Just about 10 years ago I was working out my notice from my role at the BBC, awaiting the start of a new stage in my career consulting with a management training company. I was chatting about the new direction with an old school friend who, when she heard what I was about to do, looked in horror and exclaimed “I don’t know how you could do that.”

It turned out that my friend would spend her time on training courses in mortal fear that the trainer at some point would point at her and force her to speak in front of the whole group. It was an important lesson for me, as someone who has no difficulty speaking in front of an audience – it’s not the case with everyone.

Over my couple of years in the training role and since, I’ve observed a rough rule of thumb: in a group of a dozen people, you’ll usually find a couple who can’t shut up, three or four who will contribute occasionally, and the rest who will just mostly listen. Force the latter group, and they’ll say things (although you’ll probably find at least a couple like my friend who will only do so under extreme duress).

There are some trainers that I know who’d see these silent types as the challenge – and do all that they could to get them talking. For me, I realised that smaller group sessions of twos or threes would be the way to ensure that everyone could contribute and engage – forcing those shy of groups to work significantly outside of their comfort zone was pointless (unless we were training presentation skills, of course).

The cut off point for what makes a “big” group for those who won’t speak in groups is small – three to four people, from my experience. And the bigger the group, the fewer the active contributors proportionately.

In recent weeks I’ve been talking with lots of people about the use of technology to support communities within organisations – Enterprise Social Networks and the like. It’s struck me that the same participation dynamics that exist in the physical world exist in the virtual – most people just listen. But somehow there is an expectation that social networks within organisations will result in widespread, active participation, and that only a few folk contributing is some sort of failure.

If you look at you own social network usage, you’ll probably see 90/9/1 patterns. Roughly 1% of your connections will be very active (on LinkedIn, people like me probably), 9% will make occasional contributions, and 90% will appear silent. It’s a big mistake to assume that that 90% are inactive – I’m constantly surprised when friends who appear to take no interest online comment to me in person about things they have seen I’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter.

There’s obviously a group of people who register but then never really engage, but this big section of folk who consume but don’t contribute are important because they merely reflect how we are in the real world. Online environments might encourage different people to participate, but it’s a fools errand to expect widespread activity everywhere. That’s just not how human group dynamics work (in fact, the occasional training course that I ran where everyone was a contributor – lots of alpha personalities – were a bloody nightmare to facilitate).

With digital environments, we more than ever see an obsession with discounting the unmeasurable. Contributions on social networks are easy to count – as are comments, likes, shares… reading (or at least viewing) things can be counted. But cognition, behaviour change, improvements in working – well, they are thorny, often attitudinal as much as observable – that might come from being a network observer are harder to measure. These are not things that get generated out of web logs or social network analytics alone, and so in our rush to see impact might get ignored. That, though, is where the deeper value lies.

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