIYdrones or professional on-line communities. If those environments don’t exist, then you need to create them.

If you’re an individual, you need to find communities you care about and contribute. For whatever role you have at your company (or want to have), there are internal or external communities where you can contribute, shape your reputation, and build a purposeful network. Just like Jordi did.

7 elements of an enterprise collaboration strategy

I used to talk more about strategy. I used to think of it as high-level, important work while I saw “tactical” work and “implementation details” as somehow beneath me.

As Bugs Bunny used to say: “What a maroon.

After creating many shelved strategies, I’ve come to understand the genius of execution and appreciate the people who ship and get things done.

So this “strategy” - 7 basic things you should include in your company’s collaboration program - is meant as a simple starting point. With these in place, you’ll be much more likely to succeed in the real work: changing what people do every day.

Commercial value

Generating real, measurable value should be at the heart of your collaboration program. Not just the ROI acronym but a set of specific problems you solve, each with a specific way to measure value.

Sometimes you’ll be able to measure hard dollars. Sometimes you’ll need to do analysis on a few specific cases and extrapolate from there. In all cases, it’s best to use an independent group in your firm to keep score.

The credible accounting of commercial value is what will sustain corporate commitment through the vicissitudes of business. And a firm of 100,000+ should aim to generate 100s of millions of value.

A Center of Excellence

You’ll need a small central team to help divisions across your company effectively use social tools and practices. Without a core group that has deep expertise, you’ll just be unleashing new concepts on people who won’t know how to apply them.

They'll act more as hands-on management consultants than IT or communications people,  engaging divisions across your firm to implement change.

Individual benefits

Just as you’ll need commercial value to sustain corporate commitment, you’ll need to focus on personal value - a clear answer to “What’s in it for me?” - to sustain individual commitment.

Here are 3 examples of ways to ensure people feel your effort is relevant for them:

  1. Systematic recognition: use all the communications channels at your disposal - from manager emails to internal comms to community sites - to recognize people when they contribute
  2. Better access to opportunities: draw clear links between collaborative behaviors, reputation, and internal mobility.
  3. Convenience: include ways to improve basic employee processes - from searching the group directory to getting approvals to reporting a problem - so they see the collaboration program as making their job easier.

Community managers

Perhaps the biggest problem with collaboration efforts - the reason it’s so difficult to create a successful program or even to copy one - is that they are highly dependent on people.

More than good processes and tools, a few handfuls of passionate, knowledgable, capable, social people are critical to building communities at work and driving change.

While it’s hard to find, train, and retain those people, there are more and more resources to help you do it.

Management engagement

There’s a limit to what grassroots efforts can accomplish (“The Grass Ceiling”). While part of your goal may be to work around the hierarchy, you’ll still need the hierarchy to do certain things like change policies, allocate resources, or sign contracts.

Beyond having a sponsor, an example of a particularly useful management structure is a collaboration board at the divisional level. These groups can set priorities, assign people in the line to work on them, and define measures for work in their division.

This kind of management engagement is what turns good ideas into organizational objectives and measures that cascade through the org chart. That drives adoption from within the line instead of just from the sponsor or the small central team.

A network of advocates

The only way to scale the efforts of the core team while keeping costs low is to build a network of people who are passionate about the effort and willing to contribute. Just as opensource projects have volunteers contributing in all sorts of ways, your program will also need toolsmiths, marketers, connectors, and other help.

Identifying those needs; making it easy for people to contribute; connecting and recognizing them. These are all parts of an advocacy program that will be key to reaching employees of all kinds in every location and every division.

A platform

Yes, collaboration programs are about much more than the technology. But IT matters. If the collaboration platform is too difficult to use, or not well-integrated, then most people won’t bother.

So choose wisely. But know that the other 6 elements of your strategy are all more difficult and important than the platform.

The most important part

The most important part is the doing and the learning. The best way to implement social tools and practices is a simple, low-cost, iterative approach described by Eric Ries in “Lean Startup” and summarized in a recent post:

As we try to change the way we work, vision and strategy are still important. They’re just not enough.

“Only 5 percent of entrepreneurship is the big idea, the business model, the whiteboard strategizing, and the splitting of the spoils. The other 95 percent is the gritty work that is measured by innovation accounting; product prioritization decisions; deciding which customers to target or listen to, and having the courage to subject a grand visions to constant testing and feedback.”

As we try to understand which problems to solve, which customers to work with, which incentives to use, we can embrace the fact that we don’t know what will be effective.

And then we can get to work, using the Lean Startup approach to turn uncertainty into a set of quick, inexpensive experiments that can guide our learning and help us make the difference we know we can make.

The joy - and commercial value - of social learning

How do we get better at what we do? Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen taught other craftsmen. There were guilds and apprenticeships - a community and a structure based on the craft. That helped people to develop their skills and become experts.

But today, how do private bankers become better private bankers? Or client service reps become better reps? Or IT developers become better developers?

We’ve lost touch with the simple idea of social learning. In our overly mechanical view of the firm, we’ve made learning a department.

Today, all the knowledge workers in our firms - “our most important asset” - get a standard orientation and some courses from a catalog. Then they’re largely set adrift. “If you have any questions, ask your manager.”

There’s a better way.

Communities of Practice

Books by Etienne Wenger inspired us to implement communities of practice at our firm. (If you want to learn how to build, grow, and sustain such communities, read this. If you want more about the theory of social learning, including a beautifully-written, in-depth example, read this.)

We started by creating role-based communities - people who do similar work organized to learn and measurably improve how they perform that work. And we slowly figured out how to balance structure, incentives, and other factors so both the members and the firm got value.

These communities, now with thousands of members, are becoming a standard way to learn across more and more of the firm.

But we have a long way to go before we master the art of community, and we needed help.

2 days with Etienne Wenger + Bev Trayner

At a conference last year, I talked with community strategist Lauren Klein who recommended I work with Etienne and Bev. That led to a 2-day workshop in London this past week.

I was expecting an academic discourse on social learning and maybe a few high-level ideas. But we got so much more.

After they reviewed everything we’d done and hoped to do, Etienne and Bev worked closely with our community managers, gave us dozens of specific adjustments to make, and slogged through detailed planning sessions with our entire team.

In a few days, we had a multi-year plan that will help us broaden what we do while accelerating how we realize the benefits.

The commercial value of social learning

Throughout the workshop, we spent a lot of time on how to measure the value of our communities. We know the individual members benefit by learning. And by shaping their reputation in a public way that can unlock access to opportunities.

That's important. But it’s measurable commercial value for the firm that's the key to making these communities sustainable in an enterprise.

Etienne told a story about the “blue book” at Shell - a systematic way of collecting value stories. In one area, the thing everyone wanted to avoid was drilling a well that didn’t produce oil. A dry well could cost the firm $20 million. Their systematic review showed that, even with very conservative accounting, Shell's communities avoided 6 dry wells each year.

$120 million saved by taking a social approach to learning. Now that’s value.

What’s your “dry well”?

The very next day, I spoke to some investment bankers. After giving them my elevator pitch about our collaboration platform, we talked mostly about how client service teams could be more effective.

“Great.” I said. “But what’s the value of that?”

There was an awkward pause.

Then I told them the Shell story. “What’s your dry well”? I asked.

“Oh,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “It’s cross-selling.”

Of course. For decades, large financial firms have tried to connect their people and products so they could add more value for existing clients. Most firms already have systems to track such opportunities, usually involving a virtual currency and some specialist roles. But they all know there’s much more they can do.

Now, armed with insights about social learning and communities, we think we can readily discover more opportunities. In just a few minutes talking with the bankers, we came up with 4 new ideas we want to pursue.

How much is it worth?

Etienne and Bev are such smart, lovely people, that we started a friendship as well as a plan to work together more, including participating in their fantastic retreats in California.

They taught us how to improve and extend our communities of practice. And they taught us how we could apply their social learning concepts more broadly, giving us an extremely valuable new lens to look at old problems like cross-selling.

How many more deals will we do? How much more value will a social approach to learning realize for our customers and our firm?

We’re going to find out.

The joy - and commercial value - of social learning

How do we get better at what we do? Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen taught other craftsmen. There were guilds and apprenticeships - a community and a structure based on the craft. That helped people to develop their skills and become experts.

But today, how do private bankers become better private bankers? Or client service reps become better reps? Or IT developers become better developers?

We’ve lost touch with the simple idea of social learning. In our overly mechanical view of the firm, we’ve made learning a department.

Today, all the knowledge workers in our firms - “our most important asset” - get a standard orientation and some courses from a catalog. Then they’re largely set adrift. “If you have any questions, ask your manager.”

There’s a better way.

Communities of Practice

Books by Etienne Wenger inspired us to implement communities of practice at our firm. (If you want to learn how to build, grow, and sustain such communities, read this. If you want more about the theory of social learning, including a beautifully-written, in-depth example, read this.)

We started by creating role-based communities - people who do similar work organized to learn and measurably improve how they perform that work. And we slowly figured out how to balance structure, incentives, and other factors so both the members and the firm got value.

These communities, now with thousands of members, are becoming a standard way to learn across more and more of the firm.

But we have a long way to go before we master the art of community, and we needed help.

2 days with Etienne Wenger + Bev Trayner

At a conference last year, I talked with community strategist Lauren Klein who recommended I work with Etienne and Bev. That led to a 2-day workshop in London this past week.

I was expecting an academic discourse on social learning and maybe a few high-level ideas. But we got so much more.

After they reviewed everything we’d done and hoped to do, Etienne and Bev worked closely with our community managers, gave us dozens of specific adjustments to make, and slogged through detailed planning sessions with our entire team.

In a few days, we had a multi-year plan that will help us broaden what we do while accelerating how we realize the benefits.

The commercial value of social learning

Throughout the workshop, we spent a lot of time on how to measure the value of our communities. We know the individual members benefit by learning. And by shaping their reputation in a public way that can unlock access to opportunities.

That's important. But it’s measurable commercial value for the firm that's the key to making these communities sustainable in an enterprise.

Etienne told a story about the “blue book” at Shell - a systematic way of collecting value stories. In one area, the thing everyone wanted to avoid was drilling a well that didn’t produce oil. A dry well could cost the firm $20 million. Their systematic review showed that, even with very conservative accounting, Shell's communities avoided 6 dry wells each year.

$120 million saved by taking a social approach to learning. Now that’s value.

What’s your “dry well”?

The very next day, I spoke to some investment bankers. After giving them my elevator pitch about our collaboration platform, we talked mostly about how client service teams could be more effective.

“Great.” I said. “But what’s the value of that?”

There was an awkward pause.

Then I told them the Shell story. “What’s your dry well”? I asked.

“Oh,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “It’s cross-selling.”

Of course. For decades, large financial firms have tried to connect their people and products so they could add more value for existing clients. Most firms already have systems to track such opportunities, usually involving a virtual currency and some specialist roles. But they all know there’s much more they can do.

Now, armed with insights about social learning and communities, we think we can readily discover more opportunities. In just a few minutes talking with the bankers, we came up with 4 new ideas we want to pursue.

How much is it worth?

Etienne and Bev are such smart, lovely people, that we started a friendship as well as a plan to work together more, including participating in their fantastic retreats in California.

They taught us how to improve and extend our communities of practice. And they taught us how we could apply their social learning concepts more broadly, giving us an extremely valuable new lens to look at old problems like cross-selling.

How many more deals will we do? How much more value will a social approach to learning realize for our customers and our firm?

We’re going to find out.

Want ROI? Here are 5 places to look for measurable savings

In benchmarking social business programs, I recently met with a company that started their effort more than 3 years ago. Now, more than 20,000 people at their firm were actively using one of the leading collaboration platforms. “That’s great!” I said. “How much value has that generated?”

The project owner paused.

“Well,” she said, “people seem to like it.”

The ROI of your social business effort should be obvious

These people weren’t stupid. They were smart and generous and genuinely wanted to drive change. It’s just that they were never forced to think through the business value of what they were doing. Or, perhaps worse, they didn’t think it was possible - that social business efforts were somehow different.

Well, social business effort aren't different. And the good news is that most large companies are so complex and wasteful that, once you start really looking, you’ll see money everywhere.

Here are 5 of my favorites places to find measurable value.

1. Problem resolution times

Larger firms have many people who perform similar jobs but are poorly connected. When you have a problem at work, can you easily tap into the expertise you need?

One of the first social business practices I recommend is to form role-based communities of practice. They make it easy for people in similar jobs to share learning and post problems they’re having.

Community members are eager to help since doing so shapes their reputation among peers, providing greater visibility and access to opportunities. Community managers curate community wins (where members help each other to solve problem more quickly) and, after an independent vetting process, track reductions in problem resolution times. Savings are measured in staff-days as well as losses avoided.

2. Unneeded assets

Firms pay for resources that people no longer need or want but don’t know it. The firm typically has the data - who uses what software, hardware, real estate, market data, phone services, etc. - but it’s all locked up in different golden sources.

Social business platforms make it possible to display all of that data together as part of an employee’s profile and then act on it so you can crowdsource data quality. The savings associated with this one idea could dwarf the spend on your entire social business project.

3. Help desks

How many calls and emails does your IT help desk receive? Your HR department? Your facilities group? These numbers can run well over 100,000 every month.

Yet it's rare that you need to call a help desk at home. You help yourself.

Social platforms enable increases in self-service by making knowledge bases available as searchable on-line forums. Better yet, they let users rate the usefulness of an answer or add content themselves. So you can measure forum usage while you also  measure the reduction the burden on your help desk for common problems

4. Website customization

The typical intranet is an insidious mess. Content is poorly structured, poorly maintained, and poorly measured. And it's still costly.

Everyone wants a website, and so internal communications and teams of all sizes spend time and money to create their own. Most standard offerings aren’t compelling - especially if they’re not using a global, modern platform - so money is spent (in hundreds of small slices) to customize the user interface or add functionality. Across a large firm, it can easily be in the millions.

The best social platforms provide a compelling intranet experience largely out of the box. By providing well-designed site templates and reining in development, you can measure a dramatic reduction in customization costs and in time to implement new sites (now largely self-service) while you provide a truly interactive web experience.

5. Project management overhead

There’s a cottage industry of people who periodically collect project status, compile it into Excel or Powerpoint, and email the compiled results to a select audience. This work, typically the purview of your local Project Management Office, is almost all waste.

You can eliminate the bulk of it with well-designed, curated project pages on your social business platform, and let anyone interested in a project subscribe to updates in real-time. You can measure how many artifacts you eliminate - and the associated cost in terms of time, email, and other overhead  - and reduce or redeploy project management resources.

Aim higher (while keeping the investment low)

Is this all that social business can offer? These 5, admittedly mundane, sources of savings?

Your social business effort can and should go beyond capturing administrative saving to truly transform core business processes. But those may take longer to realize or be harder to attribute quantifiable savings. (Was that new sales enablement effort really the cause of additional revenue?)

You help your ROI case by keeping costs low and targeting measurable waste in your firm. Delivering quantifiable savings - and relating the stories of inefficiency behind them - will buy you credibility, time, and more funding so you can go after even bigger gains.