Using metrics is a smart way to formalize informal and
collaborative learning methods without waste, and attain the
alignment you need.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Julie Norquist Roy is vice president of marketing
for Cornerstone OnDemand (www.cornerstoneondemand.com), a learning
and talent management software company based in Santa Monica,