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Monday, April 15, 2013

‘Lean In’ Software Goes Corporate

The networking technology that powers Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign has its own ambitions to rise inside corporations.

“Lean In” is the best-selling book written by Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, with Nell Scovell. Its message that women need to do a better job of finding and acting on their ambitions is also the goal of a nonprofit. LeanIn.org, financed by Ms. Sandberg’s book profits and her own money, uses the Internet to help organize small groups of women across the United States and internationally.

Not surprisingly for a movement originating from Silicon Valley, social networking technology plays a part in building out these Lean In circles. This includes online software to organize people, content like videos on how to better use body language, tools for LeanIn.org’s managers to monitor user behavior, and data analytics.

And, in a nod to Silicon Valley’s often blurred line between business and altruism, on Tuesday that technology will be offered as a commercial service.

“This is a way for people to create their own branches of groups,” said Gina Bianchini, the founder and chief executive of Mightybell, a maker of the networking software. “What if an influencer, or a brand, or an organization, could go from having passive followers to an active army It’s like nothing that’s been offered before.”

Mightybell debuted in 2011 as a way for individual groups to organize online. To date, Ms. Bianchini said, “tens of thousands” of groups have used the service.

For LeanIn.org, Ms. Bianchini, who is listed as one of the group’s founders, changed the software so that it could create subgroups that refer to a central cause, while aspects of the initiative are locally managed.

Mightybell will offer the initial organizing software for free, Ms. Bianchini said, adding that likely users would include “media brands, bloggers, and corporations.” Starting this summer, the company plans to charge for premium features like data analytics, online stores and managing communications.

LeanIn.org may serve as an initial template. The organization encourages people to build social networks of eight to 10 people. Using calendaring software, they can arrange meetings 10 or more times a year, where they can watch lectures downloaded from LeanIn.org, which include ways to improve nonverbal communication or tips on how to negotiate a raise.

Additional content includes ways for circle members to discuss and develop strategies for professional opportunities. There is also software for managing online communications between formal meetings.

LeanIn.org, meantime, collects feedback by looking at how many groups are formed, how many posts are created, and how many invitations to join are sent out by members. Content from LeanIn’s 160 partners, which include both nonprofits and companies like American Express and Coca-Cola, may also be included.

“We think of them as book clubs with a purpose,” said Rachel Thomas, the president of LeanIn.org. “People can name and personalize their groups. We hope people will try an action, share the results, and continue to meet more often.” Men can also start circles, she said, though the organization expects the circles will primarily contain women.

“Our ultimate goal, which is going to take time,” is to expand the share of corporate leadership positions held women, which currently stands at 14 percent, Ms. Thomas said. To that end, she said, portions of LeanIn.org’s “programmatic” content are also being put into existing corporate training programs.

Ms. Thomas did not say how many circles had been formed since the program began three weeks ago. She noted that the group’s Facebook page has received over 140,000 likes. There has been interest in forming circles from as far away as China, Berlin, and rural Canada, although most of the early interest, she said, has been from urban areas in the United States.

Ms. Bianchini is a veteran of online social networking. In 2004, she co-founded, along with Marc Andreessen, a service called Ning for creating social networks. Ning raised over $100 million, but failed to make a profit. It was sold to Glam Media in 2011 for a reported $150 million, after Ms. Bianchini left the company.

“Ning had ‘the empty group problem,’” she said. “People form a group, but after awhile they may not have any idea what to do.” With LeanIn.org, and now the general release of the circle software, she said, “we want to make sure that there is new stuff to react to, and drive group engagement at scale.” Meetings are organized, she noted, by the leader picking four or so days that might work, then allowing others to choose a time within that constraint.

“No one has done networks like this,” she said. “It’s been done in the real world, and it is how the Web itself was built, but it hasn’t been done for groups.”