If people work in groups separate from each other, how can we
mitigate the silo effect and ensure we capture learning on a
collective basis? The answer may be in massively multiplayer online
role playing games.
Much fuss is made of class-size effects in schools, but I often get
blank stares when I talk about the dangers of putting 10,000 people
together in an online learning environment where we are trying to
foster social learning.
Increasingly, organizations are requesting that some form of social
learning be part of online learning initiatives. And its quite
right to do so; there is plenty of evidence linking social context
and long-term learning retention. Indeed, we know how important
social comparison is to our personal lives. We also can see
opportunities for using Web 2.0 tools to create both a push and
pull of knowledge throughout our organizations. But we have vast
numbers of people to include in these processes if we are to make
social learning a full part of our workplaces.
Social learning vs. crowdsourcing
A chief concern about the implementation of social learning within
the enterprise is how to scale the benefits of social learning to
meet the large numbers of employees that make up its audience. For
me, there is a mix-up between the power of social learning and the
power of crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing suggests that the more people we throw at a problem,
the easier that problem is to solve. Social learning is more
concerned with the meaningful relationships we build with others
and how they help provide the context for learning. Social media is
a tool that sits at the confluence of these two ideas; articulate
your ideas using social media and they have the power to not only
influence your close followers, but also the wider world.
Robin Dunbar theorized Dunbars number, which contends that there is
a limit to the number of other people with whom one can maintain a
relationship. The number is said to be 150, give or take a few.
Dunbar based his findings not on observations of daily lives, but
on an evolutionary perspective to account for the optimal number of
relationships an individual should have in order to thrive.
Other studies, like those conducted by McCarty et al., have sought
to estimate network size empirically. These methods have yielded
higher numbers than Dunbars; a mean of 291 was found in the McCarty
study. However, even these measurements have their flaws. Most
notably, the McCarty study relied on people to estimate their own
Facebook is rapidly becoming a better measure in the opinions of
many, including myself. According to Facebook, 130 would be the
average number of friend relationships a person has on the
platform. It would be fair to say this number is conservative at
the moment; not everyone is on Facebook and many people keep a
separation of their friends, family, and co-workers, which means
their complete network is not accounted for by a number. However,
this number is also likely to be skewed by the number of nonfriend
friends we tend to have on Facebook; mostly old school
acquaintances, who we might like to spy on for social comparison
reasons, but wouldnt otherwise count as friends.
Of course, the real answer here is that there is no single number
to succinctly articulate how big a social network can be; the
number will be slightly different according to our behaviors and
situation. But, whatever that number is, it is probably in the low
It is important to remember that we already have a number of
relationships before we set foot in a social learning environment.
Our capacity to make more meaningful relationships is going to be
limited by the number of these relationships that already exist. In
other words, we probably only have a few slots left open. So when
you are faced with a room of 10,000 people, where will you start
focusing your effort in order to start building these few new
meaningful relationships without wasting your time?
The answer is that you probably wont. Most people dont. Less than 1
in 5000 visitors to Wikipedia actually makes an edit each month.
Similarly, if we ask a small cohort of people to contribute to a
larger platform the social interaction flows readily. But it is
impossible to do this on a grander scale while fostering true
relationships. Sure, people contribute to large news websites with
comments, but thats more about expressing opinions than about
Modeling game relationships
So, what can we do to address this issue? Certainly, just adding a
social media facility to your learning platform and expecting
relationships to flourish isnt going to work. I often say that
there is nothing sadder than an empty forumand Ive seen enough of
them in the various back alleys of company intranets and LMSs to
last a lifetime.
The answer, for me, lies in breaking down the whole population into
smaller parts on an autonomous basis. We can model these sorts of
relationships on massively multiplayer online role playing games
(MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft (WoW).
WoW has millions of players entering its world every day. Players
choose a realm to play within when they enter the game. Each realm
is an individual copy of the game, perhaps characterized by running
in a different language (French realms instead of English, for
example). Within each realm is a series of playable areas that take
the form of continents; these can be explored autonomously and
alone, with players taking on challenges that exist within them as
However, many of the more complex challenges that exist within each
realm require a team effort to complete. This is where things get
interesting. Small groups of players, banded together autonomously
as guilds form to take on the bigger challenges.
Of course, you dont want to form a guild to take on a challenge and
find some other group already in the dungeon (how often does that
happen at work), so each challenge has the ability to provide a
unique instance of itself for your group. This instance is a copy
of the same challenge others can take, but only your group has
access to it. This way many groups can take on the same challenge
at the same time.
Each person within the guild needs to be engaged in order to tackle
the challenge. There is rarely room for freeloaders as the
challenges are often limited in terms of the number of players who
can be in the group. Everyone contributes.
Guilds are often fairly tight-knit groups. Some of the more serious
ones go on to meet each in real life, and many guild participants
would readily accept that some of their relationship slots are
occupied by those which they play games online with. In addition,
there has emerged a huge community of guilds talking with each
other; sometimes on friendly terms, sometimes more competitively.
But the ability to showcase skill and discuss tactics with other
guilds is one of the biggest drivers of online communities outside
of the actual game environment.
Transferring to social learning
This model can help to overcome the scalability issues that social
learning often faces. Asking people to make an impact on the world
as a whole is difficult, but its easy to be influential within your
group. Hiding in the big wide world is easy, but it is difficult
within a smaller group. Making meaningful relationships with
everyone in your organization is beyond the realm of possibility,
but you can select a few people from which to learn within a
In short, the answer lies in breaking down the enormous mass of
your workforce into smaller groups, working together to improve
both themselves and the organization. The limitation in this
approach is in the crowdsourcing approach to problem solving. If
people work in groups separate from each other, how can we mitigate
the silo effect and make sure we capture all of the learning on a
- I would suggest that silo effects can be countered by simple
measures to ensure the groups are diverse in nature; only a certain
number of people per department in each group for instance.
- I wouldnt stop anyone from being members of different groups
for different topics, allowing insights to spread virally between
- I would look to the groups to curate the best content to be
pooled into a single, enterprise-wide access area. Instead of
trying to aggregate everyone together on every topic, have groups
nominate their best insights to be part of the companys best
insights and use a voting system within the realm to showcase the
very best content.
To be sure, theres a lot more work to be done in this area, and at
the moment Im looking to talk to those who have implemented social
learning initiatives within their organizations to research deeper
on what the ideal number might be. But for now, let me suggest five
lessons from WoW to help your Social Learning initiatives scale
1. Break down online social interactions into smaller realms
and instances for groups
2. Ensure everyone in a group needs to contribute in order for
the group to succeed
3. Create areas for groups to interact with other groups
4. Dont allow groups to match up identically with
organizational structure; instead, diversify
5. Curate the best bits of each group to deliver real insight
back to the rest of the organization.