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How to Go From 4 to 400 LinkedIn Group Members in 4 Months

As someone who is studying the intersection of social media and generational diversity in the workforce (with an emphasis on the public and social sectors), I am intrigued by a couple key questions right now: What drives people to become engaged in social media? What are the decisive moments or key motivations that move a person to recognize social media as a viable tool for advancing their personal or professional pursuits? I would like to take the lessons learned and assist organizations to overcome the barriers to adoption so that they might accomplish their mission more efficiently and effectively through collaboration tools.

Two weeks ago, I learned that Jeffrey Vargas – the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Agency – launched a group on LinkedIn that has grown to over 400 members in just a few short months. We had dinner back in January and I shared with him my philosophy of social media engagement at that time. I can’t take credit for the growth of Jeffrey’s LinkedIn group because he is a dynamic community builder in his own right. Yet much of the membership increase happened in the weeks immediately following our conversation and I wanted to learn more.
I posed a few questions to Jeffrey so that we might benefit from the return on engagement that he’s gained from his first focused experiment with social media.

Q1: What’s the history of the CLO Group on LinkedIn and what was your baseline knowledge of social media?

I started the Chief Learning Officers Network in late November 2008. I had no real knowledge of Web 2.0 capacity. I had been a member of LinkedIn for a few months, joining because friends bugged me to be a part of it. After a while as a member, I began to join some groups basically to see what would happen. I didn’t see a group for CLOs so I started the network thinking and hoping to get 20-30 folks over a period of a year or so. I started the group because nothing was in existence in LinkedIn and thought our community needed something – a place, a forum, something to communicate around ideas. I figured I would start it before the Christmas season and see what happens over the holidays. If the group wasn’t moving forward, I would just delete it come spring.

Q2: What was it that motivated you to try something new with social media?

Basically, LinkedIn was a place for me to find old college buddies. Before our talk I had my group up, but I didn’t really actively seek new members or really communicate much with those who joined. I just figured things would “happen” and individuals would just start to collaborate. The conversation we had over dinner convinced me that I needed to spend more time in the network, I had to “work my network.” Literally, I had to start communicating with folks who took the time to sign up. Before our chat I thought success was just starting the group and anything the group did would be gravy (let’s call it success plus). I realized that was a “passive” model and I had to change my thinking, and basically think of the site more as a “place of engagement” where I would reach out to members, ask them questions, and seek their opinion. Our conversation helped me see that success might be achieved through focused engagement.

Q3. Can you describe what has happened since launch?

The November launch was uneventful; folks started to come in groups of 5 or 6. Post-holidays and after February something happened – some days I would get 20-30 requests to join! I’m not sure why things happened; I did reach out to some members/begin talking with them on email and exchanging ideas. The discussion groups seemed to pick up as well. Sometimes I would get multiple requests to join from the same organization which seemed like an indicator that folks were talking.

Today, humbly I tell you that the interest in the group has totally exploded, and gone international – requests to join come regularly from learning professionals from around the world. As of today we have over 400 learning professionals in the Chief Learning Officers Network, I don’t have a breakdown of actual CLO’s – the group is a composite of individuals with learning and development responsibilities and folks who are actual CLO’s, seasoned with some vendors.

Q4. To what do you attribute the rapid growth? How did you disseminate information about it?

Growth is due to word of mouth – has to be since I don’t advertise it anywhere and I really don’t talk about it to other leaders. Why? Because the metric of success being bigger numbers doesn’t work for me, so there was no need to “talk people into joining.” That’s why the interest in the group is so surprising. I never expected this much interest so actually I never developed a marketing strategy either.

It’s interesting that not only do I now get the usual request to join, I also get Inmail/Email for individuals who are providing me a business case/justification for why they should join and how they expect to contribute to the group, almost like a self-imposed application process. I have received emails from folks who have said that “so and so recommended that I join and here is how I want to contribute…” I haven’t let everyone join and have received some not so nice emails from folks who really didn’t have a connection with the group but the integrity of the group matters to me so I don’t mind taking a few hits.

Q5. What’s the biggest outcome or ROI/ROE for you to date?

The group has become known as a place for leaders in learning to share ideas/thoughts/connect – something that was just not possible a few years ago but made available through advances in technology. We know that CLO’s who would have never met have connected on issues of commonality; some folks have begun working together/collaborating. There is interest in doing a CLO conference in Web 2.0 (leaning toward Second Life) where we will have a day of discussion on common issues. I’m forming a team of five CLO’s/learning professionals to plan it. On a personal level, I’ve been invited to a CLO’s only retreat (for 150 CLO’s of major private sector organization) and have been asked to be a presenter (not something I sought but humbly happy to support). Without the network the folks in charge of the retreat would have never found me.

Q6. What ideas do you have for the future with LinkedIn? Beyond?

I want us to be a “real-time think tank” doing things like developing and deploying surveys to the group on learning and development topics, taking the information that we uncover and share it with the greater learning community. Also, I hope that the group can help government CLO’s look for, and then execute, ways to collaborate and share costs in the design, development and execution of strategic learning initiatives. I want to ensure a safe forum for CLO’s to noodle ideas/be creative and inventive and test (success is great and failure is ok, too). Perhaps we can host an annual Web 2.0 conference and develop a CLO academic curriculum because right now there isn’t identified (that I’ve seen) basic curriculum for a CLO (either at the undergrad/grad level).

Q7: Any final thoughts or insights for readers?

Whatever we do I want it to be sustainable and meaningful – the bigger means better metric is a data point, but not my goal. If we stay at 400 members and we don’t add a soul, I would be okay. For me it’s much more important that we are doing something with folks who took the time to join and ensure that they will make use of the group and feel a part of the group than just getting bigger. Ultimately, the group has to be relevant and sustainable beyond even my own involvement. This group is not about ego, it’s about change. What I won’t let the group become (if I can help it) is to be very vendor-focused – a place for anyone who has a product for CLOs to showcase their capacity. It’s great to have some vendors who really want to be part of the community and others to be part of the network but, at the end of the day, the group is developed for CLOs and I want to stick to that mission.

If we were to glean five lessons from Jeffrey’s LinkedIn success, they would include:

1. Focused, active engagement leads to the greatest returns.

2. As with any endeavor, the more you give, the more you receive.

3. Although the hallmarks of social media are openness, transparency and participation, it is okay to limit access to your network if that ties back to your ultimate goal.

4. Establish a clear set of outcomes and a vision for the future.

5. Bigger is not always better. A relevant, active group of people that brings value to one another may be a more meaningful measure of success.

Thank you, Jeffrey, for sharing your insight!

Originally published at the GenerationShift blog.

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Lorie Obal

For more resources on research going on in social media in the workforce, you might find something useful at the Communications of the Association for Information systems (CAIS) http://aisel.aisnet.org/cais/ or Teh Association for Computing MAcinery (bit of an outdated sounding title) (ACM) http://www.acm.org/

In general the Management Information Systems (MIS) journals will have published research in this area, since this has become a hot topic in IS research lately.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, Lorie…I’ll check into those sites. You’re right…I never would have guessed that those organizations would have anything to say about social media and the workforce!

June Breivik

An interesting article, thanks for sharing it :). I work for the county council in Norway, and we see that teachers are a group which joins social networks. They are among our very frequent users of social media like blogs, Twitter, ning, FriendFeed, Flickr, etc. The government are also encouraging this use, for instance are our Minister of education on Twitter and a very frequent blogger, http://www.bardvegar.no/.