The Fallacy of the Social Workplace

Everyone at work has a mobile device with a camera. So what we’re going to do is start a website where they can upload videos they take on the job to help them share their tips and tricks with the entire company. We’ll let people rate and comment on the videos so the best ones rise to the top of the list. Then, rather than deliver formal training, employees can pull up resources created by their peers on-demand.

That sounds like a great idea, right? And with today’s tech, even the most conservative organization can pull something like this off with minimal investment and IT effort. There’s just one problem. That’s not how people work

The Reality of Workplace Sharing

Don’t get me wrong. Work is an inherently social experience for most people. We’re constantly engaged in conversation as part of our jobs. However, we rarely make the extra effort to capture and scale this sharing in a way that benefits more than our immediate network. Even email doesn’t get out of the hierarchical silo very often.

Think about your own work behaviors. How much time and effort do you spend sharing your knowledge? Assuming you’re an L&D pro, this is what you do for a living, and even you don’t behave this way. Everyone is over-burdened and under-resourced. There’s only so much time in the day to finish your giant list of tasks. For frontline employees who have little to no control over how they spend their time at work, sharing is even more difficult. Face it – if sharing your knowledge isn’t specifically part of your job, you are unlikely to do it consistently. More on that point here.

The 90-9-1 Rule

Social influence in the workplace tends to follow a similar pattern to that in everyday life – just in a more condensed scale. Consider the L&D professional community. Not everyone is equally engaged in knowledge sharing, and that’s a good thing. Imagine if everyone had a blog. Not only could you not keep up with that much sharing, but it also likely wouldn’t add value to the whole. Rather, there is 1% of the community that is fully-engaged in creation. They speak. They blog. They write books. They podcast. They never shut up, but they (for the most part) add value to the community through this constant engagement.

Pyramid of the 90-9-1 rule of social media

Then there’s the 9% that are moderately engaged. They don’t consistently author their own content, but they take part in the conversation. They amplify the 1%. They add context and meaning along the way.

Finally, there’s everyone else. The 90% are out there, benefiting from the shared knowledge of the other 10% when desired. But they aren’t meaningfully contributing – and that’s perfectly OK. Everyone should have the opportunity to become part of the 9% or 1%, but there’s nothing wrong with leveraging the shared knowledge of others to improve your own performance.

No, these numbers aren’t exact. They’re meant to trigger a mindset shift, not math. Involvement is certainly fluid by topic and circumstance. For example, I share a lot of info around personalized learning (1%) but almost nothing on virtual classrooms (90%). The “rule” is simply meant to reflect the general scope of social activity and how you position it’s value as the foundation of a modern learning ecosystem.

Aligning to Social Reality

By no means should we completely forget about the idea at the top of this post. There’s more opportunity than ever to scale shared knowledge. But it’s still not easy. To get started, we have to align our strategies with the realities of the social workplace. Tactics will vary by organization and use case, but there are a few principles to keep in mind regardless of company.

  • Never start with tech. Implementing a platform without proper understanding of behavior will lead to a disconnect. This is why Yammer almost never works. Workplace sharing typically isn’t like social media sharing, so Facebook-like functionality often doesn’t match the necessary behaviors. This is why I’m such a big fan of wikis – combining discussion with reference information.
  • Activate the 1%. They’re already out there, and they’re already sharing. For some, it’s part of the job. For others, it’s a natural part of their working behavior. Find that person who is making really ugly but useful PowerPoints for their team and provide them with an opportunity to simplify and scale their knowledge sharing. But also give them the support and structure they need to grow their impact.
  • Get close to the workflow. Too often we structure social practices based on what’s easiest for the contributor – namely L&D and subject matter experts. This is why the slideument exists. Instead, sharing should be aligned with the intended use of information. If you expect employees to access information in the moment of need on the busy sales floor, it must be structured so that it can be found, consumed and shared quickly – without reliance on lengthy videos or extensive documentation. This may require extra work during creation/curation, but it will quickly add value for the organization.
  • Start small. Don’t try to develop a social strategy for the entire organization. Instead, identify a segment that has a problem that can be addressed through shared knowledge. Use simple methods to tackle this challenge through sharing in order to see what works and what doesn’t. Learn quickly and evolve your tactics as you scale to additional teams.
  • Build it into the job. This one is usually outside of L&D control. But, if you expect someone to share their knowledge consistently, it has to be a formal part of the job. A chunk of the 1% are people like product owners and corporate communications teams – employees who share for a living. But they don’t know everything (despite what they may claim). If you want to REALLY see what working out loud (WOL) can do to an organization’s culture, build it into the job and give people the resources and TIME to share at work.

“Social learning” has always sounded silly to me. After all, we are constantly learning from one another. Whether its in a classroom or via a blog post, learning is inherently social. Rather than attempting to wrap structure and governance around this reality, we instead should focus on experiments and enablement practices that connect the people with knowledge to those who need it.


I’ll be exploring this concept of shared knowledge in the workplace in greater depth during 2 upcoming presentations. I hope you can join me!  

JD Dillon is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. He has spent 20 years designing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. JD is the founder of LearnGeek and Chief Learning Architect with Axonify.

The Fallacy of the Social Workplace

by JD Dillon time to read: 4 min
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