Web 2.0 and social networking tools are playing a growing role in informal learning inside organizations. But there's an odd catch. They work best when employees trust the tools and use them, which is closely related to how much control employees are given and how little is exercised by the learning department. Social media and learning consultant Jane Hart notes that "once individuals and groups do realize they have the power, ability, and tools to learn for themselves, then they will begin to address their own problems informally and quite spontaneously - without the supervision or intervention of a teacher."
Informal learning "assignments" bolted on to a formal course don't prompt the kind of work-related exploration for which social media can be really useful. Breaking out of the need to control employees' use of social media while making sure that such systems are designed and implemented with suitable controls has been a stumbling block for many training departments. The social media systems that work well have found a balance between controlling learners' behavior and giving them freedom to learn.
Many companies would like to encourage informal learning by installing social media software that allows employees to ask and answer questions quickly and easily. On the plus side, social media tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are familiar to most people as methods for connecting with experts, and employees are already using them at work. On the minus side, companies fear that employees will waste time using such public tools for nonwork or hijack them for their own purposes.
One solution is to build an internal social networking system that has the familiar features of LinkedIn or Twitter, such as user profiles or bulletin boards for posting questions to the whole community, but that is open only to employees. To date, the most evolved internal networking systems can be found in large organizations with the resources to create a customized internal system.
IBM, for example, introduced podcasting as a communications tool for the large global company several years ago. There were few controls, and many employees began to experiment with the medium. Over time, internal communications costs decreased, and some practical business applications, such as outreach to investors, evolved.
A new report from Forrester, "Get Serious About Informal Learning," by senior analyst Claire Schooley, describes the informal learning systems of Intel, Nike, and British Telecom. Other companies with robust social networking systems that support informal learning are Home Depot, UPS, Graco, Cisco, Kaiser Permanente, Wal-Mart, and Google. Frequently, the need that drove the creation of internal networking tools in these companies involved communication rather than learning per se. Many of these systems were created by a team that may or may not have included a learning professional.
That's the route taken by Sabre Holdings, the company that owns Travelocity and several other global travel reservation systems. An interdepartmental team created an internal social networking tool - SabreTown - that facilitates informal learning and communication in ways that addressed many of the issues holding other companies back.
"The goal was to provide an internal tool for professional networking so that employees could connect quickly and easily," says Erik Johnson, general manager of Sabre Holdings' Cubeless, the software platform created for SabreTown. At the time the networking tool was created, Sabre Holdings had grown from a small domestic operation into one with 10,000 employees in 59 countries. Many worked as telecommuters, and "employees were beginning to feel disconnected from colleagues and sources of information," says Johnson.
How it works
To use SabreTown, employees complete a profile of their interests and expertise. When someone posts a question to an online bulletin board, the system's predictive modeling software will automatically send it to the 15 people whose expertise is most relevant to the question. The more people who complete profiles and the more questions that are asked and answered, the better the inference engine is able to assign questions appropriately.
"You have a greater chance of getting a useful answer if your question is directed not just to the people you already know, but to the people who have the most relevant knowledge," explains Johnson.
A team led by corporate communications and including representatives from various geographies and functions developed SabreTown and manages it. "It is a tool for professional networking and holistic professional development," says Johnson. HR and training are "on board" but are not the owners. One benefit for the training function is that the metrics on usage reveal knowledge and expertise gaps in the company.
Creating a system that would be open and easy to use required solid planning and execution in three areas: strategy, environment, and implementation, according to Johnson.
Sabre suggests these recommendations for a successful strategy:
Let the goals and expectations for the system guide the strategy. For SabreTown, the goal was to provide a tool for professional networking so that employees could connect quickly and easily.
Make the business case and identify the value of the cultural benefits. The SabreTown development team showed that getting information by sending email to known sources consumed hours of company time. An inference engine would make the search for answers more efficient and cost-effective by identifying the people most likely to know answers and directing questions to them.
Maximize the value of the system by making sure it is used to the maximum. The environment - the way the system works for the user - is a key to getting employees involved.
Johnson provides these recommendations for users:
- Make the tool easy to use for everyone, not just the tech-savvy.
- Build it to mimic the way people communicate by asking and answering questions.
- Don't worry about making it perfect technologically.
- Keep it simple. Some people are still afraid of using wikis, blogs, and other social media because they are complicated.
- Don't make it part of a larger system: It will lose its meaning and people will not adopt it.
- Communicate to employees exactly what it's for.
SabreTown achieved high usage quickly through careful implementation, says Johnson. Here are some key points to remember:
Promote behavior that will increase trust in the system. There is no friends list. There are no anonymous posts. All conversations are open to all users. People are accountable for their answers because everyone can see them.
Seed the system with questions and answers for the first month or two by selecting some people to "overuse it." This populates the system with information, helps move questions along, and gives the inference engine something to work with.
Lead by example. Make sure the launch team fills out their profiles quickly and uses the system appropriately. Encourage managers and leaders to use it. Find top executives who are enthusiastic about it and have them use it too. Sabre Holdings CEO, Sam Gilliland, is a user.
Use the system's metrics to diagnose the health of the community. If people aren't joining groups or aren't filling out profiles, push those behaviors with specific communications.
Fix roadblocks. The implementation team found that people wouldn't complete their profiles if they didn't have a photo to upload. One solution was to set up a photo station and help people upload their pictures.
In communications about the system, keep returning to its value. SabreTown was launched in mid-2007 and nearly 90 percent of employees are using it to ask questions and get information from other employees. The average user makes four visits per month. Sixty percent of questions are answered within one hour, with an average of nine people responding to each question.
SabreTown is credited with substantial savings for the company. "We identified $500,000 in direct savings the first year, but we also know, based on anecdotal results, that figure doesn't come close to representing the total savings we are finding from the system," says Johnson.
He attributes the site's success partly to the fact that management ceded control over its use to line employees. He says, "It is informal, easy to use, and resembles popular public sites that employees already know. A big benefit for us is that SabreTown is effectively creating a massive knowledge base that employees willingly populate with their own information."
As employees of all ages grow more comfortable with social networking tools and companies successfully introduce systems that employees trust and use to exchange information, we should expect to see much more informal learning facilitated with Web 2.0 tools. The research organization Forrester predicts that the market for intranet 2.0 applications will reach $4.6 billion by 2013, with the biggest sellers in employee networking, mashup, and RSS tools.
Learning professionals have an important role to play in the facilitation of informal learning through social networking tools. If current trends hold true, many such applications will be closely linked to one of the most basic and instant forms of learning among people at work - asking and answering questions about something they need to know right now.