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May 5, 2011 » 8:54 am

Why I Love Working Openly

This morning, I was reminded of two reasons why I love working openly, and why everyone should do more of it.

First, I noticed this tweet from Stephanie McAuliffe:

The Organizational Effectiveness group at the Packard Foundation has been quietly capturing its learnings on an open, public wiki for over a year now. In a field that struggles with transparency, this is a remarkable act in and of itself.

So what has the impact been? I know that they’re constantly asking themselves that question… because they’re doing that openly as well.

I also know that, generally, one of the big hopes / expectations around doing something like this is that others will join in as well. I think this is reasonable, but I also think it’s overstated in terms of value.

Of greater value, in my opinion, is the ability to do what Stephanie did. You want to know what we learned? You want to know what we’re thinking? Easy. Go here. Doing your knowledge work openly allows you to reuse this knowledge in useful ways — repackage it, redistribute it, refactor it, with the ongoing possibility of others joining in as well. Beautiful.

Second, I’m currently working with the leadership team at a Fortune 500 company exploring ways they can collaborate more effectively at a global level. As part of this process, we’ve immersed ourselves deeply in one particular project, trying to understand what’s working and what can be improved.

Most consultancies do this sort of thing in a very closed way: Talk to a bunch of people, gather some data, then go off in a corner and think really hard by yourselves until you come up with something smart to say.

We don’t work this way. For us, participation isn’t constrained to “input” and “feedback.” It’s about learning collectively, which leads to activation. That means opening up our process, sharing our artifacts, and allowing the client to see our thought process with all of its inevitable warts and missteps.

It’s a tricky balance. Our client is busy. We can’t expect them to sit in on all of our meetings or to look at everything we’re looking at. So we’re strategic about designing our process to maximize the time we have with them. But, we also create opportunities for emergence by making our artifacts available and by inviting (but not requiring) participation whenever possible.

One way we’ve done this was to invite everyone on the project to get our biweekly status messages. We’re doing these updates primarily for the project’s leadership, but we saw no reason to restrict it to them if others were interested. And people were: Over 30 people (half of the project team) opted in. Think about the activation potential we untapped through this small act of opening up our process.

In our last update, we included a brief summary of a social network analysis that we had done, and included a link to a seven-page report that provided greater detail. We didn’t expect many people to click on the link, but over half of our subscribers did.

This morning, I got an email from one of the subscribers, an important member of the team, but someone we had not interviewed due to resource constraints. He provided detailed, thoughtful context for several of the questions we raised in our analysis. We would not have gotten this context had our process not been open. We certainly wouldn’t have thought to approach him first.

Net participation from opening up our process in this case was “only” one additional person. But that serendipitous interaction greatly improved the quality of our work, and we would not have found him on our own. This, along with the activation potential that continues to go up because of the broader engagement, adds up to a huge win for everyone.

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3 Responses to “Why I Love Working Openly”

  1. Thanks for highlighting the "public learning" happening with the Packard Foundation.

  2. Hi Eugene: Thanks for this post about public learning. Last week, I wrote about the different levels of public learning on wikis – individual, organization, and field – http://www.bethkanter.org/learning-in-public/

    Your reflection has raised a question about defining success for openness or how to measure it. I think you can't judge it by number of comments – it has to be something like the quality or depth of new insights generated because of working openly or public learning. And, maybe understanding the impact of that insight. Maybe the value is the saved time.

    Also, in a way, public learning is also real-time time learning. That there isn't a wall between assessment and analyzing and applying — a faster double learning loop. Thanks for sparking some thoughts over morning coffee.

  3. […] “Reusable” knowledge nuggets. I’ve been saying a lot of the things I write about in some form or another for many years. Actually writing them down means I can repeat them more easily and that others discover them on their own. The best example of this is my post on networks and power. This has long been foundational thinking for me, and it’s become my most frequently read article, which makes me very happy. […]

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