Learner-Driven Content: The Next Wave in Development

The line between student and expert is being blurred as employees in all positions and at all levels are contributing to learning content.

The line between student and expert is being blurred as employees in all positions and at all levels are contributing to learning content. In many organizations, this shift has produced tremendous value for the enterprise.

In every facet of our lives, the role of the traditional expert is undergoing significant change. Consider the role and function of a bank teller or a tax preparer, a librarian or a cashier. Many of the day-to-day tasks associated with these jobs are quite different today than they were as recently as four or five years ago. On the corporate side, HR professionals and support-desk personnel also have seen fairly dramatic changes in their traditional responsibilities.

In all of these cases, there has been a significant increase in automation and a transfer of ownership from the experts to the user, or consumer. For bank tellers and tax preparers, the automation is ATMs and tax software. For librarians, it’s Google and Amazon. For the cashier, it’s self-checkout lines. For HR professionals, automation comes in the form of self-service HR and user-generated content, while for the support desk, automation is present in online forums, ratings and self-service support sites such as GetSatisfaction.com.

These trends are just starting to hit the general corporate workplace. An internal wiki at Cisco yielded more than 400 new business ideas in just 18 months, resulting in the identification of more than $3 billion in new market opportunities. Ideas can be submitted by any employee.

In 1999, Goldcorp put all of its mining data online and rewarded external contributors who could help them find more gold on their existing property. The result? They found 8 million ounces of gold and went from being an underperforming $100 million company to a $9 billion company that is widely regarded as a model for the industry.

During the 2007 Super Bowl, Doritos ran ads that were created by the general public rather than ad agencies. Google, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Home Depot all use YouTube as part of their recruiting strategy, in most cases relying on content created by employees rather than their HR departments. Ernst & Young also has a significant Facebook presence.

In all of these cases, one thing is clear: This is not expert-generated content, at least not in the traditional sense. How many of Cisco’s 400 new ideas came from experts? The answer probably is “all of them.” Anyone confident enough about the content to create or edit a wiki page probably is an expert on that particular subject. What’s less clear, however, is whether the “expert” in question is recognized by the company. What’s more likely is that these are experts who are known to their peers but not necessarily to the hierarchy. The role of the expert has changed.

The distinction between expert and nonexpert has blurred significantly in recent years and will continue to transform profoundly as our workforce demographics shift from baby boomer to Generation Y. With each new success story about user-generated content, users and employees see mounting evidence that expertise doesn’t just come from the anointed few, but from peers and colleagues, too. Increasingly, consumers and employees are realizing that “we” are the experts. This shift in perception has profound implications for learner-driven content within an organization.

User-generated content enables more ownership of learning, both for producers and consumers. Unlike more traditional learning models, user-generated content has an undeniably social aspect: The content consumers actually may know the content producers, and if not, they could easily find them through social networking features.

This social aspect of content provides an avenue for additional social networking and mentoring opportunities and further empowers the workforce by providing opportunities for people to contribute, resulting in significant increases in the volume of content. This has the dual benefit of helping with retention and productivity while also moving the organization toward a deeper, more ingrained use of learning and knowledge.

Here are a few more key benefits of user-generated content:

• Talent identification: Flattening content creation helps identify the real experts in the company and key talent for promotion, additional development or other leadership roles.
• Identification and documentation of key content: By enabling those closest to the content to identify and catalog critical pieces of information, the organization is more likely to document key knowledge, skills, expertise and wisdom, and at a level of detail that would be impossible if driven through a central authority.
• Volume and scale: By removing the training department as an intermediary, content creation and contribution can scale in ways not previously possible, resulting in a much more diverse and voluminous information flow.
• True knowledge management: When compared to more traditional knowledge management approaches that rely on structure and rigidity, user-generated content is more flexible and much better aligned with real work. One result is more volume. Another is authenticity.

Finally, user-generated content provide a means of creating a whole range of media and interaction, from meta-discussions about other content to blogs and wikis, video demonstrations, typical Microsoft Office files and traditional learning materials such as courses and curriculum. There is a whole continuum of possible consumption and participation that appeals to different learning styles as well as different objectives.

Consider the following scenarios:

1. A salesperson is on the phone with a prospect who needs a quote about the solution set with “X” features and “Y” number of users.
2. A salesperson is learning about the new pricing model and its various options for the first time.
3. A salesperson is in the final stages of the sales cycle and needs some advice on how to position the new pricing model effectively.

These require very different “learning” solutions. Scenario 1 would call for some sort of job aid or, absent that, an “Ask a Question” or instant-messaging sort of scenario that instantly connects salespeople to colleagues. Scenario 2 is probably a good case for a Webinar, a PowerPoint or mini-course, depending on the complexity and whether the sales team will be assessed on its newly acquired knowledge. Scenario 3 requires advice, perhaps from a sole expert who might be found through the social network, a group (as in a discussion forum) or maybe through a video that an expert salesperson might have recorded on how to overcome pricing objections.

“Traditional” learning organizations and approaches might only address a few of these options: the job aid, the mini-course and the Webinar. User-generated content provides a broader set of options in addressing a broader set of requirements and therefore offers more opportunities for real growth and development. User-generated content appeals to different learning styles, different objectives and different levels of engagement.

What this means is that an organization is much more likely to help an employee during a teachable moment, resulting in improved performance. At an even more strategic level, the organization, by supporting a vibrant learning community, also demonstrates its commitment to employee growth and continuous learning, sending a positive message to employees and potential hires.

User-generated content also can subsume traditional learning approaches. Imagine a course that is treated like a YouTube video with all of the surrounding comments, cross-links and the ability to connect with the author. Imagine a course repository to which an employee could subscribe via RSS — think iTunes meets e-learning. Imagine a curriculum that includes videos, blogs, wiki entries, a dedicated discussion forum and links to the profiles of all the other participants in your session. Imagine a community that enables you to search for other community members based on shared courses you have taken or a shared skill set based on how you were assessed on a performance review.

User-generated content and social networking do not replace traditional training and development, a learning management system or targeted talent management initiatives. Rather, they extend these solutions in deep and powerful ways to help them better deliver on their objectives of improved performance and reduced turnover, both of which will be critical as we start to see talent shortages due to boomer retirements.

An excellent example of this kind of social learning platform is the industrial and commercial dealer community at Ace Hardware. Originally started as way to connect Ace’s 300 commercial dealers, the site has been so successful that Ace decided to expand the community to include its 5,000 retail stores, as well.

Part of the reason for this can be seen in stories such as Bonnie Merkling’s. Before joining Ace, Merkling had sales experience and a plumbing background, but not much hardware experience. Through the community, however, she still was able to succeed. One time, community members helped her find an adhesive for attaching mirrors to walls, resulting in $3,000 of additional business and a repeat customer. Another time, it was pricing for mini blinds. In the latter case, Merkling shared this information with five other local stores, extending the value of the original information. Nearly all of Merkling’s initial learning came from peer-to-peer support and user-generated content via her workplace community.

Workplace communities foster these sorts of information-sharing scenarios, but they are hard to classify in terms of traditional employee development. These examples clearly are a kind of employee development that is traditionally delivered through training, yet they also improve immediate performance, which would traditionally be considered an electronic performance support system (EPSS).

On the other hand, the community now has a written and documented answer to this question, which makes it a kind of knowledge management solution. The reason none of these labels really applies is because they all do, and so do labels such as “social learning” and “adaptive learning.” Workplace communities that feature user-generated content and social networking provide a unique solution that delivers many of the same benefits as more traditional approaches, but in a more flexible, open model. Unlike training, EPSS and knowledge management approaches lock up and time-stamp knowledge into neat little packages. The result for Ace has been a dramatic increase in sales, resulting in a 500 percent ROI in fewer than six months.

Companies such as Ace Hardware are demonstrating the value of these solutions to learning and development practices. Given the rising tide of Millennials in the workplace and the imminent departure of the boomers, the paradigm shift to learner-driven content is happening at the perfect time. We need to adapt our approaches to account for the expectations of Millennials, and we need to capture the expertise and wisdom of the boomers before they retire. User-generated content and social networking solutions provide the necessary scale to make this happen.

The most profound truth that has emerged in this transition to user-generated content is that “we” are our own best experts. Increasingly, successful organizations will be those that rely on the wisdom of the collective many rather than the expertise of the anointed few.