Learning Opportunities Embedded in Social Networking

Organizations are beginning to realize the learning benefits of social networks.

In the past five years, social media in the enterprise has transitioned from simple e-mail and discussion boards to customizable, full-featured, in-house social networks. In turn, organizations are beginning to realize the learning benefits of such networks.

While the learning strategy of an organization will typically vary widely, at its heart, it must answer the question of how to involve learners in the process. A primary benefit of a social network is the inherent interactivity in each system. To benefit from the network, one ultimately has to interact, which takes the form of creating a profile, joining groups, posting and reading threads on forums, adding content and generally being a part of a conversation.

This interactivity is vital to the success of a vibrant social network and is not arrived at by chance. Creating a compelling environment with clearly articulated goals takes thought and its own strategy. And this strategy must support the overall learning strategy of the organization.

There are many ways to add social media tools to support a learning strategy. Companies can add groups on public-facing sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and many are seeing tremendous participation here, much to the chagrin of management. Because these sites are one-size-fits-all and not specifically designed for the organization, they provide an avenue for employees to meet and communicate with one another outside the workplace but don’t necessarily support the overarching goal of involving them in the learning process.

Yes, it is a positive outcome that they are meeting one another. But it seems to be more for the social part of networking, instead of finding others with similar skills or study partners to improve their knowledge about the job at hand. These sites are excellent at raising the awareness of social networking. Yet, they fail to help learning professionals meet their strategic goals. The need to tailor networks has led professionals to seek out social networking platforms that are customized to support their learning needs.

Now there is a growing market of “white-label social networks” that are meeting this need. Major research organizations — such as Aberdeen, Bersin and Forrester — are starting to cover this growing group of companies, and recent surveys prove most organizations are looking to add social media tools to their arsenals.

Where to Start
Social networking has the ability to make important connections between employees. Consider what you want employees to learn about each other and what you want to learn about them when crafting the profile portion of your network, the most important component when designing your own site. Also, what would they want to know about each other in a professional context? It might be previous experience, usually known only by HR and covered in their filed away resume. It might be hard and soft skills or certifications, competencies, values or even professional interests that span beyond their current job responsibilities.

You may want to consider uncovering personal aspects such as hobbies, which will add a distinct social flavor to the network and provide additional information that can be used to match like-minded individuals.

The information you decide to collect from your users will create the “tone of voice” for the site. By clearly understanding and communicating your objectives, users will understand the intent of the site quickly. As they build their profiles, they will have a clear view of how the information will be used and how it will provide value to them. If this intent is unclear, experience suggests they will not participate. In addition to the targeted keywords you give users to create their profiles, consider what additional expository questions you might ask to allow them to go into deeper detail.

How you ask a question and how you craft the list of replies (if you choose this type of question) is critically important when building an in-house social network. A high-performing question might be, “Describe a recent project that you are proud of.” This question elicits a high volume of answers for three reasons: It is personal, it is timely, and it speaks to the human need for significance. Also, answers to this type of question will provide insight that can be used in other areas of the business.

Part of the profile also should include the ability for users to link to other interests and post personal content. One important element is the ability to post photos: Images help you understand what’s important to a person. You may learn about people’s recent vacations, hobbies, or see pictures of a newborn infant or a team photo from a recent meeting. What you can learn from their photos differs from what you simply read about them. For example, seeing a photo of a co-worker on a recent rock-climbing trip might help you learn they are tenacious and courageous, even though they may not have highlighted those attributes in their profile.

Creating an environment of trust and integrity also is paramount, as you will want users to feel comfortable and at-ease. Attention to this subtle aspect of site design often is overlooked, and sites then can appear too corporate or too specific. You should remind yourself during the design phase that you are creating a social network that will be used by real people.

Another integral aspect in designing your network is how you will connect with an existing database. This step requires working with your IT organization to craft Web services to connect a human resources information system or a similar system to the network. Most vendors offer a secure and private method for doing this.
Why is this important? There is a phenomenon called “profile fatigue,” a result of having to build profiles on all of these social networking sites. Having a prepopulated profile is an extremely effective remedy and serves to increase the chances that individuals will actually complete profiles, a necessary first step in building the network. This will allow you to pull together information that may be in disparate databases.

Unfortunately, many sites will choose to work around existing IT or corporate databases because the line is too long to get this work done with existing resources. Yet, experience shows an integrated solution that combines existing databases is worth the effort. Creating an automated methodology for capturing user-generated content is a critical piece of the overall strategy, as well.

If you have clearly articulated your social network strategy as described above, you will be able to effectively communicate its goals and objectives to your audience when you invite them to begin a conversation.

Laying a Foundation for Informal Learning
If you have ever had the opportunity to work with an architect, either personally or professionally, one of the things you learned from him was “programming the space,” or knowing what you want it to do for you. In the corporate environment, the architect may talk about positive and negative space. Negative space is that part of the office that is not designed for a specific activity, but is left for informal meetings, encounters and interactions. Consider that your network has an architect — you — and the negative space in your network is the foundation for a key aspect of your learning strategy, as it enables informal learning.

There is much written about informal learning, from what we learn standing around the watercooler to the related concept of nonstructured learning. A serendipitous outcome of the learning community is that it is a perfect place for both types of learning to occur. The social network provides a place for conversation and the sharing of ideas outside of the classroom. Posting on forums, reading threads and taking part in discussions that are relevant to the business all are valid forms of learning.

A popular online social network for learning, Elliott Masie’s Learning Town is a place to follow trends and understand what is going on in hundreds of different companies as they respond to Elliott’s frequently posted questions. We all learn from these interactions, and it is from observing them that we can conclude that similar learning can happen inside the corporate firewall.

Another outcome of the social network is that it becomes a timely repository of the skills and institutional knowledge of the organization. Consider the popular term, “just-in-time learning.” This is what is required when employees are challenged by a project or directive for which they are unprepared. They are motivated learners, as their compensation may be directly tied to the results of a project. Being able to learn enough to complete their tasks becomes mission critical. The social network provides them with an easily accessible fountain of information. It effectively bridges a global enterprise — a short message to a colleague a continent away can start a meaningful conversation.

Forums and discussion boards also are valid venues to glean this just-in-time information. A new employee may find that the answer to a vexing question was discussed six months ago in an online discussion board. While the employees who contributed to the initial thread may be off to other pursuits, the information remains stored on the network.

If informal learning for the individual is the principal outcome of the social network in the enterprise, what then of the collective intelligence that is gathered as a result of the rich interactions between the employees? Over time, the database behind the social network accumulates conversations and answers to key questions, providing deep insight to the organization. This insight can lead to a clear view of the skill set of the organization at any point in time. It also can be used to plot the training and development agenda, inform HR in succession planning and talent management and, in many cases, highlight trends that may otherwise have gone completely unnoticed.
Having a growing database of skills and conversations may prove to be of such value that the other benefits of building a social network become secondary.

Is This the Future of Learning?
If informal learning is a key component of a learning strategy, and a social network is a valid method for creating an environment for that to occur, why isn’t everyone doing it? Even though it has been around for five or more years, social networking technology still is relatively new in the corporate environment and is challenging existing thinking and metaphors.

While there is not a mountain of evidence that social media has a real ROI tied to it, anecdotally, there are success stories slowly being uncovered every day. The workforce is demanding that the tools used in their personal lives have a valid role inside the firewall. As a result, management is compelled to consider implementing and embracing social media in the workplace.

Certainly, anything that helps people communicate is a good thing. Providing an environment that is safe, secure and trusted will allow for those conversations to be of tremendous value not only to the individuals, but also collectively to the organization that puts them to good use.