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Social Networking: A Platform for Training New Managers Online?

by Bill Brandon

September 6, 2010

Feature

by Bill Brandon

September 6, 2010

“There are an increasing number of companies and online service providers who are convinced that social networking can help overcome at least some of the issues common to the classroom-only approach. You could think of the concept as a variation on so-called ‘blended learning.’”

Can social networking provide a practical way to help prepare new managers for their duties? Considering the rapid growth of social networking adoption among younger workers, this is a question well worth asking.

Creating a curriculum for training new managers and supervisors is a common task that falls to instructional designers. The typical approach for many decades has consisted of a combination of classroom events, each lasting from one to five days (or more). This default design has many problems, including travel expense and time away from the job for the managers. Not infrequently, there are severe mismatches between what is taught and the actual practices supported by the organization’s culture.

There is an increasing number of companies and online service providers who are convinced that social networking can help overcome at least some of the issues common to the classroom-only approach. You could think of the concept as a variation on so-called “blended learning.” By combining formal classroom instruction and online reference and performance support with online coaching, mentoring, and informal learning through social networking, a new manager can gain a solid theory foundation, just-in-time help, and culturally correct application pointers.

Some history

This is not to say that this will happen just by setting up a wiki and making all new managers open a Twitter account. Technology alone will not suffice, and especially not indiscriminately applied, unsupported technology. In fact, it could aggravate the new manager’s confusion and performance problems.

Are there any precedents that offer best practice principles to guide implementation? Let’s start by going back a century or three.

Informal learning in 1727

Formal structures to support and leverage informal learning have been around literally for centuries. Two early examples, from the eighteenth century, are the Lunar Society of Birmingham (whose members called themselves “lunaticks”) in England, and Benjamin Franklin’s Junto (pronounced “june-toe,” “juhn-toe,” or “who-n-toe,” depending on whose account you are reading) in Philadelphia. They did not call themselves “informal learning groups” (Franklin described his Junto as a “club of mutual improvement”), but if you look at what they did and how they did it, the description is accurate.

How did these early groups function?

Many of the early informal learning groups were around for decades (Franklin’s Junto survives to this day as The American Philosophical Society), and their members were not all in the same geographic location. Their survival, in spite of the geographic separation of their members, was due in large measure to:

  • Focus on a defined area of activity: Franklin’s Junto was concerned with “Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy [physics].” The Lunar Society, at least at first, concentrated on science and its practical applications.

     

  • Ground rules and process: Franklin provided a list of 24 basic questions to guide discussion, but he described the heart of it this way: “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point … to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positive opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”

     

Meetings were important, but they weren’t everything: Much of the activity between members (and the learning that resulted) took place outside of meetings, in individual contacts and in correspondence.

 

What does this have to do with informal learning online?

If you look at the groups that survived in the days when “communications technology” consisted of handwritten letters delivered on foot or by horseback, and then look at today’s online groups, many of which do not last more than a few months, it is clear that we can learn something from those who came before us.

First, the group members shared strong common interests within a specific scope. Second, the process assumed that each member had something to contribute, and it also ensured that each would contribute. Third, the technology (paper and ink, hand-delivered letters) didn’t matter as much as the social context.

Our technology in 2010 is vastly different from what Franklin and his colleagues could ever have imagined, but it is still less important than the specific scope, mutual contribution, and the accepted ground rules and process.

Fast forward to the Third Millennium

Informal learning, as an object of attention by researchers, is not a new topic. However, it only appeared on the radar screens of instructional designers less than ten years ago. The emergence of online social media has led to the notion of somehow tapping into the potential of this channel, that carries so much of the real learning that goes on in organizations. For some, it has become a “top of mind” concern. You can see how the use of informal learning within organizations was emerging by 2006 in The eLearning Guild’s Informal Learning Research Report of that year.

In our current age, we have plenty of channels in which informal learning can take place: everything from microblogs (Twitter), to communities (LinkedIn Groups, discussion forums), to user-created content (wikis, Weblogs, YouTube), to social bookmarking (Delicious), and surely more to come. And we have plenty of discussion and debate among instructional designers as to whether learning actually does take place in these channels, even though the efficacy of informal learning is well established. Do a Google search on “informal learning research” if you need specific evidence.

But we also have plenty of examples of attempts at use of these channels in which the attempts failed. The virtual landscape is littered with the remains of abandoned wikis, content-less and comment-less Weblogs, and LinkedIn Groups where the spam has driven out the discussion and all but eliminated any possibility of learning. (As the administrator of The eLearning Guild’s Group, I am happy to say that this fate has NOT befallen our Group, due in large part to a strict no-spam policy as well as an outstanding group of over 12,000 members.)

Existing informal learning groups online include a surprising variety of formats, including some modeled on the Junto (for example, The Montreal Junto http://montrealjunto.com/). A more typical example is Jay Cross’ Internet Time Community, formerly on Ning but now on Grou.ps (http://grou.ps/internettime/). Participants in the Twitter #lrnchat sessions also comprise an ongoing informal learning group.

Clearly, if informal learning is going to take place online, it must be self-sustaining. What factors support this?

What makes informal learning online work?

Looking at the groups that are successful, here are the factors that seem to drive participation and commitment by members.

  • Focus: By definition, informal learning is that which takes place between individuals who self-identify in some way as members of a group with a common interest.

     

  • Payoff: The most successful groups provide an inherent incentive for participation; this may be tangible in nature (personal development that leads to advancement in position or compensation), or it may be intangible (increase in reputation, appreciation by others).

     

  • Dialogue: The group norms encourage participation.

     

  • Leadership: There are leaders who organize what needs to be done and keep things moving; sometimes these are well-known people, and sometimes they are people who are known within the group to be reliable.

     

  • Membership: The group is large enough, and members are active enough, and there is a sufficiently diverse base of experience that most questions draw a response in a short amount of time.

     

Process: There is a simple, repeatable process in place for basic social interaction; this would include provisions for bringing in and orienting new group members, promoting participation, and dealing with unexpected issues.

 

If a group lacks focus, or focus is too narrow, if the group’s process is too complicated, if there are not enough members, and if there are no rewards for participation, the group will fail. Informal groups are a lot of work to establish and maintain, and the work falls equally on all members.


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Great article!!!
Hi Bill,

Thanks for the great article, and the mention of the Montreal Junto! I'd like to point out that in the case of the Montreal Junto, the group meets once per month *in person* to teach its members; the website is used as a record to store what was discussed in the meetings and to elaborate on the contents of the presentations. Thus, it is indeed a form of blended learning but is principally done in person.

Best regards,

Travis Chalmers
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