Small Groups, Big Results: Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Points, and Learning

In a world in which people face far more information than they can possibly absorb, the spread of innovation depends on simple, memorable, and trusted means of information, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point a decade ago.

The fact that the book remains frequently discussed and extremely popular among users of libraries—there were 194 reserves on the 37 copies of the book owned by the Seattle Public Library, 84 reserves on the 27 copies of the book owned by the San Francisco Public Library, and several other libraries reporting all copies checked out yesterday—tells us that trainer-teacher-learners need to be paying attention as we attempt to support change within the organizations we support—which is, after all the point of training-teaching-learning.

What is tremendously encouraging from Gladwell is the confirmation that change doesn’t necessarily require large numbers of people in its initial stages. Nor does change and innovation require huge groups of people to be efficacious. The power of smaller rather than larger groups in the change process receives ample attention in his chapter “The Power of Context (Part Two).” Citing the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Gladwell shows how groups ranging from baboons to hunter-gather tribes to religious groups including the Hutterites (pp. 177-181) work most effectively in smaller rather than larger conglomerations, with groups comprised of approximately 150 members being about the largest effective unit: “The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is another one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference” (p. 182). One repercussion of this proposal is explicitly addressed in an afterward to the 2002 edition of the book.

“We are about to enter the age of word of mouth,” Gladwell wrote shortly before Web 2.0 tools boosted the pervasiveness of word of mouth diffusion of ideas through the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon.com book recommendations, and many other resources key players—what Gladwell calls “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen”—use to expand their reach beyond the social and professional groups in which they are most intimately and personally involved.

LinkedIn itself demonstrates how easy it has become to build these ever-expanding groups of connections. As Gladwell notes, “Connectors…are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches” (p. 48). As LinkedIn makes the process easier, previously separated connectors become connected; ideas which would otherwise have been known to small numbers of people leap from person to person and social network to social network in a viral way.

The conclusion of Gladwell’s work returns readers to its beginning: “When people are overwhelmed with information and develop immunity to traditional forms of communication, they turn instead for advice and information to the people in their lives whom they respect, admire, and trust…Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen” (p. 275). And there’s every reason in the world for trainer-teacher-learners to recognize their role in that process—and use it to the advantage of those with whom they interact.

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