The Power of a Question, Asked Online

The power of a question to spark imagination, challenge bias or entrenched thinking, or simply to help solve a problem has been long recognised. Life coach Tony Robbins talks about the ability to ask empowering questions as “a critical skill that will ultimately shape the meanings you create, and therefore the quality of your life”. Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, author of best seller “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, bemoans the fact that business schools train managers to provide answers, rather than asking good questions. Yet, we have seen the power of employee engagement a CEO can gain by simply demonstrating vulnerability by asking staff for help. At SWOOP we have been able to capture that super engagement result when a CEO asks for help using their Enterprise Social Network (ESN). But it’s not just about the CEO. How expert are we at asking questions online? Does your organisation possess those critical questioning skills that Tony Robbins claims can be life changing? We decided to dig deep into our SWOOP big data resources looking for an answer. 

Do your ESN group colleagues ask questions? 

We accept that groups are established with different purposes. Some perhaps are simply for broadcasting announcements, while others may be established precisely as Q&A forums. We analysed 53 groups within one ESN. We looked at all messages shared, looking for those that had been posed as questions, either as an original post, or as a reply. On average around 11% of messages are posed as questions, with a range of 2% to 28%. This looks like a pretty large range to me. The group names give little indication as to why the variation exists. We would therefore suggest that it is healthy to set targets for the % of messages posed as questions to greater than 20%.  

What SWOOP collaboration indicators are influenced by %Questions?  

We next explored how the %Questions measure for these 53 groups correlated with the SWOOP group benchmarking indicators for each group, and found the following factors were significantly correlated:  

SWOOP Group Benchmark Indicator 

Significant Correlation with %Question 

(1.0 = total correlation; -1.0 = totally uncorrelated) 

Replies per Post  0.53 
Reply Response Rate  0.50 
%Recognition*  -0.37 
%Engager  0.31 

* Negative correlation i.e. value reduces with increased %Questions 

Significant correlations (95% confidence level) were found for ‘Replies per Post’ and the ‘Reply Response Rate’, which is no surprise, as a posted question specifically solicits a reply. Interestingly, the higher level of questioning and replies reduces the proportion of ‘likes’ and ‘mentions’ which make up %Recognition. Our benchmarking shows that on average, ‘likes’ and ‘mentions’ can make up more than 56% of all responses. While it’s nice to have messages recognised in this way, as we have reported earlier, ‘likes’ tend to end discussions, rather than promote longer and deeper ones. Reducing these signals in favour of replies, is therefore a good thing. 

Finally, we were gratified to find that groups who asked more questions, also had a higher proportion of our aspirational SWOOP Persona, the ‘Engager’. It appears that groups that encourage a more inquisitive membership are creating more dialogue and superior collaboration behaviours. It is also a good indicator of social network maturity; addressing the tangible value generating “Problem Solving” and “Innovation” maturity stages. 

Ideas for posing questions in your online group 

Struggling to think of a question to ask in your group? Let’s see what Tony Robbins has to say: 

“Try starting every day by asking yourself these three questions: 

  1. What is something I can do for someone else today? 
  2. What is something I can do to add value to the world today? 
  3. What is something that I have to offer other people?” 

Look for posts that are questions. Perhaps you don’t have an answer, or don’t fully understand the question. So why not ask a clarification question? Or perhaps extend the discussion with a follow up related question? Maybe you’ve had a great idea in the shower. Why not post it and ask for feedback? Perhaps you have discovered an interesting article to share online. Instead of simply posting it, why not ask a question like; “I think this article speaks to some of our key issues at the moment, what do you think?” 

How to spark questions 

Step 1: Check out your groups for how inquisitive they are. If the proportion of messages looks less than 20%, then:  

Step 2: Post your assessment and ask your fellow group members for ideas on how to become more inquisitive and, eventually, more value-generating. 


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