Friday, October 23, 2015

Demystifying Working Out Loud

“When people leverage collaboration platforms to contribute and to build relationships, that appeals to their intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery, and relatedness.” ~ Working Out Loud-Better for You; Better for the Firm
Working out loud has been steadily gaining popularity and has become a topic of conversation on many forums including the Facebook community of the same name. In the post 5 Gifts for the HR Department, John Stepper describes working out loud as a “different kind of talent program” writing, “as more employees work out loud, more of their work is visible along with public feedback on it”. Dion Hinchcliffe in What Are the Required Skills for Today’s Digital Workforce?, mentions working out loud as one of the “genuinely transformative new digital skills”, and as seen in the diagram below, it heads the list of critical skills for a digital workforce.
I have been writing about working out loud as a practice for some time now. Here are some of my older posts: Working Out Loud 101, 7 Strategies to Facilitate Working Out Loud, and Working Out Loud: Using the Tools We Already Have. In this post, I want to demystify working out loud and highlight the organizational as well as personal growth that accrues from the practice. I am a huge believer of the practice because I have experienced the effect first hand. It has helped me to develop my personal learning network (PLN) and enabled my PKM. However, individuals for whom it’s a seemingly new way of working are still beset by doubts, and some may even express outright skepticism. Given this context, I have tried to explain what #wol entails for those like me who might be trying to spread the approach, believe in the fundamental philosophy of transparency and open work, and wish to empower everyone with a simple yet powerful learning tool for self-driven learning.

First let me clarify what working out loud is NOT… It is not any of the descriptors given below:

  • A tool/methodology to boast about oneself
  •  A mindset that can stem from selfish interests
  • An approach that implies networking for personal benefits
  •  A methodology that can flourish under very controlling and hierarchical organizations
  • A process to be mandated by management/supervisors/organizations with defined rules
I’m going to take a step back and examine the world we live in today and how the notion of work has changed. 

  1. Work has become location agnostic; workplace is no longer defined by a brick and mortar building 
  2. The 9:00 am to 5:00 pm notion of work is all but vanishing, at least for the knowledge workers 
  3. The workforce today is not only globally distributed but also contingent giving rise to the notion of the extended enterprise 
  4. The workforce is ubiquitously connected, networked, and mobile 
  5. The ecosystem we operate in is volatile with rising complexity & ambiguity – the quintessential VUCA world 
  6. Five generations are working side-by-side (often virtually) 
  7. The baby boomers are retiring taking their tacit knowledge and experience with them 
  8. We live in an age of information abundance but lacking in insight and wisdom; it is almost impossible to make sense of it as an individual 
  9. Exceptions are the norms; making sense of exceptions require a coming together of cognitively diverse individuals 
  10. Disruptive business models are upending traditional org structures

Demystifying #WOL: Some questions I have encountered when discussing working out loud in forums & conferences or with colleagues:

Q. Does working out loud need digital technology in the form of an online platform or tool?
Fundamentally, one doesn’t need any tool to practice working out loud. However, in an era of distributed, dispersed and global workforce, an online platform becomes a necessary connector and amplifier. It is perfectly possible to share one’s experience over a “lunch & learn” session; however, if that session can also be aired on Hangout, the impact is amplified tenfold. I would say that a platform that facilitates easy and seamless interaction, forming of groups and threads, a powerful search mechanism and a way to aggregate conversations across topics (#) would be ideal for working out loud effectively.

Q. Why should I work out loud when my immediate team sits right next to me?
Organizational silos form because we don’t know what the teams across the hallway are working on leave alone being aware of what other business units and divisions are doing. Thus not only do we lose out on diverse inputs and knowledge, we also proverbially reinvent the wheel many times over and feed into systemic inefficiency. An organization that shares openly –successes and failures, learnings and insights, explicit and tacit knowledge – learns faster, builds an ambient awareness and paves the road for serendipity. The practice of working out loud across and beyond the borders of a conventional org chart leads to a much higher probability of expertise location, talent discovery, innovation, cross-pollination of ideas, and a resilient and constantly learning organization. It is an excellent method for bridging those very gaps and silos – the white spaces – between the defined boxes of the org chart. To illustrate this, I have slightly modified Dion Hinchcliffe’s diagram (see below) to show how the process of #wol can benefit all of us – employees as well as the organization.

Q. It’s not natural for me to post whatever I want to say or think online. What are some of the compelling reasons that will make me do so?

Given this VUCA world, it is imperative for and incumbent on all of us to remain learning agile and relevant. A distributed workforce requires a digital platform for connect. When we refuse to acknowledge that the fundamental paradigms that defined organizations of yore have changed, we kill our chances of personal development and growth by continuing to operate in silos and with people who are cognitively aligned. We run the risk of suffering from a “frog in the well” syndrome and fail to see signs and symptoms of change. Today’s work requires us to collaborate with folks we have never met, often from the other side of the world. These call for an adoption of some fundamental digital skills of which #wol is one.

However, it is not all gloom and doom! While the practice may seem novel, it actually taps into the basic human nature of sharing, learning and collaborating – aspects of humanity that traditional organizations suppressed in the name of efficiency, economy of scale and productivity. What working out loud requires is for us to collectively go back to the days when we swapped stories sitting around a fire, the only difference being that the fire has been replaced by a participative medium like a social collaboration platform, communities of diverse individuals and a global mindshare. Just as we would not have survived as a species had our ancestors not swapped those early stories, our survival and relevancy as individuals and organizations today may well be threatened if we fail to tap into the wider network of diverse and global intelligence. A complex world requires collaborative and cooperative problem solving.

Q. I deal with sensitive information and data. Why should I post it for all to see?
First of all, the definition of sensitive information is changing as organizations morph from complete control and hierarchy into more flatter and networked organizations. Having said that, there may well be data like employees personal information that must be protected. Working out loud does not imply exposing sensitive information. #WOL is a lightweight way of doing open work, i.e., sharing one’s learning, asking questions, sharing resources you may have found useful and hope others will too. It is based on the fundamental principles of generosity, a growth mindset, leadership and a desire to build a purposeful network. The latter is one of the most profound and meaningful outcome of generously working out loud. Consistent practice leads to a network that is open, diverse and deep. The image below (came across it via the Facebook Working Out Loud community) captures these core characteristics succinctly and beautifully.

Q. I barely have time to finish my tasks; when will I share and work out loud?
Working out loud is not an extra activity we do over and above our regular work. It is how work will get done as digitization and globalization become driving forces. On an average we send out more than 30 mails in a day and receive ten times that number. If we pause to think, how many of those mails are in search of that elusive information, that particular PowerPoint presentation or that one person we know who has experience in the current problem scenario. The same ask posted on an open network is ten times more likely to throw up more relevant information at a much faster pace, reduce all the back and forth, and also help us to locate that expertise much more quickly. This reduced time and cost of coordination that #wol facilitates is one of the key drivers to practice the approach. We need it more than ever now – because we don’t have time. It is one of the ways to save us those precious hours while also building our network and meta-learning skills for the digital world.

Q. How will working out loud impact my professional development?
Working out loud enables us to practice and hone skills like reflection, synthesis, evaluation, online collaboration, co-creation and so on. No one will argue that these are invaluable meta-learning skills – especially in an era characterized by complexity and exceptions. Working out loud not only helps us to make our work visible to others in a way that they can find useful, it also helps us to build crucial skills. By sharing openly, we demonstrate generosity that invites others to share with us thus building a virtual cycle of giving and learning together. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the practice of #wol lays the foundation for other skills depicted in the diagram on top – skills like building one’s PLN, becoming adept at digital collaboration and letting the network do the work. The diagram below summarizes the different ways that working out loud manifests itself.


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