Many learning professionals are keenly interested in the topic of
social learning, but relatively few organizations have begun to
implement it. One reason is that it is difficult to separate the
hype from reality and focus on the elements that are really
important. This paper seeks to uncover the fundamental requirements
for a successful social learning program. Based on early experience
with our own social learning tool, this list of eight "truths" has
been compiled to provide a foundation for learning professionals
who are launching social learning in their organizations.
1. Social learning is a three-legged stool
In the original blog post this observation was tucked into the
introduction, but it deserves its place among the Truths because we
have found this to be the most important concept for those who are
venturing into social learning. To be successful, three elements
are needed: a technology platform, a vibrant community, and great
content. If one of these legs is missing, it can spell an early and
disappointing end to your social learning initiative.
The platform is pretty obvious - you need a place to capture the
interactions of your organization. Hopefully, it's a place that's
easy to find and use in the course of everyday work. But with just
a platform you risk having what John Ambrose (SkillSoft's vice
president of strategy and business development) refers to as the
dreaded "empty drum syndrome." People may come to visit your new
social platform once or twice out of curiosity, but if there isn't
anything there to engage them (interesting content) they won't be
back. If they don't come back, you will never develop a vibrant
However, if you seed your platform with great content, it is much
easier for employees to jump in and offer their first comments.
Nuggets of content act like magnets for comments, and these
comments attract other comments and before you know it you have a
flourishing community that's engaged in active discussion. But it
all starts with the seed of content.
Starting with the right content is also important. It should be
something that is not only interesting to your audience, but also
provides business value. And as learning professionals, we have
trusted information and learning content that can form the basis of
these discussions. So building your social learning program around
your existing base of learning content makes eminent sense. With
valuable business or technical content as the seed, you are much
more likely to surface conversations that add unique business value
(as opposed to gabfests about the weekend social scene).
2. Use social learning to address the problem of
We are all bombarded with new messages and bits of information all
day long, and many learning professionals are managing content
collections with thousands of assets. Over time this rich abundance
of content can become a challenge - when a user needs some
specific piece of information to solve a business problem - it can
be impossible to find! Social learning communities, with their
power to amplify the most relevant content, can act like a
spotlight on the most useful resources. This in turn drives a
higher level of productivity, because time isn't being wasted
searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack of information.
There are a number of ways your community can do this. Social
platforms that allow users to recommend or "like" certain assets
can be very helpful in directing people to the most relevant
content for their needs. Social platforms that allow users to post
comments on the material contained in the book or course can create
a layer of unique business knowledge on top of the trusted
knowledge contained in the resource. So, for instance, a book on
networking may be annotated with the specifics of your own
organization's networking topology.
Positive comments and discussions can draw attention to a
little-known book or report that may be used for instant problem
solving, but social interactions can also support long-term
outcomes. When one member of the community recommends a course or
development program that helped them in their professional career,
you are likely to see a flurry of interest in that program. This is
one of the ways that social platforms can help bring about more
self-directed learning within your organization. Word-of-mouth has
always been the most credible form of advertising - and it still
3. Make social part of your blended learning
For years now learning leaders have been creating programs that
blend traditional, instructor-led learning experiences with online
learning. They have found that there are benefits to both
approaches, and used in conjunction, they can reinforce each
other's value. With social learning, we now have another tool to
make our existing instructor-led and e-learning initiatives
better, more engaging, and with improved learning outcomes.
The role of social learning in the new blended learning paradigm
takes several forms. Some organizations have found by enhancing the
social experience of learning, they are likely to get better
participation from employees, especially if programs have a
significant element of self-directed learning. With the ability to
reach out to peers involved in the same program, or get help on a
particular topic, learners are more likely to stay engaged and
complete their program of study. This can also be enhanced with
face-to-face or virtual group interaction at key points in the
program, such as a kick-off or the achievement of a milestone.
Another way that social learning can enhance the overall
organizational learning program is by supporting the knowledge
transfer and actual behavioral change after the "formal" learning
event has ended. Let's face it: the only kind of learning that is
valuable is the kind that gets applied in the workplace and
contributes to improved business outcomes. And making the link
between a learning event that may occur away from the job
(sometimes literally away in a classroom or often just outside the
flow of work) and the work itself can be difficult. If a learner
encounters a problem, or simply does not receive reinforcement for
the new behavior, the effects of the learning can be lost. Social
systems can be used to encourage and recognize performance, and
this can make the difference in whether the learning actually
transfers into a new and improved way of working.
4. Build the equity of experts
One of the greatest values of social learning is that it helps to
identify your internal experts. The line between learner and
teacher is constantly blurring in today's highly specialized
workplace. Often the person with deep knowledge of a topic is
sitting three cubicles away, but the difficulty in finding that
person, or the exact nugget of information needed to solve a
business problem, can be immense.
This is especially true in global, virtual, and dispersed
organizations in which job titles fail to tell the whole story
about a person's range of skills and expertise. With so many of our
knowledge workers operating from remote or home offices, the
informal transfer of knowledge is much more difficult. So the
social learning platform becomes a sort of virtual water cooler: a
place where colleagues gather and exchange information. In this way
social learning can contribute huge productivity benefits by
helping to find that resident expert, whether that person is three
cubicles away, or three time zones away.
5. Don't overlook the importance of discovery
Building on the idea that your organization is a network of
experts, the issue quickly shifts to the ability to search for
these experts and find them quickly. The knowledge captured within
your system will be of little value if it can't be pinpointed when
a need arises. A social learning platform with the right set of
features for capturing information and then discovering it later at
the point of need is turning out to be a very effective way to
achieve the goal of expert location.
In order for this to work, the platform needs:
- a way for experts to self-identify
- a way for community members to recognize others for their
- a search function that identifies experts as learning
Achieving these goals starts with a user-created profile. The
profile often captures interests and skills that are not at all
evident based on job title and the profile may be a more accurate
portrayal than the organizational view. Also, in some cases these
profiles may contain some level of personal interest ("I breed
Golden Retrievers"), and these personal facts can become the basis
for a human connection between far-flung employees. Again, the
function of social learning as the "virtual water cooler" should
not be undervalued.
In addition to the profile that a person creates for himself, the
ability of others to recognize expertise is also very important.
Having the ability to recognize others as experts, or for an
individual to build a reputation over time based on participation
in various discussions, helps bring the most knowledgeable members
of the organization to the fore. The ability to rate experts can
also be used to inform search, pushing these individuals to the top
of the results. So, a search for "six sigma certification" may
produce a list of courses, books, and your own internal experts.
The contributions (comments, notes, discussions) should also be
searchable, enabling valuable nuggets of information to be
recalled as needed.
6. Make sure your social initiatives have
Organizations need to appeal to the entirety of the work force if
they want to achieve maximum benefits. It's not a stretch to think
that Millennials will gravitate to social learning tools; they
grew up with these technologies and experienced them as an
integral part of their formal education during high school and
college, not to mention that they are a huge part of their lives
outside of work. But social learning tools should also appeal to
your Gen-Xers, Boomers, and even Traditionalists. This is
especially true because capturing tacit knowledge (Truth #7) is
such an important part of the rationale for implementing social
learning to begin with.
How can we create an environment that is welcoming to your entire
enterprise? Ease of use is one key, but as part of the roll-out,
you may also want to look for ways to develop "reverse mentoring."
Millennials can be your best spokespeople in marketing the program
internally. Consider creating a team of internal champions who can
talk up the benefits of the system and also act as personal guides
to employees who are less comfortable using online social systems.
The value of these relationships goes both ways - the experienced
employee gains benefit and often the younger employee comes away
with new appreciation for a part of the job they may have not fully
7. Capture tacit knowledge (before it walks out the
The impending retirement of the baby boomers has long been a source
of hand-wringing by managers, HR professionals, and executives
concerned about losing the decades of institutional knowledge
that's in the heads of these key employees. An Aberdeen study of
Web 2.0 technology found the most common use was "capturing and
transferring knowledge." Social learning can be a strategic tool in
capturing tacit knowledge, especially when social learning can be
intertwined with the daily flow of work.
Often, the most important pieces of information that can be
captured have to do with seemingly mundane institutional know-how:
processes, people, and systems that are unique to the organization.
Managers have long known that the ability to tap this
organizational knowledge is one of the most important factors in
the success of individual employees. Bersin & Associates, an
analyst firm in the field of enterprise learning, has noted a
tendency for knowledge systems to become bloated over time,
obscuring the ability to find that nugget of information that makes
a person more productive. Therefore, rather than focusing on
capturing brilliant insights, think about the value of nitty-gritty
details that contribute to daily productivity.
8. Make it simple and secure
Consumer-oriented social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter
have set the bar high in terms of ease-of-use. Learners in
organizations will expect a similarly intuitive experience from
organizational social learning technologies. If your social
learning tool mimics the basic elements of already-accepted social
systems, this will simplify and speed the process of getting people
started. Also, keeping the initial requirements of setting up a
user profile to fairly basic elements will encourage users to jump
in. They can always add more color to their profiles in the future.
Time-strapped learning professionals don't have the bandwidth to
support a new program that requires hand-holding or a lot of
encouragement. So your social learning initiative needs to provide
obvious value, be easy to find, and be relevant to employees. This
is also the beauty of building a social learning platform on top of
existing learning and information resources - you're leveraging
existing content and behavior to drive adoption.
There are also some important ways you want to differentiate your
social system from social networks like Facebook. HR managers
across the globe lose sleep over the private company and employee
data that can (deliberately or inadvertently) leak out to the Web.
Social learning initiatives need to allow for free collaboration
between colleagues, without risking leakage to the wider web.
Ensure that the system you are using has appropriate safeguards for
security, and also make sure that your employees understand that
this is a system focused on serious business information. Consider
publishing a "Dos and Don'ts" for participation in workplace
forums. (Andrew McAffee, author of Enterprise 2.0, has provided
some excellent tips in a recent blog post on Harvard Business
You should also consider the privacy of the individuals
participating in the system, which can be a bit tricky. The
participants should be able to choose what information is included
in their profile and they should also make the decision on whether
their participation becomes public. Be aware that some social
systems are designed to automatically infer expertise based on
usage. So, for instance, if a participant searched frequently for
information on a particular topic, this could show up as an area of
expertise while the user may not want to be identified with this
particular area. So allowing employees to search the system and
keep information private is an important feature. At the same
time, employees should also understand that information that is
contributed also becomes the intellectual property of the
Finally, it is important to carefully review the background of the
company that is providing your social system. With new companies
and applications popping up daily, it is important to understand
whether you are building your program on a durable system that will
be supported over the long term. Your social learning platform will
increase in value over time, as more and more information is added.
So you absolutely want to make sure your partner has a track record
of customer support and a viable future.
Pam Boiros is vice president of product management
and Books24x7 for SkillSoft.