Let's be honest. The days of giving a sheepish grin when someone asks if you're "on Facebook" are long gone. This is a new era, and social media is the new telephone. Like it or not, welcome to the age of cyber communities.

Welcome, not merely to lounges or coffee shops, but to school - a school where everyone is a teacher and a student, and where the learning never ends.

The rapid adoption of this cultural shift may surprise some, but it has not shocked those in the educational community. Since the early days of online learning, digital communities have played a major role in information and knowledge sharing. But with the rapid growth of social networking venues such as MySpace and Facebook, groups can be formed for any possible reason, allowing people with similar interests to communicate about the things that motivate them. The corporate training profession needs to take notice.

This is not to say that workplace learning professionals have ignored the trend. Indeed, responses range from knee-jerk reactions of, "we're the only ones not on Twitter" to a laissez faire attitude of, "the fad will soon be over." Neither reaction is wise. Your training department must join the cyber community, but it must do so very deliberately or risk failure. Doing so now will help to position your training department on the forefront of the Web 2.0 learning frontier.

Social media: enabling constructivism

According to ASTD's 2009 State of the Industry Report, only 8.7 percent of respondents actively use blogs, podcasts, and social networks in their training functions. If the training department is part of an industry that typically lags behind in the use of technology, social media may present an even larger opportunity for learning professionals to take leadership roles.

The basic premise behind the educational success of social networking is a philosophy referred to as constructivism. Constructivism, in its simplest form, allows an instructor to guide students toward multiple sources of knowledge, rather than acting as the only source of knowledge. It also acknowledges that adult students often come to an educational environment having already accumulated a significant amount of knowledge. In a technical training course with eight to 10 trainees, for example, the students' combined years of experience in the particular field will almost always outnumber the instructor's.

Allowing students to apply concepts and technologies in vitro will enhance the class and provide learner-to-learner interaction. Online interactions can take place after the formal learning experience and are a practical and ongoing way to apply constructivism in technical training.

Asking the right questions

Two basic solutions must be met for an online training community to work: the network must benefit the individual and it must benefit the company. Albeit basic, if you cannot find a way to produce these results, you should look to other endeavors. Use the following questions to determine whether or not the social media tool will work for your particular training initiative.

1| Where are they? If your company is considering creating an online community, you must first research where your target audience is located. This is important because it emphasizes an understanding that we must go to them, not ask them to come to us. That is the biggest difference between a website and a social networking tool.

My company sells a wide variety of products to vastly different markets. Our mass notification paging system is not likely to garner many fans on Facebook. Our popular microphone and speaker line, by contrast, has a fan page that is growing very quickly, since musicians and entertainers are more likely to use social networking tools than are industrial builders.

2| What's in it for them? The answer to this will inform you if anyone will actually join your community. While many junior high students are likely to join hundreds of groups for the most trivial of reasons, targeting professionals requires much more thought. Adults need to understand the value and be assured that joining a group will not blur the lines between the professional and the personal.

The length and type of training conducted will likely be a significant factor. If the training is mandatory, most students will not bother with a group. The same is probably true of a short seminar. However, if the training is a voluntary technical or professional career-enhancement class, a follow-up group is much more likely to succeed.

3| What's in it for the company? Most trainers don't have the time necessary to keep up with social communities at work, and very few managers see the value in supporting these efforts. There must be a business need that social networking will meet and buy-in must occur at levels above the training department.

Getting started

Once you establish the grounds for a social media-enhanced training initiative, how do you get started? Take these practical action steps to help your company navigate the social networking frontier.

Prepare your organization's culture. This will likely require changing some attitudes toward both the medium and the potential benefits. Make sure that stakeholders understand the concept of constructivism and eliminate the notion that informal learning is inconsequential in its results. Be careful about overselling the idea, however. Don't promote it as a cure-all or a must-have. In the beginning it may simply serve as an informal way to increase the value of the existing training program.

Complete the background work. Verify that you can answer the questions listed above. Have you polled your students to find out where their communities are? Do you know what they want to get out of a social training community? Do you know what you expect to get out of it?

Create a plan. Start simple. Don't attack every concept you've heard your teenager talking about. If your industry and students are more formal and professional, choose a venue such as LinkedIn. If your audience is more intellectual or consists of early adopters of a product or idea, use a wiki application or shared Google group.

Be prepared. Outline some discussions you can have and choose individuals to supervise the groups. Determine beforehand if you will create an open group (anyone can join) or if joining will require approval. If you choose the latter, make sure that someone is monitoring the group regularly. Check to see if your company has written guidelines for social media and guarantee that you are adhering to them.

Encourage participation. Get your technical support team and other subject matter experts involved. Include topics from pre-existing training documentation, such as frequently asked questions and help topics. The bottom line is that the online discussion must be worth the few seconds to read or people will begin to ignore it.

Continuing the conversation

Learning doesn't end in the classroom or with a certificate. We are fortunate to live in an era in which geography no longer defines community. Social media serves as a powerful space in which to continue the learning conversation.