Workplace learning professionals should focus on how social learning - and its associated tools - can help achieve business goals.
The transfer of knowledge has always been a social activity. Many years ago, workers learned skills through apprenticeship. Workers in the same location, in the same area of practice would share knowledge, and thereby, strengthen the skills of the group. Today, workers can learn as they work, by connecting with someone with the answers, who may live anywhere in the world.
What has changed over time are the skills needed for business success, and the speed at which knowledge is needed to maintain a competitive edge. An organization can no longer only produce products or services; they must know how to do it quickly and well.
In 1966, Peter Drucker coined the term the "knowledge worker." While manual workers use their hands to produces goods or services, knowledge workers use their head to produces ideas, knowledge, and information. Until recently, knowledge workers were only able to share knowledge on a local and fragmented level. Workers in the same location solved problems and created ideas informally at water coolers, meetings, or in the lunchroom.
As organizations became larger, global, and more complex, it became less likely to find knowledge in next office - or when it was needed. While Web 1.0 succeeded in connecting workers across the globe, most of the content was static and top-down. Web 2.0 technologies, known as SLATES (search, links, authoring, tags, extensions, and signals) have given a new energy to social learning, by making it easier to access information, which is immediate, relevant and personalized to individual learning needs.
Looking at the big picture
As learning professionals, it is easy to focus the discussion on social learning on the tools, known as social media. You may have read about the hottest tool, the comparison between tools, (for example, Twitter or Yammer), or which company is using which tools.
Instead, we should focus on how social learning - and its associated tools - can help achieve business goals. Social learning, or sharing knowledge, has the following affect on business outcomes:
- productive employees
- speed of business, flexibility, and quality
All of which are required for business success.
The table below shows each of these outcomes with the learner activity required to attain each, as well as the level of skill acquisition needed. In the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, there are five stages in the process, Novice, Beginner, Competent, Expert, and Proficient.
Social learning plays a critical role in helping employees acquire the knowledge they need to become productive (outcome 1) as well as affecting the success of a business (outcomes 2 and 3).
Outcome #1: productive employees
A novice, often a new hire, has minimal knowledge and rarely connects this knowledge to practice. Close supervision or instruction is appropriate at this stage. In the past, formal training for novices was limited to classrooms, with the more recent addition of online self-paced and synchronous training. Subject matter experts created the content for this sort of education in a top-down approach.
Currently, organizations can use social media tools to supplement formal learning. These tools enable reflection and practice during and after formal learning. Learners can use such tools such Facebook, microblogging (Twitter/Yammer), and GoogleBuzz before, during, and after formal learning experiences. Jane Harts Center for Performance Management provides some excellent tips:
- Learners can review class goals before class, and post comments or questions.
- During a class, some instructors may allow a backchannel where learners can tweet comments or questions. This enables the instructor to immediately address gaps or clarify information.
- Instructors are incorporating multiple-choice quizzes using Twitter poll service or Facebook apps. Scavenger hunts, for example Facebook's Scavenger Hunt application, enable learners to apply knowledge in an engaging, interactive activity.
- After a class, learners and the facilitator can post comments to continue class discussions, share links to relevant resources and reflect on how they are applying the theories in their daily life by using micro-blogging or blogging.
- Learners can form an online community to continue to connect and support each other.
In addition to new hire training, workers need specific knowledge to keep up-to-date personally and professionally. Self-directed learning is easier with social media. Learners can use Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to discuss topics, ask questions and network. There are also online classes, blogs, and podcasts developed by experts.
Social media also facilitates the linking of novices and experts, thereby enhancing mentoring opportunities for novices. Social networking sites enable employees to post their online profiles listing their areas of expertise.
Novices become beginners when they apply their knowledge and start completing straightforward tasks. Using microblogging, learning professionals can provide small learning chunks and facilitate short-term learning activities. Once learners are able to make decisions using their own judgment, they become competent in their area of practice. They are now productive, and able to achieve the next two business outcomes.
Outcome #2: speed, flexibility, and quality
Organizations require quality, efficiency, and speed to market for business success.
Social learning has always made a solid contribution, but the process was informal, localized, non-searchable, and slow. Some learning occurred during large company meetings, or team-based activities, which generally ended with the project. Social learning also occurred when competent workers who shared common work practices formed communities of practice around common work practices, aims or interests. (Think back to the trade guilds).
Leading organizations, including Intel, IBM, Qualcomm, and Accenture are combining Enterprise 2.0 solutions to create social networking platforms, complete with wikis, blogging, microblogging, online profiles, and online communities.
While novices and beginners will use these tools to become learn skills, here is how employees from the competent level can use these tools to improve their performance, becoming expert and proficient, and contribute to business speed, efficiency and quality.
Keeping up-to-speed. Employees do not work in cocoons. They need to be aware of and respond to events within their team, department, larger organization, industry, and beyond. Blogs enable top executives to communicate and receive feedback on their strategies. RSS feeds enable CEOs, Managers and project teams to share important activities with employees.
Employees also can set up RSS feeds to learn about the latest trends in their profession. Similarly, employees can make others aware of their activities, ideas or resources using micro-blogging. Work teams can microblog using tags to relay important information.
Increased knowledge sharing improves efficiency. At OCE in the Netherlands, microblogging has increased the amount of knowledge sharing among its sales force and led to the elimination of duplicate efforts. At Qualcomm, microblogging brought together groups over common topics and bridged silos in HR, legal, and IT.
Faster access to information and answers. Knowledge abounds in organizations, but is often difficult to find. Using social marking tools (for example, delicious, digg, and reddit), learners can tag a website that may be useful to them, their team, community, or organization. Employees can save valuable time by searching for tags, or the sites that have been saved the most (indicated as "best rated").
Effective teamwork; collaborative workspaces. It is now easier for teams to work across countries and time zones. Using the social networking site, Employees can search for experts who have the skills necessary to help become part of a team. Collaborative workspaces enable teams to share documents, screens, photos, files, and presentations. Teams can also collaborative on documents using tools like wikis.
Improve on practice. Social media facilitates the formation, use, measurement of online communities for work teams and communities of practice. While these communities cannot be managed, social media tools help facilitate what they do best, which is sharing information to
- solve problems across functions
- make decisions
- retain information in living ways by responding to local circumstances
- distribute responsibilities for keeping up on the latest information.
Outcome #3: competitive edge
The only way to achieve competitive advantage is to treat knowledge as a corporate asset. "Unlike material assets, which decrease as they are used, ideas breed ideas and shared knowledge stays with the giver while it enriches the receiver.(Davenport and Prusak, Working Knowledge,1998). For example, IBM has taken this idea seriously with its crowdsourcing jams, which has identified 10 best incubator businesses, which IBM funded with $100 million.
Social networking enables employees from all levels, novice to proficient, to innovate. Using microblgging, wikis, blogs, and tools like Facebook, employees can brainstorm ways to identify new products, improve processes and increase time to market.
Main point: The discussion on social media should focus on social learning. We should examine, refine, and improve on how we can use social learning to achieve key business outcomes, including productive employees, speed to market, efficiency, quality, and innovation.
Michele B. Medved is the owner of MBM Training Services;