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Social Media in Learning

by David Wilkins

October 5, 2009


by David Wilkins

October 5, 2009

The impact of the social Web is proving to be much more significant, striking at the heart of these various roles and responsibilities. As we move closer to learning models that rely on search and engagement, training and development managers need to rethink long-held beliefs about very fundamental issues.

Within the last five to ten years, our collective use and experience of the Internet has changed radically. Remember when we used to “surf” the Web, navigating from site to site through memorized URL’s or aggregator sites?

Google changed all that. Today we are disappointed if we can’t find what we want in our first search – a search that requires just milliseconds to sift through billions of pages. Algorithms and logic models that mine implicitly identified and socially-validated relevance have replaced aggregator sites through link weighting, site ranking, keyword density, and frequency of site updates.

Another key shift in our Web experience is the transition from the passive Web to the interactive Web. Remember when we used to visit sites with no other intention or option but to read what was there? Today’s site designs and marketing stories are about interaction, contribution, and sharing. Where marketing teams once measured “eyeballs” on a page and site “impressions,” they now measure stickiness and engagement. Increasingly, the Web is a platform technology through which people conduct transactions, create content, manage processes, and interact socially.

Learning organizations are going through similar changes. Once we focused exclusively on courses and curriculum – effectively aggregator sites for lots of related content. Now, we’ve begun developing smaller chunks of content, not just through social software like blogs, but through simulations, videos, games, and individual lessons. We’re also moving toward a deeper appreciation for engagement. Once we measured “butts in seats” (the learning equivalent of marketing’s “eyeballs”). Today, many organizations have begun creating opportunities for interaction around content such as comments, ratings, and reviews.

As with the advent of the Web itself, these advances in Web technologies are changing the way we think about learning. With the widespread corporate adoption of the Internet in the 1990’s, the central question for learning professionals was whether and how to deliver learning over the Web. What once was strictly instructor-led classroom training (or maybe computer-based training delivered over a wide area network) became Web-based training and virtual classrooms. Yet, despite this change in delivery medium, the basic idea of instructor-led training and expert-created content remained unchanged. Experts still created content, instructional designers massaged it, and trainers delivered it.

The social Web raises fundamental issues

The impact of the social Web is proving to be much more significant, striking at the heart of these various roles and responsibilities. As we move closer to learning models that rely on search and engagement, training and development managers need to rethink long-held beliefs about very fundamental issues:

  • Who is a subject matter expert?
  • How do I know if someone has expertise, or that any particular piece of content is accurate?
  • Who should be authorized to create content? Everyone? Known experts? Trainers?
  • When does the accuracy of the content expire?
  • What is the role of the instructional designer, or the instructor, in a world where everyone is both a creator and consumer of content?
  • Is a blog or discussion post a “learning object?” What about a microblog post in Yammer?
  • Is a tag instructional content? What about a comment, a review, or a rating?
  • How can we create and deliver content quickly but still “manage” it?
  • Is it better to organize engagement around specific topics for a targeted group of participants, or to provide engagement opportunities in more general ways for anyone to participate?

Naturally, these aren’t all the questions we should be asking. There are a whole host of peripheral issues that are also important:

  • Sarbanes Oxley compliance for things like discussions, chat, and comments;
  • Liability and legal issues that might result when an employee acts upon inaccurate information or worse, acts as a rogue agent in ways that reflect on the company brand; and
  • Global issues related to privacy laws and cultural adoption of social media.

Think about the analogues to our situation

Fortunately, many of these issues have analogues in the transition to e-mail or in the adoption of consumer-facing social media, enabling us to draw on existing precedent and processes in other areas.

We have similar analogues to look to in relation to our roles and our content creation models. In just the last few years, the news industry has been going through changes that are very similar to those we are facing. In both the news industry and the learning industry, the process of disintermediation, where the content producers and content consumers are able to interact directly via technology, have displaced the expert intermediaries who interpreted, vetted, and channeled the information.

Disintermediation and e-Learning

In the news industry, the advent of blogs and digital video and audio made it possible for anyone to report the news, and for consumers to “get” news from thousands and eventually millions of sites. A few years ago, a blogger effectively scooped CBS news and anchorman Dan Rather by debunking a story about President Bush’s commanding officer. At issue was the kind of typewriter that was used to produce the centerpiece of the story – a “smoking gun” sort of document. The FreeRepublic blog, among many others, eventually discovered that the typewriter in question was not manufactured until after the date when the document was purported to have been written. The end result was a firestorm around Dan Rather, and his eventual resignation.

In the time since Mr. Rather’s resignation, blogs have come to be regarded as legitimate news sources, and mainstream news outlets have even begun embracing user-created video, such as CNN with its iReport feature. Most recently, the ACORN story became national news because of the work of an amateur filmmaker and a 20-year-old college student who took it upon themselves to investigate ACORN offices around the country. Ten years ago, this sort of work would have been done exclusively by one of three major news outlets; today it’s done by “amateurs” who publish their work via blogs.

Similar patterns of disintermediation are happening in the learning space:

  • Intel Corporation has adopted wiki technologies as the backbone of an informal knowledge management initiative
  • Sun Microsystems encourages everyone in the company to blog, with just a simple set of guidelines on what to share
  • Ace Hardware uses discussion boards and profiles to share domain expertise between locations with zero vetting or controls, other than the opinion and feedback of peers
  • Best Buy is using a combination of social technologies, including Idea Sharing tools and even Prediction Markets, to empower its front-line workers to share ideas, network, and collaborate

In each of these cases, the learning organizations were on the outside looking in as these initiatives were launched. Just as the major news organizations eventually found a way to include social media in their strategies and content models, we in e-Learning need to partner with IT, Corporate Communication, and HR strategists to weave social media into our learning strategies.

Transitions in roles

In the news industry, corporations have made a transition from being the sole reporter of the news, to sometimes being the vetter and producer of other people’s news. The content that comes into iReport is monitored and vetted, and, when it’s warranted, certain pieces of content are highlighted on the main page as legitimate stories. Fox does the same thing with Fox Forum stories – more opinion pieces than news, but nevertheless, a kind of editorial content once reserved purely for the news industry to deliver.

Strategies for evolving e-Learning

Similar possibilities exist for us in the world of training. How do we effectively transition from always reporting the subject matter expertise through courses, curriculum, and instructor-led events, to facilitating an environment in which anyone can contribute their own expertise? How do we move from always writing the story, to editing and producing the story? How do we become the plumber responsible for laying out the information conduits and shut off valves within our organizations, when for most of our careers we have been the pipes through which the information flows?

Begin by analyzing the needs

The first step is to do a “needs analysis” at an organizational level. At a very high level, we need to decide on the kinds of learning strategies that are most appropriate for the culture and the organizational objectives. A manufacturing company, for example, will likely focus less on innovation and invention than a high-tech company. A globally distributed retail organization will likely have a much higher need for collaboration and formal learning than a small business with one office. Below are a list of questions that learning groups may want to begin asking themselves:

  1. To what extent will your business or initiative be dependent on the creation of new ideas, new processes, new products, or new services to drive key performance indicators (KPIs)? To what extent are KPI’s driven by efficiency and adherence to known best practices?
  2. What percentage of your team’s best practices will you need to base on principles and theory, as opposed to concrete steps and rote processes?
  3. What percentage of your best practices will emerge “from the trenches?” What percent from “group consensus?” What percent from “management?”
  4. For the majority of your core initiatives, how important is a diversity of perspective or expertise to achieving your project goals or key performance indicators?
  5. In terms of succession planning and talent identification, what percentage of your existing “experts” and leaders did the admiration and esteem of peers identify? What percent did management first identify?
  6. How often do coordination and issue resolution happen through the ad hoc assembly of networked teams or individuals versus formal hierarchies?
  7. How much of your team’s execution is dependent on the sharing and coordination of distributed expertise? How much is dependent on efficient and timely sharing of centralized expertise?
  8. How much of your team’s intellectual effort will be expended in collaborating to develop known best practices or processes? How much time will be spent improving the efficiency of known practices?
  9. What percentage of your best practices and domain expertise exist in “pockets” organized by geography, shared interest, or network affiliations? To what extent are you organized around identical job roles and functions?
  10. When you think about a core contributor on your team, how much of his or her value and influence is a result of socially recognized expertise vs. longevity or management opinion?

Consider the organization

Getting a sense of the organization’s overall leaning toward collaboration, formal structures, or emergent practices and new solutions provides a necessary foundation in re-designing a learning strategy. Twenty years ago, all organizations were highly formal and structured; we knew the problems; and subject matter experts and managers created solutions. Today, many organizations are flatter, with distributed power and control; problems are relatively unknown and novel; and we must create solutions on the fly by rapidly assembling ad hoc teams with specialized expertise. A significant portion of companies isn’t fully in either camp, presenting characteristics of both kinds of organizations during their transition from an industrial economy to a networked economy.

In some organizations, this same checklist of questions may also be answered differently between divisions or even initiatives. Compliance-related initiatives will typically present more formally in a needs analysis. A software rollout may start formally but end more collaboratively as new ideas emerge and people begin discussing new best practices. In any of these cases, it’s important that we begin to consider social questions like the ones above in our various needs analysis: audience, task, culture, objectives, etc.

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I am most disappointed with this new format as you cannot save articles as pdf documents.
Actually, you can save an article as a PDF, if you have a Mac, or if you have a client that will "print as PDF." Click on the "Print Full Article" link. When your printer dialog comes up, on a Mac you can Save as PDF (or as PostScript if you prefer), and on a Windows machine you can choose your PDF client as the printer.
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