For U.S. businesses, maintaining a competitive edge (or even just staying in business at all) is as complex as the rush of economic news stories bombarding us each day. Faced with keeping up with shorter information and product cycles, businesses require more effective, less traditional ways to stay ahead of this ever-sharpening competition curve.
Today's employees interact, learn, and work in much different ways and styles than in the not-so-distant past. Increasingly mobile and geographically dispersed workforces are becoming the norm, while at the same time, travel budgets keep shrinking and face time for meetings and training sessions is more difficult to plan.
With this scenario as the backdrop, tech-savvy Millennials enter the workplace, while older baby boomers, economically stressed by the recent recession, delay plans for that early retirement holy grail.
If you are responsible for fostering a high-performance culture, addressing skills gaps, retaining top performers, and developing leadership pipelines, the connection between workplace learning and the developments mentioned earlier is becoming increasingly obvious. As overwhelming as it seems, however, there is an emerging trend - the formalizing of informal learning - that can help beleaguered HR and learning leaders to keep pace in a highly competitive market.
While popular social media tools (Facebook, for one) garner most of the attention these days, enterprise social networking and collaboration tools (blogs, wikis, communities of practice, and rich user profiles) are quickly becoming integrated with learning and talent management software suites. In fact, many forward-thinking organizations are already using social networking and collaboration tools to enable learning in an informal capacity. Formal adoption (and investment), however, lag behind while employers struggle with whether and how their organizations can truly benefit from these collaborative tools.
The challenges and hurdles in making that transition are clear: First, a strong business case is crucial, especially for skeptics (Web 2.0 discussions tend to raise questions in this area). Next, and perhaps most importantly, successful employee engagement must happen, but it is far from guaranteed. For these tools to work, employees must use them. Finally, we all know that metrics rule the day, so business impact, or return-on-investment, must be provable and measurable.
The data to support the fact that social networking and Web 2.0 tools are working "inside the firewall" isn't very difficult to find. For example, Aberdeen Group, in a recent research study, found that employers using blogs, wikis, and internal social networks have enjoyed a 26 percent year-over-year improvement in employee engagement.
Other experts have observed that 80 percent of training budgets today are spent on formal learning - instructor-led courses, e-learning, and virtual classrooms. But those same experts believe that 80 percent of what people actually learn is informal - collaborative, on the job, at the water cooler, from a mentor, or from a work group. In other words, the workplace is the perfect place for using these emerging tools.
"It is difficult not to notice the recent explosion in both number and notoriety of Web 2.0 technologies and platforms," says David Mallon, a principal analyst with Bersin & Associates, the Oakland, California - based talent management research and consulting firm. "Social networking sites, as they become even more ubiquitous, are fundamentally resetting the expectations for how technology can support and augment person-to-person communication and collaboration."
The question for employers, says Mallon, is whether those tools will be platforms for renewal and transformation. He believes that they will, but as with any tool or technology, the value proposition is not in the tool, but in how it's applied.
"The key is to avoid focusing on the technologies in isolation," says Mallon, who recently authored the study "High-Impact Learning Culture: The 40 Best Practices for an Empowered Enterprise." According to Mallon, it is important that learning leaders "avoid the temptation to implement social software tools simply for their own sake."
To reach the potential for social networking tools, it is critical to first examine the organization's business goals, and then analyze how human interaction and collaboration support, and potentially accelerate, those goals. Lastly, develop a strategy to leverage a social software platform to enhance that interaction and collaboration. A good way to start, Mallon says, is to identify the purposes for which employees already collaborate, share knowledge, and build networks.
"Human networks themselves are nothing new," he says. "What is new is the degree to which today's social learning applications help to break down physical barriers, allowing for increased utility and accessibility between people, and supporting community growth."
In other words, employers looking to stay competitive need to evolve their learning management system strategy to include collaborative (social or informal) learning because it happens all the time, whether we like it or not. With a solid strategy, employers can shift enterprise social networks from "nice to have" to "need to have."
Keep it simple
Getting started doesn't have to mean spending large chunks of the learning budget. One simple and smart way to integrate or formalize informal learning is to do it one small step at a time.
Advantage Sales & Marketing (ASM), a sales and marketing agency based in Irvine, California, launched a narrowly focused pilot project within its business development team and carefully aligned it with the organization's learning and talent management needs.
ASM looked to add a social learning component to its existing "Accelerated Career Excellence in Sales" (ACES) program, which selects qualified individuals with little or no sales experience and immerses them in an accelerated (five-month) learning program to become business development managers. Participants come together for an initial two-day classroom session and then return to their home markets. They spend the next five months working in the field with designated mentors and completing e-learning modules.
During the program, employees access the ACES workplace community, which is part of ASM's learning and talent management portal for daily peer-to-peer interaction with fellow learners and mentors across the nation, as well as senior sales leadership.
Lisa Choi, ASM's national manager of talent development, says the social learning platform has created a blend of company- and individual-initiated learning. For example, one development associate proactively contacted all of the ACES mentors for best practices on a specific topic. He then compiled this data into a document and shared it with the entire community. In this way, ASM's younger employees are leveraging their comfort with social media to reshape corporate learning and knowledge sharing.
And, because generational differences are very much in play when it comes to talent strategies, it's interesting to note that Millennials (college grads and new hires) comprise ASM's ACES class. Additionally, the group is geographically dispersed, increasing the need for a means of virtual communication and networking. Through the pilot, participants were able to get to know their peers and build relationships, further enriching the training experience.
The ASM experience is an excellent example of how a "slow build approach" can be the best bet for organizations considering the use of enterprise social networking tools. Not only does a lower investment lessen the pressure to demonstrate ROI (and reduce initial skepticism), it also gives organizations an opportunity to adapt their strategies over time for broader distribution based on lessons learned.
Convincing the skeptics
Speaking of ROI and skepticism, learning and HR leaders can expect to encounter some who are skeptical of social networking tools. For one, the chief financial officer may want to know what the ROI will be and how it can be measured. Others from senior management may be concerned that social networking tools are too risky and uncontrollable. In other words, the learning tools may be more for entertainment and may lower productivity, rather than demonstrate helpful business purposes.
In some ways, measuring the ROI of tools that enable communication and collaboration (such as mobile phones or email) doesn't seem to make sense. But it can be done. And imagine being an HR or learning executive advocating the use of social networking tools in the enterprise. Senior management may have teenagers who are constantly on Facebook, so it might represent a dubious idea to them.
Skeptics generally haven't tried these tools, so the trick for talent management or learning leaders is to "socialize" the social networking tools concept in the organization and close the information gap to help champion adoption.
There is little doubt that making the transition to a more formal use of informal learning in the workplace will bring challenges. But these roadblocks can be overcome with thoughtful planning and a smart strategy. These technologies have value - first and foremost by helping to deliver an indispensible competitive advantage - as part of an enterprise learning platform. It's not just the business that benefits, however. Today's new breed of employee also will appreciate the personal and professional development these tools can help bring, creating a win-win experience. t+D