Workplace learning and development professionals must gain a clear understanding of how to leverage technology - especially social media tools - to facilitate learning and drive business results. To determine its place in the ASTD Competency Model, ASTD commissioned a study to examine what learning professionals need to know and do to be successful in the social learning paradigm.
By now you have heard about the importance of social learning. You may have asked yourself: What is social learning, and why the buzz? Social learning is what it sounds like - learning with and from others. It's also about using social media tools to learn informally. At its most basic level, social learning helps people become more informed, gain a wider perspective, and make better decisions by engaging with others.
Some examples of social learning include the employee who posts a question on a blog seeking advice on a process, or a trainer who uses peer networking tools to engage learners between sessions. These are just two of many possible new approaches that learning professionals can harness to enhance the learning experience. Without question, social media in the workplace is affecting learning and development practices and changing the professional landscape rather dramatically.
Emergence of social media
A key reason why social learning is becoming much more pervasive in organizations is the changing composition of the workforce. Baby Boomers are retiring, and predictions are that by 2014, half of the workforce will be Millennials. They have grown up using technology and expect it to be part of how they work. And, increasing numbers of individuals are adopting it.
In the joint ASTD and Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) report, The Rise of Social Media: Enhancing Collaboration and Productivity Across Generations, a survey of business professionals across a variety of industries found that many of these new technologies are already used for work-related learning. In fact, 80 percent of respondents thought it should be used more frequently.
A key factor in the increased use of social media in the workplace is that a majority of organizational learning occurs through informal rather than formal channels. The ASTD/i4cp study Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning reported that a vast majority of respondents (83 percent) felt that informal learning enhances employee and organizational performance at least to a moderate extent. Social media tools can be used for either formal or informal learning; however, incorporating social learning in day-to-day work is seen as a particularly powerful way to enhance informal learning experiences. ASTD President Tony Bingham and co-author Marcia Conner point out in their book The New Social Learning (ASTD Press 2010), "People need to learn fast, as part of the ebb and flow of their jobs, not just on the rare occasion they are in a class."
Not just another fad
In The New Social Learning, Bingham and Conner continue: "social media used to be just about marketing and branding. Today it is being used as a powerful learning tool. Today's technology allows us to share information, find new resources, and access knowledge from people regardless of time or location. These tools help us facilitate our natural desire to learn and collaborate." Illustrating the value of these tools, The New Social Learning found that many companies were able to demonstrate the value of social learning in a number of ways such as improving how they retain institutional knowledge, planning for succession, solving complex problems collaboratively, and providing an integrated and holistic approach to developing employees.
Given that social learning in the workplace is so important and promising, the question is: what will the rise of social learning mean for learning and development professionals? What competencies will they need to succeed in this new paradigm? To answer these questions, and to help develop a professional development agenda for the field, ASTD commissioned the ASTD Competency Model update study that involved
Survey questions included how important social learning technologies were to their job currently and will be within the next three years, as well as their thoughts on adding content to the ASTD Competency Model.
Survey results revealed that of the 1,061 respondents with at least three years of experience in the learning profession, 50 percent indicated that social learning was "important" "to "extremely important" to the performance of their current job, and 70 percent claimed that it would be "important" to "extremely important" in the next three years.
The study also found that social learning is distinct from other types of learning covered in the ASTD Competency Model in a number of ways. In particular, social learning is highly flexible and encourages learners to take active control of the content, with increased emphasis on user-generated content and real-time communication. When using immersive learning environments and increased on-demand collaboration, social learning arguably engages learners more deeply. In this context, learning can be sought out deliberately or occur informally through collaboration with peers.
Study results included a revised ASTD Competency Model (Figure 1) and content outline (Sidebar 1) that lists which knowledge and skills are important for learning and development professionals to develop in social learning. The content outline also guides content changes to ASTD Certification Institute's CPLP certification exam. These changes take effect as of September 2011.
What professionals need to know
Three broad themes emerged when respondents answered the question: "What do learning and development professionals need to know, now and in the future, with regard to social learning?" The key themes were: (1) how social media can be used for learning, (2) fluency with social learning tools, and (3) knowledge of techniques for overcoming objections against using social media. Each of these is discussed, as follows.
1. How social media can be used for learning. Without a doubt, learning and development professionals need to be aware of the uses of social media for learning. Social media facilitates two core activities that support collaboration: information exchange and communication - that, when directed appropriately, have the potential to enhance employee learning and development.
For instance, information exchange can include enabling learners to generate their own learning content, which can occur with or without support from the organization. This not only helps workers access collective knowledge inside and outside the organization, but also increases learner engagement in the learning process. Twitter is an excellent example of a social media tool that can be used for this information exchange process. As Marcia Conner wrote in an August 2009 T+D article, "Twitter excels at widening your network. Those you follow and who follow you create personalized, overlapping networks organized around shared interests."
Social media also can facilitate communication between a facilitator and learners, among a group of learners, among employees outside a formal learning context, and with external networks and subject matter experts.
In Social Media for Trainers, author Jane Bozarth provides multiple examples for using social media to enhance learning. For instance, she describes using Facebook to provide advanced materials, conduct intersession activities, and build a learning community. "[Facebook is] good for staying in frequent contact and helps the instructor, training department, or organization build a sense of community," she writes.
Another potential use of social learning tools is their capability to create more immersive learning environments, an example of which is Second Life. These virtual experiences have profound implications for training, particularly when hands-on or experiential training is required. As described in The New Social Learning, many public and private-sector organizations are beginning to use these technologies to augment learning programs, including Chevron, the Department of Defense, and IBM.
2. Fluency with social learning tools. There are a number of tools that can be used to facilitate social learning applications (Sidebar 1). While a thorough understanding of the functionality, applications, and limitations of these tools is critical for learning and development professionals, they are only one element of the ASTD Competency Model content.
Technology tools are changing at a rapid and unpredictable pace and what may be the popular social media tools of today may be obsolete tomorrow. As a result, the list of technologies (Sidebar 1) contains broad categories (an example is microblogs) rather than specific tools (Twitter).
Also, the various social media tools are not mutually exclusive. For example, social networking sites such as Facebook have options for sharing video media. Blogs have options for adding social bookmarks that provide content ratings. Furthermore, these tools are likely to become more integrated over time. In a July 2010 T+D magazine article, Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd predicted that by 2020, social media platforms will be integrated with learning management systems. They state, "At this point, knowledge management and training become such a seamless continuum that it becomes fruitless to try and separate them functionally."
As these technologies evolve, there will be more specificity in their categorization and description. In the meantime, learning professionals should understand these tools well enough to apply them appropriately, and quickly, to enhance employee learning and development.
3. Knowledge of techniques for overcoming objections. Organizational stakeholders are often resistant to social learning, in part due to the use of the word "social." To many, social implies wasting time. Learning professionals must therefore be able to understand the types of barriers and obstacles in their organizations and be able to influence others to be comfortable using social media.
Organizational stakeholders also have other substantive concerns with social learning, such as security and privacy issues. Organizations are apprehensive about the potential loss of intellectual capital, as well as inappropriate communications. Employers worry that the use of social media in the workplace will lead to divulgence of sensitive or inappropriate information or the posting of publicly available content that are inconsistent with the organization's policies or message.
Another barrier to implementing social learning is the organization's culture. Organizations that are less technologically inclined or more resistant to change are less likely to adopt social learning. Multiple focus group participants cited generational differences in the resistance to social learning. An observation noted in The Rise of Social Media found that Baby Boomers were significantly more concerned about security and privacy issues and were significantly less likely to consider social media useful compared to Millennials and Generation X.
These concerns feed into a final barrier to organizational adoption: policies and corporate governance that prohibit or overly constrain the use of social media in the organization. As a consequence, learning professionals will need to work with colleagues in the legal, compliance, and IT departments to move the policies in a direction that encourages collaboration using social tools. They also need to promote user adoption by actively managing social learning networks, engaging in and facilitating the discussion, and encouraging users to contribute content. (For techniquesto deal with critiques and objections, see Sidebar 2.)
Challenges and opportunities
Currently, there is no single recognized model for effective social learning implementation - no ADDIE or human performance improvement model that professionals can use to develop solutions. Ineffectively applied, a well-intentioned social learning program can become just another distraction.
To use social learning most effectively, learning and development professionals must educate themselves on the tools and methods. Start a blog, participate in a wiki, attend a meeting in a virtual world, or use a Facebook-type tool to crowd source some sales information.
Learning professionals also must think deliberately about the nature of the work performed by various groups in their organizations, and how social learning tools can be used to create efficiencies in their work and improve performance.
Case in point: Best Buy's internal community, BlueShirt Nation, was first envisioned as a site to harvest marketing ideas from people who work in their stores. It enabled the company to go out and tap into 140,000 employees. Once employees were connected, the site began filling with ideas and discussions that reached far beyond marketing.
For instance, when one employee posted his thoughts on why it would be beneficial for all full-time employees to have email access, it sparked a conversation that eventually led to a shift in policy to enable just that. Loop Marketplace is a location on the site where employees can post ideas and management can harvest them. For more practical steps and organizational case studies about how to implement social learning, see "Social Learning for Learning Professionals" (ASTD Infoline January 2011) and The New Social Learning.
If you believe that social learning is just a passing fad, know that the majority of your peers disagree. By ignoring social learning, you may miss out on a number of tools and strategies that can increase your own performance and that of the employees in your organization.
The addition of social learning as an area to the ASTD Competency Model reflects not only the enormous challenge, but also the colossal opportunities for learning professionals to take these tools and turn them into a set of methods for increasing employee development and performance.