The Tipping Point

In his famous book Michael Gladwell argues that trends in social behaviours spread like epidemics. We revisited the factors that create a "tipping point" and their implications for your learning community or project.

What's the big idea?

In looking at what creates social and behavioural epidemics Gladwell came up with three key factors . These were:

  • The law of the few
  • The stickiness factor
  • The power of context

We have looked specifically at the Law of the Few and its relevance for developing successful learning communities and learning initiatives.

Gladwell cites the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle as the foundation for his first rule of epidemics. The 80/20 rule is a rough approximation that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of people; that 20% of motorists cause 80% of accidents; that 80% of work on a project is done by 20% of the participants, that 20% of your efforts will deliver 80% of results, etc. To Gladwell, social epidemics depend upon the actions of a few exceptional people. In particular, they depend upon particular types of people, people he defines as:

  • Connectors
  • Mavens
  • Salesmen

Connectors are people who know lots of people. More importantly they not only know lots of people they know people in different areas and sectors. They connect different worlds. Interestingly studies appear to show that ideas are often spread through weaker connections ie through acquaintances rather than friends. These weak ties are more important because they tend to occupy different worlds. Connectors have lots of acquaintances, which makes them important in the spread of new ideas and behaviours.

Mavens are people who collect knowledge, often obsessively. These are people with huge levels of detailed knowledge on a subject who are happy to share that knowledge. They are important because they know things other people don’t. They read extensively in particular areas. This means that if they recommend something in their area of interest people take notice because they are recognised as knowledge experts. Whilst a Connector might tell lots of people about say the best MP3 player, a Maven will tell less people but more of them will take notice because they respect the knowledge of the Maven. Wikipedia has thrived on the contributions of mavens around the world.

Salesmen are the people Gladwell defines as people who persuade people to try something or listen to a new idea. They tend to be optimistic and enthusiastic. They build trust and rapport easily.

What's in it for Learning and Collaboration?

Gladwell’s analysis provides us with a structure for reviewing who you need to engage to maximise your chances of success.

Who will be your Connectors, the people who will tell everyone else about the benefits of the community and create awareness amongst a large audience. Identify the people who have the most connections and get them involved. Could they become your learning champions?

Who will be your Mavens, the people who have the obsessive knowledge and are prepared to share it with the community. Identify the two or three people who have the detailed knowledge that everyone respects. They may not be connectors or enthusiastic sales people but they will provide the value and information that Connectors and Salespeople will distribute. Could they be the founding contributors to your wiki, or be the recognised experts supporting your community of practice?

Who will be your Salesmen, the people who will persuade the sceptical to try the community or the elearning. Identify those positive and enthusiastic people who will encourage people to try the learning or the collaborative activities. They could also be learning champions.

You can use a very simple matrix to apply this approach to your project:

 Type Who Why  Engagement Strategy

So, identify the mavens, connectors and salesmen for your community, get them involved in the right way, and watch it spread like an epidemic.

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