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? 

If you want more people to use the intranet at work

For me, it started in 2007. After almost 15 years of working on trading floors, I was close to losing my job and was looking for some other way to add value and stay employed. 

That’s when I started thinking about the intranet.

A list of failed experiments

I was using Gmail and Google Apps at the time, and I thought Why can’t we have something like this at work? So I began researching different options, and that led to the first of many pilots.

2008 - Google at work: We were going to use Gmail and iGoogle (do you remember that?) We conducted a pilot but cancelled it due to inability to pass legal & compliance restrictions.

2009 - Yammer: A business division started to use it first and it began to go viral till Compliance blocked access to it.

2009 - Facebook: We investigated secure integration via software from an Israeli start-up, but never made it to a pilot.

2010 - The Wire: We hosted our own micro-blogging service to avoid compliance issues. There was significant early adoption by IT but it was seen as marginal by most people.

2011 - Jive: We managed to get enough money for 12,000 licenses, and we blew through that within 6 months. Forced to either shut it down or buy more licenses, we secured an enterprise license for several years, giving us time to try and drive adoption.

Do you see a pattern? We were so focused on technology, on trying tool after tool, that we missed the parts about helping people and solving problems.

“This will change everything”

We knew that Jive, a fully-functional enterprise social network, could make a dramatic difference in how people worked. But by 2011, our experiments had taught us that “hoping for viral” wasn’t a good strategy. So our small team launched, evangelized, trained, workshopped, ambassadored, communitied, and tried every other good practice we could find or think of.

It still wasn’t enough. Or rather, change came very slowly. Over the next four years, the number of active users inched upwards, eventually topping 90,000 people, but we faced existential challenges each year: sponsors leaving, budget cuts, re-organizations, IT threatening to change platforms. 

By the time I left the company, most of what we thought of as “the intranet” had moved to the enterprise social network, and more people used it in ways that were open and collaborative. What we were still looking for was how to accelerate these kinds of changes. 

The biggest lesson

In hindsight, the biggest lesson I learned was that while there are many “barriers to adoption” for new technology at work, the biggest one is the set of deeply-ingrained habits people have. Most employees are already busy, distracted, and potentially disengaged. Even if the new intranet is better for them, they won’t pay much attention to it. 

In an article titled, “What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today,” Dion Hinchcliffe (noted author and digital strategist) summed it up nicely:

“ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order” 

He provided a wide range of excellent advice, including how he would help people take advantage of the new tools:

“Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. 
…the push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start.” 

What I would do now

“Onramp” is a good metaphor. People won’t start using new digital tools because of IT training or because someone told them to. But they will use them if, as in a WOL Circle, they feel it’s related to a goal they care about, that it gives them more control over their career and access to opportunities. 

Bosch is one of the leading companies spreading Circles, and Katharina Krentz talked about it this week at a Digital Business conference in Germany, In her talk, “Working Out Loud as a Change Method,” she shared some of their survey results:

88 % say: “I use Bosch Connect more efficiently now”
97 % say: “The program increases digital capabilities and supports cultural change”

Those numbers are far better than anything else I tried when I ran the intranet. To scale these kinds of changes even further, I would integrate Circles into every existing process or program where people benefit from building better relationships at work.

In short, I’d try to help people experience a better way of working wherever they happen to be, and for long enough that “the new way” becomes a new habit.

The manager who works out loud

Whenever I talk to organizations about open, connected ways of working, this question inevitably comes up: “How do you get leaders to do it?” 

It’s a problem. Most often, managers simply don’t have the time to learn a different way of leading. Or their habits are so deeply-ingrained that doing something different is too difficult. Sometimes the challenge is digital, in that they’re unfamiliar with communication and collaboration tools besides email. 

But there are absolutely managers who are working differently - who are leading in a more effective, engaging way. Those that do experience a wide range of benefits.

 

Explaining decisions, building trust

In one IT department, the security team abruptly cut off access to Github, a a valuable online tool used by thousands of developers at the company. Employees were shocked and angry. To them, it was a sign that management had no idea how work got done and was completely out of touch. People complained on the enterprise social network, and someone posted a question, asking the executive if they could “shed some light” on the decision.

The executive responded. He started by recognizing the importance of the issue to developers. Then he explained his reasoning in clear, logical terms, while presenting a near-term compromise that was already being worked on. He also invited others to the discussion, and what followed was a set of artifacts, proposals, and conversations that involved hundreds of people. 

Instead of simply publishing a policy statement, the executive listened and engaged. Instead of ignoring the widespread sentiment that management were idiots, he built trust and confidence.

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA)

Wherever I've worked, it was taken for granted that senior managers would travel to different offices to visit with staff there. It was seen as a necessary way to stay in touch with how things were going in a given location. Usually, the manager would deliver a town hall presentation, meet with local managers, have dinner with his team, and be off to the next city. Staff generally appreciated the attention, but the trip could easily involve a week or more, including a lot of time in transit.

There are merits to “management by wandering around,” and it became especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For managers used to new communications tools, it’s now easier than ever to do it. These managers don’t wait for the annual trip. As part of their routine, they “wander” around their social intranet throughout the week. In a few minutes, they can come into contact with people, ideas, and issues from around their organization and their company. They can discover the answer to “How’s it going?” at a scale never imagined when MBWA was first taught in business schools.

“Digital Leadership”

When trying to communicate something - a new strategy, say, or the latest culture program - managers traditionally had to rely on “cascading the message.” They would assemble their leadership team, impart their messages, and instruct the group to go forth and spread what was said to their respective teams. And so on. What typically happened, of course, resembled “Chinese Whispers” or “Telephone,” the game that shows “how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication.” 

One benefit of digital leadership - using modern tools to influence and engage an organization - is that you can eliminate the cascades and reach people directly. Even better, the channels work both ways. For example, an employee at one company had an idea that he believed would make the organization more innovative and collaborative. So he posted it online, and mentioned several executives. Much to his surprise, the executive posted a comment. That led to an exchange and then a series of meetings and proposals. 

With that one comment, the executive signaled to hundreds of people (and perhaps eventually thousands), that he was paying attention, was interested in innovation, and actively supported people who came up with ideas. That’s a more powerful message than any bullet point on any slide cascaded throughout teams, and helped strengthen engagement and rapport.

One more benefit

Some particularly open and curious managers have experimented with Working Out Loud Circles to develop new skills, and I was struck by some of their comments:

“I am overwhelmed by the feedback I got throughout the journey…Our WOL Group is fantastic and our meetings are always one hour of inspiration to move forward. This approach really can change the way you interact with people." 
“I have experienced a completely different way of working on and solving tasks… My circle was both peer pressure and "self-help group" for me, providing motivation and really changing things.”

The more a manager works out loud, the more their view of the organization changes from acronyms, budgets, and processes to human beings connected by shared purpose, shared interests, and shared struggles.

It took me a long time to realize this. For most of my career, I simply did what I saw all the other managers doing. I spent my time in back-to-back meetings, barely knew the hundreds of people in my organization, and felt like I was supposed to have all the answers. It was not a recipe for enjoying work.

If there's a manager you care about, send them this post, and help them work out loud by serving as a reverse mentor or inviting them to join a WOL Circle. Help them take a step towards a better way of working, one that's better for them as well as the people who work with them.

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.

Working Out Loud: The Accelerated Development Program

I purposefully designed Working Out Loud Circles so that anyone could start one and anyone could spread them. It doesn't require money or training or permission. As a result, WOL Circles have spread widely across countries and companies.

But some organizations want more. Working Out Loud, after all, is a 21st-century skill that all employees would benefit from developing. One company refers to the Circle process as a “guided mastery program for networking and collaboration.” Other firms see it as a way to create a more open, collaborative culture, or as part of their digital transformation. I’ve often described it as “the missing piece.” For firms that have a strategy and technology, Working Out Loud Circles help them change behavior at scale in a way that feels good for employees while providing measurable benefits.

The organic spread of circles is a great way to start. And now there’s an option for organizations that want to accelerate the spread of the practice, scale it to many more employees, and increase the average effectiveness of each Circle.

It’s the Accelerated Development Program.

Overview

The program differs from traditional training in three important ways:

  1. It’s based on custom material created specifically for your organization.
  2. Employees learn by doing, building relationships related to a goal they care about and getting coached along the way.
  3. It’s sustainable. By the end of the program, the organization has developed a new learning and development capability, having materials and trained coaches that enable them to continue spreading the practice on their own.

It’s often the Learning & Development group that sponsors this program, although the impetus for change can come from other areas. The process can vary by organization, but it generally includes the same three simple phases.

Phase 1: Customize material

The public Circle Guides are aimed squarely at individuals and mostly refer to public technology platforms. So in this first phase, I work with an organization to rewrite the guides specifically for them. By incorporating language and examples that are familiar to members of the organization - stories, goals, technology, and more - it becomes easier for people to understand it and see how it relates to work and their career.

I’ll typically do some of this work on-site with a small core team of employees. That gives me a chance to train them on all aspects of what’s about to come in the next two phases and to prepare for those phases.

Time: 2 - 3 weeks

Phase 2: Train up to 50 Circle Coaches

In addition to custom material, the best way to make Circles even more effective and consistent is to train Circle Coaches. The training equips up to 50 people to handle practically any issue or challenge that comes up in a Circle so people can keep making progress. 

Here’s how it works. The training is all done live by video, so it’s flexible and location-independent. The group goes through a 6-week condensed version of the Circle process. Each week, they receive an hour of coaching from me and then break out into their Circle meetings of 4 to 5 people. Each person receives a step-by-step Coach’s Guide with tips and techniques, and has access to online support between sessions. 

This train-the-trainer technique is what make the process both more effective and scalable.

Time: 6 - 8 weeks

Phase 3: Spread the practice to 250 people

Now, each of the 50 trained Circle Coaches forms a new Circle with up to four new people, for a total of up to 250 people that will go through the Circle process. Circles are still peer support groups in which the Circle Coach is just another member, albeit one who can handle any issues that come up. In this phase, Circles go through the full 12-week process using the custom material, and the Circles meet independently.

This wave of Circles reinforces the training of the Circle Coaches and gives them a chance to practice. Throughout their time together, all participants have online support from me and the core team of employees, and there are regularly-scheduled Q&A sessions for further help and coaching.

Time: 12 - 18 weeks

A scalable, low-cost development program

By the time the program ends, the organization has custom material, a small army of trained coaches, and up to 250 people who have gone through the process. Everyone has books and workbooks, Coaches have a reference guide, and the core team has on-going access to other practitioners around the world. 

Your organization now has a scalable, low-cost development program you can continue spreading yourself. Larger firms may choose to keep training more Circle Coaches in other locations or divisions. The more people who develop the habit of Working Out Loud, the closer you’ll get to a more agile, collaborative, engaged workplace. 

If you would like more information or want to discuss the program for your organization, please contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com

The skills you need and the price you’ll pay

Though the world is becoming increasingly networked and online, there are still people working the way they’ve worked for the last few decades. Maybe they’re comfortable working that way, or afraid of changing, or simply don’t know what to do. Maybe they can hang on and everything will be okay. Or not.

“What’s a hashtag?”

It might be tempting to poke fun at people who don’t understand the basics of tools used by hundreds of millions of people. It reminds me of having to explain “double-click” to novice computer users a few decades ago. But it’s not a laughing matter, because the stakes are high both for individuals and the organizations they work in.

Marshall Kirkpatrick, founder of a company that helps people leverage social media, wrote a blog post last week asking a question I’ve had for a while: “Why don’t people understand social web 101 already?”

“Is the networked social world so radically unlike everything that’s ever existed before that it’s unreasonable to expect people to pay attention and experiment a little?”

“Today’s critical digital workforce skills”

Even the most conservative companies have (or are developing) a digital strategy that requires their workforce to be familiar with modern ways of working and collaborating.

In a post yesterday, Dion Hinchliffe, author and business strategist, listed the following skills as “critical digital workforce skills.”

Today's Digital Workforce Skills

Today's Digital Workforce Skills

In a separate post, he noted that more companies are looking to build those skills.

“Digital skills such as “Working Out Loud” are now being taught to knowledge workers to support what the tools can do now. I suspect 2015 will be a breakout year for the adoption of new digital skills such as this."

Universities too are helping people build these skills. For example, there’s a course in Northwestern’s Master’s Program that cites working out loud circles.

How much will it cost you?

Here’s the incredible part. Developing the skills is free. You can practice using public tools or social tools in your firm. There are numerous free guides and even peer support groups.

Yet too many people aren't making any effort to “pay attention and experiment a little," to learn how to use basic Internet tools and practices at work.

For those people, the opportunity cost is high. And getting higher.