Saturday, June 07, 2008

The 90-9-1 Rule

What does successful collaboration look like? Understanding how communities and people interact online is essential for setting the right expectations. Often people misinterpret metrics or focus their energy in the wrong direction because they do not have a reasonable benchmark to assess how well their on-line communities are functioning.

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!

Setting Expectations

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:
  • 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.
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.

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.

Accelerating Community

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.
Designed for Success

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?


Stewart said...

Great post! One point about the 90-9-1 rule that I see in my consulting work inside organizations: the ratio is quite different. The ratio trends toward 60% knowledge champions (people who contribute most often), so the focus needs to be on the 40% that contribute occasionally or only passively read content.

There's work to be done here, but the existing structure in organizations - unlike online communities on the open web - helps influence people to become more active contributors. For instance, if everyone on your team is using the wiki for meeting agendas & minutes, and you're the lone holdout, the others will encourage you to use the wiki too. They'll do it b/c they don't want that one email they have to deal with from you when everyone else is better connected thanks to the wiki.

The key to success is how they do it - if they're hard on you for being slow to switch, you might dig your heels in an refuse to succumb. On the other hand, if they show you how to contribute, and give you some direct support, that may be all you needed to get started in the first place.

HTL said...

Thanks Stewart, it is also my experience that vibrant communities have a large level of participation. However, that participation does vary, and it has been my particular goal to take a new community to a self-organizing and self-managed state as quickly as possible.

By identifying the "champions" and helping them do "what they're best at", our efforts are quickly amplified into realizing more comprehensive participation patterns.

Jon Mell said...

This is a great post. We are sometimes asked how to make everyone champions/stars etc. which as you rightly say is missing the point. As I said recently to one CEO, "would you want everyone to act like a CEO"?

Declan Whelan said...

Howard, I enjoyed the article. It makes we wonder if the 90-9-1 rule has a wider applicability beyond online communities. There does seem to be a disproportionate contribution from individuals in more traditional collaborative environments such as with co-located agile teams. The breakdown may not be as severe as the 90-9-1 rule perhaps because people are more comfortable contributing with whiteboards and flipcharts.
Your suggestion on focusing on Champion, Agent and User roles could help in more traditional environments. A company transitioning to agility could have a “corporate” Agile Champion with one or more Agile Change agents within each agile team. And the Agile Users would be the bulk of the agile team members.
Hey, maybe they could use a Wiki to align their efforts and could build an online agile community :).

amitoj.pb said...

Respected Sir
This is Amitoj Singh from Punjab India.
I am lecturer in computer science. I have done MCA (Masters in computer application).
now i want to peruse my phd on topic
Social and cultural issues in knowledge transfer in agile teams.
I want to do it in Indian context.
but its very hard to find revelant material ..
I need your help to outline my research path....
I have seen your paper on : The impact of agile practices on communication
in software development but it on pasi site cant access it.. can u provide me your paper so that can can gain sometghing from it.
i cant understand from where to start and where to go also from where i can find relevant material.
because mostly work is done on agile and social and cultural knowledge transfer individually not in combination..
So plz help me out.
can this is right topic for research can you suggest me some alterations .

Thank you.