Find the informal ‘influencers’ who’ll help drive your training initiatives
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Find the informal ‘influencers’ who’ll help drive your training initiatives

As with any corporate change, it helps to line up support from key employees first when you’re introducing a new training or learning initiative. But who exactly are those key employees?

Recent research in real-life workplaces by McKinsey & Co. suggests that they’re not necessarily who you think.

The McKinsey consultants who conducted the work wrote that employers habitually fail to recognize the “influencers” in their workforce — what McKinsey calls “the people other employees look to for input, advice, or ideas about what’s really happening in a company.” These are typically not people with formal organizational power, but rather employees who because of experience, natural authority and/or an ability to forecast what’s likely to happen next, are regarded as reliable guides by their co-workers.

You want to know who these folks are. Why? Because they have a disproportionate effect on how their co-workers see the organization’s future, on morale, on productivity (they influence how hard people work), and how willing — or unwilling — co-workers are to support change. If you can enlist their help, you’re a step ahead. If they’re bucking you, you’re a step or more behind.

Managers in the dark
The McKinsey people cited the example of a large retail chain where they asked the managers of two stores to list their most influential employees. The researchers then did their own digging into who employees themselves considered the most influential people to be.

How did the lists compare?

Two-thirds of the influencers listed by employees were NOT on the managers’ lists. And each store manager missed three of the five biggest influencers in their store. McKinsey said this level of inaccuracy was typical of all the industries they studied.

How, then, can you figure out who your informal influencers are, so you can get them to be evangelists rather than naysayers about the learning initiative you’re introducing?

A method that works
McKinsey says the method it used to find these influencers has been proven to uncover trends in “hidden populations” like drug users, sex workers and street gangs! (No, we’re not suggesting anything about the morals or behavior of your workforce, only that your informal influencers are another hidden population.)

Here’s how it works: You build a short, anonymous e-mail survey that asks questions like: “Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?” and “Whose advice do you trust and respect?” (If your people don’t all have e-mail at work, use anonymous paper surveys.) Ask survey participants to name three to five people, then survey those people. Repeat the process once or twice more, and you’ll probably start to see a set of names being repeated. These are your informal influencers.

How you leverage their help is up to you, but McKinsey did issue two firm prescriptions:

  • Make sure you can tell the negative influencers from the positive ones, and ask only the latter to help you. (You may learn something valuable about the reasons for resistance to change from the former, however.)
  • Be clear with your influencers that they’re free to help or not, as they see fit. Any hint of coercion will undermine what you’re trying to do.

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