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Leveraging the Law of the Few to Manage Change in the Workplace

If you’ve paid any attention to the adult learning landscape over the last few years, you know that the new social learning push is being fueled by the emergence of social media.  Just as the corporate world thought they had caught up to adult learning norms with the adoption of eLearning, and some with blended learning, along comes social learning.  All the cool kids on the adult learning block are enthralled with ‘Peer-to-Peer Learning’ and ‘The Emergence of the Collective’, phrases used by Brown and Thomas in A New Culture of Learning.

I haven’t read the book yet, but Jay Cross’ latest blog gave me a taste, and now that I’ve referenced the book in my own blog post, I feel obligated to follow through.  Nonetheless, Jay highlighted a few select paragraphs, which after reading brought back memories of a book written by the infamous Malcolm Gladwell entitled The Tipping Point.  In the decade since this book was published, it seems Gladwell has become quite the divisive figure.  Many accuse him of creating hasty generalizations, while others believe he provides wonderful insights about our world and ourselves.  Either way, Gladwell’s financial success from his books is undeniable.

One of Gladwell’s three rules of epidemics is ‘The Law of the Few’, or as Gladwell states, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”  Economists call this the 80/20 Principle or the Pareto Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the work will be done by 20 percent of the participants. These people are described in the following ways:

Connectors are the people who “link us up with the world…people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”  They are “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [for] making friends and acquaintances.”

Mavens are “information specialists,” or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.”  They accumulate knowledge about the marketplace and know how to share it with others.

Salespeople are “persuaders,” charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.  They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them.

I believe user adoption or training should be developed with the intent of creating a social epidemic, or should we say ‘workplace epidemic.’  If the Pareto Principle holds, then these extraordinary few must be identified and leveraged to ensure a change in behavior occurs, enterprise-wide.  And this shouldn’t be very hard.  If you take a second to think, I’m sure you can determine who the Connectors, the Mavens and the Salespeople are within your organization.

All three are needed to cause a social epidemic, but Mavens are the first of the few.  These are your early adopters.  These are the people that seem to know a little about a lot and love to share every thing they learn to every body.  Cluing these people in on your project early and often can go a long way in causing a workplace epidemic.  Connectors and Salespeople are equally important, but if the Mavens behave as they’re supposed to, a Connector will hear of the change soon and pass it on to a Salesperson.  Nevertheless, next time you are leading a change initiative, ask around to determine where these socially gifted people are located, and actively engage them on your project.  Going back to Brown and Thomas’ A New Culture of Learning, “students themselves are taking an active role in helping to create and mold [learning].”  Instead of relying on this collective to share ideas organically, however, try pushing a bit.  All it takes, especially here in the Midwest, is a simple request for help and most become willing and able.

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I'm the director of sales and marketing at Dashe & Thomson. I've worked in sales and marketing with various organizations, including 3M, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ionix Medical, and the Itasca Project. I live and breathe Minnesota sports and love golfing, boating, skiing, traveling, and attending live music.

One Comment

  • Kare Anderson

    February 25, 2011, 1:40 am

    Some of my favorite quotes from A New Culture of Learning:

    * The new culture of learning gives us the freedom to make the general personal and then share our personal experience in a way that, in turn, adds to the general flow of knowledge.

    * In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity.

    * Play is the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules. When play happens while learning it creates a context in which information, ideas and passions grow.

    * The important thing about the Harry Potter phenomenon is not so much what the kids were learning, but how they were learning. Thought there was no teacher in this setting, readers engaged in deep, sustained learning from one another through their discussions and interactions.

    * In a world of near constant flux, play becomes a strategy for embracing change rather than a way of growing out of it.

    * The challenge is to find ways to marry structure and freedom to create altogether new things.

    * Study groups dramatically increase the success of college students in the classroom.

    * The connection between the personal and the collective is a key ingredient in lifelong learning.

    * When information is stable, the explicit dimension becomes very important. The speed of light, for example, is probably not going to change….The twenty-first centry, however, belongs to the tacit. In the digital world we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing… not by taking a class or reading a manual.

    * Students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and opeate within the constraints of a bounded environment. Without the boundary set by the assignment there would be no medium for growth.

    * Indwelling is a familiarity with ideas, practices and processes that are so ingrained that they become second nature. When engaging the learner, we must think about her sense of indwelling, because that is her greatest source of inspiration, but it is also the largest reservoir she has of tacit knowledge.

    * Dispositions indicate how a student will make connections on a tacit level… how she is likely to learn.

    * Learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions…

    … and, I would add, by most of our organizations.

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