Nuts and Bolts: Working Out Loud: What's In It for Organizations?

Written By

Jane Bozarth

September 06, 2016

There’s a lot of conversation lately about working out loud, particularly the benefits it brings to the individual worker. But selling the idea of sharing to organization leaders can be another matter. Narrating work offers myriad benefits to organizations, from better locating talent and finding tacit knowledge to increasing efficiencies to improving communication. But organizations married to more traditional knowledge management processes may have trouble seeing past those.

One of the problems with traditional approaches, for instance, is the temptation to try and oversimplify an unavoidably complex task. Building a house takes much more than a blueprint; a schematic of a manufacturing process may, from 50,000 feet, look like a series of simple steps, but on the shop floor it may be a very different proposition with many moving parts and frequent exceptions.

Simple steps don’t tell us the story that the person in charge of the process, on the floor, every day, would tell: what to do when a supplier fails to ship a critical component, or a flu epidemic derails schedules, or someone creates a custom shim for an ill-fitting part without telling anyone about the flaw. Most of us spend most of our days in overlapping conversations, email messages, meetings, and Post-It note reminders. Often what we do, how we do it, and how well we do it all depend on relationships with others. We work in fluid processes that are just not easily mapped.

The problem with documentation? Well … truth is, we aren’t very good at writing down what we do; the reality is rarely what’s documented. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have said that we end up detaching knowledge from practice, which “distort[s] or obscure[s] intricacies of that practice” (see References). And over-engineered, bureaucratized reports and documentation processes are often exercises in futility, as they capture the “what” of work but not the “how.” Narrating work, showing work, or working out loud (here are some examples) helps us capture not just what gets done but how things get done.

What are the benefits to the organization of working out loud?

Showing work will require a shift—maybe changing the way reports have been done and meetings have traditionally been held (and why); maybe, as Virgin Media did, making sure all employees have access to SnagIt; or maybe just remembering to ask: How did you do that? Can you show me how to do that? What was the hardest thing about doing that? Who else was involved in getting that done?

Increased efficiencies

  • Reduction in number of meetings
  • Fewer silos and a decrease in redundancy
  • Saved time and energy
  • Reduction of time spent both in searching for information and for people and relationships
  • Reduction in time spent interpreting historical documents and artifacts
  • Connecting talent pools
  • Improvement in creating and storing information and artifacts

Preserving institutional knowledge

One of the tragic flaws of email is not only that conversation is locked inside a back-and-forth between two people, when in many cases it would be better shared “out loud,” but also that when one of the principals retires or leaves, the account is deleted. Anything of value that might have been there would have been difficult to extract, and now is gone forever. The person who leaves behind work—whether narrated via a blog or through shared presentations, or via images captured during a tricky repair and posted to the work unit wiki—is helping to preserve institutional knowledge for those coming after.

Improving public perception and awareness of work and effort

An organization successful at showing its work not only offers “what we can sell you” information, but presents interesting accounts of work that that shows “what we do.” This can be especially useful for nonprofit endeavors, those staffed with volunteers, and those supported by donations or tax dollars, as it says, “This is what we do with that money.” See, for instance, the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) Twitter account: @msf_field.

Reducing space between leaders and others

Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman PR, regularly posts to his first-person “6 A.M.” blog. Some posts are about business in general; others share insights gained via a personal experience; still others offer a frank revelation about decision-making or activities that affect his organization and its workers. For example, a post titled “Paid Media — A Change of Heart” describes his reasoning for changing a long-held position. The post—which invites comment—builds trust, supports an atmosphere of openness, reduces pushback and outcry, and helps everyone understand how the leader thinks.

Other benefits of showing work

  • Supporting recruitment. Showing work via public channels communicates “real” information about the company, the people, the work, and the ways in which workers spend their days.
  • Disaster prevention—continue the flow. Narrating work answers questions such as:
    • What happens if _________ resigns or retires?
    • What happens if ________­­_ is out sick?
    • What happens if I transfer?
  • Connecting with remote or scattered staff. For instance, Lowe’s Companies believes in working out loud. In describing the Lowe’s “Open Leadership” initiative, Sandy Carter of IBM reports that the workers who offered the best tips turned out to be those located farthest from headquarters (see References).
  • Enhancing employees’ morale through connecting them to others in a purposeful way:
    • Supports informal, social, and peer learning.
    • Supports the popular organizational talk about “collaboration.”
    • (See Tullis & Crumpler citation in Bozarth, Show Your Work. 2014: Wiley.)

Benefits to organizations, summarized

Showing work offers increased efficiencies, the possibility of innovation, and increased ability to improvise, and it promises correction of long-standing deficits in organizational communication. Organizations seeking to leverage the potential will find themselves more flexible and agile and will be better positioned to respond to exceptions, turnover, and sudden changes.

Want more?

Many examples of showing work or working out loud can be found here: https://www.pinterest.com/janebozarth/show-your-work-book-coming-may-2014/

References

Some material adapted from: Bozarth, Jane. Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud. San Francisco, CA: Wiley, 2014.

Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. “Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.” Organization Science, Vol. 2, No. 1. 1991.
http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Carter, Sandy. “Social Leadership at Lowe’s.” YouTube video. 27 October 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPkDZNOxLtk

Edelman, Richard. “Paid Media — A Change of Heart.” 6 A.M. (blog). 7 January 2013.
http://www.edelman.com/p/6-a-m/paid-media-a-change-of-heart/

From the editor: DevLearn 16: Speakers sharing their work!

Jane will join a special panel discussion Thursday afternoon, November 17: “Designing Accessible Learning Experiences.” Don’t miss this session, in which seasoned designers and developers will share their personal stories and best practices for creating universal or inclusive solutions!

In addition, dozens of other designers and developers will be showing you what they have done and how they did it. Check out the session descriptions on the DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo site! Register by September 30, 2016, for the Early Registration Discount.

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