All Things Are Not Equal
In any team or community you can expect to find a variety of expertise and strengths. We usually don't expect everyone to do the exact same thing, or to have the same skill sets and strengths. In fact, the complementary nature of individual strengths is essential to creating strong teams and vibrant communities.
Knowing this, it is surprising that the default expectation for online interaction is identical contribution, with performance metrics that reinforce this unhealthy view. Not only is this unrealistic, it's a sure recipe for failure!
Most everyone is familiar with the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. Although frequently misapplied, the principle generally refers to the inequality or clumping of factors in a particular context. For example, in volunteer organizations, we often use this rule to articulate the perception that 20% of the people do 80% of the work.
Jakob Neilson, in his article, "Participation Inequality, Encouraging More Users to Participate", describes the ratio of on-line participation as a 90-9-1 rule:
He then goes on to describe how Wikipedia contribution and general Internet participation complies roughly with this rule. Although not mathematically conclusive, this breakdown does seem to be congruent with our observations regarding on-line communities.
- 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
- 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
- 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.
A Positive Reality
Rather than seeing this as a problem, it is far more helpful to view participation behavior as a reflection of the variety of skills and strengths of the participants. Instead of seeing the 90% as "Lurkers", I prefer to view them as a "type" of participant, that is, primarily an audience that uses and applies community content.
The challenge is not to try to make everyone participate equally, but instead to optimize the community by leveraging the 90-9-1 rule. So instead of spending all of our energy trying to make the 90% mimic the 1% behavior, we can stimulate the community much more effectively using the following ideas.
First let's re-label the participants. We'll call the 1% "Knowledge Champions", people who excel at sharing knowledge and evangelizing ideas and content. Then we'll call the 9% "Knowledge Agents", people that readily connect people to information and are proactive in responding and interacting to knowledge flow. The rest, the 90% we'll label as "Knowledge Users", valuable community participants that convert explicit information into solutions, products and value.
Now we'll focus our community stimulation efforts:
- Map the social network to identify the Knowledge Champions and Knowledge Agents.
- Optimize support and communications structures around the Knowledge Champions, they are the "collaboration core" of the community.
- Empower the Knowledge Agents by making sure they are solidly connected into the community and have full visibility and convenient contribution mechanisms.
- Finally, provide the Knowledge Users with very low-barrier interaction mechanisms that align with their working contexts.
When we leverage principles in our community building and management designs, efforts are quickly transformed into accelerated knowledge flow, collaboration and innovation. Rather than trying to make everyone equal, why not use the power of the 90-9-1 rule towards successful on-line teamwork in your organization?