Working Out Loud

I use this term a lot. And I tell everyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that Government needs to be doing a lot more of it. In case I am talking nonsense, I thought I better write down what I mean... If we share an office or workplace with colleagues; we overhear, we ask quick questions, we sense mood, we have a feel for what others are up to. This can help teams to be hugely more effective; but, nowadays, many of us are part of lots of teams, groups, communities; we spend very little time with our colleagues; and we don’t get these benefits of physical proximity. With large groups, even if everyone is on the same site, it can be very hard to get this feeling. Working out loud is a way of working (enabled by collaborative software) that generates a sense of connectedness in large and/or distributed groups.

We are well-used to keeping in touch using the phone and email; but usually this communication is specific, goal-oriented, transactional... Working out loud is different. It’s more about creating what some have called ambient awareness - and it puts us in a position to take advantage of ideas and (serendipitous) opportunities to do stuff better. A sense, perhaps, of sitting at the desk next to everyone.

I like Bryce Williams’ - When will we work out loud? Soon! - post, which explains Working out loud as two habits: narrating our work and making our work observable. Here are some examples of how this might happen...

  • If we were to draft a document over several days we might use an internal collaboration tool to share what we are doing as widely as possible and we might store the emerging draft of that document in a shared folder so that those in our organisation who are interested could take a look at it as it develops (and possibly even help us).
  • We might have some partly-formed thinking about a specific problem. Instead of organising a meeting for a couple of weeks hence, we might put these ideas in an internal blog post and encourage a discussion about them.
  • Having found a new way of doing something, we might write a quick paragraph about it on a private forum used by a community of practice that we are part of. We might get involved in a brief exchange of comments with others interested.
  • We might come across a useful idea or fragment of news that we believe could be useful to others and we might Tweet about it.

There is an important issue about what, and with whom, it is appropriate to share. Harold Jarche, in his post Narration of Work, talks of different modes/scopes of sharing: privately within work teams, more widely within specific communities of practice and publicly amongst informal learning networks.

See this fascinating case study from Hans de Zwart about experiments with narrating work in a 20-person team in Shell.

Working out loud does not mean automatically sharing every innermost thought with the world; although for most of us, it probably means sharing more widely than we are used to.

Working out loud is not synonymous with the use of social tools. It’s quite possible for us to tweet and blog ourselves cross-eyed and not be Working out loud at all. Working out loud is a set of behaviours that is enabled by social tools.

Widely discussing and sharing unfinished work may feel uncomfortable. We have all been schooled in making sure things are shiny before letting the world see them; but half-baked is, necessarily, becoming the new polished.

Reformers in Government are seeking to promote a more organic faster-paced approach to implementing new services. It is crucial that those doing this, benefit from the things others learn - as they learn them. Lessons-learned papers and neatly-crafted case studies take tooooo long. Experiencing something fresh, first-hand, as it happens, is far more valuable because it’s possible to sense the rawness and spirit of what is happening. Reading or hearing a summary later is less inspiring, and it’s quite possible that the summariser may have unwittingly summarised out the bits that are useful to us. When doing new stuff, conveying energy and enthusiasm is as important as conveying information.

If we share only with those we already know within our organisations or personal networks, it is unlikely we will come across people with exactly the same issues as us. It’s quite possible that, across Government, there are loads of people beavering away inventing essentially the same wheels. It would be close-on criminal for there not to be a way for those people to find each other, share what they learn and just be more effective. Working out loud lets people find people and helps people to help people. (And it could also save a fortune on consultancy fees).

But there is bad and good news.

The bad news is that Working out loud requires a (small but) significant change of behaviour. See Tim Kastelle's recent post - Innovation Requires a Change in Behaviour - about the challenges of getting folks to wash their hands in hospitals despite the unarguable evidence that this simple action saves lives.

The good is that there is a growing body of people in the public sector well used to working this way - just take a few minutes to search Twitter - and encouragingly it only takes a few to get the ball rolling.

Join in. Work out loud.