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

Posted on February 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM

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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