The New Social Learning

By: Marcia Conner



Ah, social media. If there’s ever been a topic that’s been written about, talked about and debated more heavily in the last 20 years, I must have skipped the day in school when they were talking about it. Unfortunately, most of us have missed it’s most important and game changing application: learning.  As my new best friends Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner show us, the companies who are able to harness the power of social media within their own company will be the fastest and most nimble organisations in the next 20 years - regardless of their size.  Stick around for the next 12 minutes and:

  • learn how to use social media in all aspects of talent management, including recruitment, engagement, retention, capacity and capability.
  • hear a few compelling stories from companies that are finding innovative internal uses for social media to create real business impact.
  • how social media will literally reshape your workplace.

I’m your host Steve Cunningham, and while you were sleeping, I was reading The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.  


Lesson #1 - You need to solve the newest problems to win

As Clay Shirky, one of the leading voices on how Internet technology is shaping culture puts it, “Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table”. For those of you keeping score, that was a long time ago.

In most organisations, the role of training and development is to give people solutions to problems already solved. The collaboration enabled by social media allows teams to work together to address challenges that nobody has overcome before.  This is a huge shift. Luckily for you, it’s a shift that your competition hasn’t caught on to yet.  So while they are busy learning the solutions to the problem you solved last year, you’re on to the latest challenge.  

The only available long-term competitive advantage available anymore is innovation. Innovation in how you bring your product to market, in how you find and motivate your employees, and in how you crack the code on new product development. And as we are starting to understand, the idea of the lone genius tucked away in a corner office coming up with new ideas is a myth - it simply doesn’t exist - at least not at your company.  The new story - the story that actually works - is that innovation comes from collaboration and learning.  

Here’s what the authors say:

In a world of rapid change, we each need to garner as much useful information as possible, sort through it in a way that meets our unique circumstances, calibrate it with what we already know, and re-circulate it with others who share our goals”.

More good news for you - by 2014, more than half the work force will be Millenials, who pretty much knew all of this well before you or I even gave it a second thought.


Lesson #2 - We learn best when we share

It’s time to add another fancy word to your vocabulary: social constructivism.  When we engage with people, we build our own insights into what’s being discussed, and also allow others to add to our understanding. This is a highly effective way to learn.  In other words, we learn best when we learn together.  

Need proof?  In a landmark study, Richard J. Light of the Harvard Graduate School of Education discovered that one of the strongest determinants of student’s success in education was their ability to form or participate in small study groups.  Those students learned significantly more than the students who worked on their own. 

So what should we share? The short answer is pretty much everything that you think could be valuable.  

For instance, here’s one story about how Telus, a telecommunications company of about 35,000 people in Canada.  A technician climbs up a telephone line to restore service for a customer when he encounters a potentially dangerous situation.  Rather then leave the problem or do something stupid and get injured, he takes a video of the situation and immediately uploads it to the company’s in-house learning and collaboration system.  Within minutes, colleagues from around the country have chimed in and given their thoughts about how to resolve the issue.  Problem resolved.  This is just one story of how Telus employees are using the TELUS Xchange, a system that allows employees to tell stories and instruct and seek assistance from their peers.  Very quickly they have developed an immensely valuable store of content that is searchable by topic, category or keyword.

You’ve heard about CGC (consumer generated content), and now it’s time for you to pay attention to EGC (employee generated content).

Can you imagine the value of tapping into the collective intelligence of your entire organisation?

Of course, you can share more than just videos and articles - you can “microshare” through services like Twitter as well.  Places doing very serious work like the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota are using microsharing tools to foster a community of innovation that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  Here are just a few of the questions that can get answered with microsharing tools:

  • can you help me?
  • what are you learning?
  • how can I excel here?
  • how does this work?
  • how am I doing?
  • which people should I know?


Lesson #3 - You Need To Tap The Knowledge In Every Brain 

Ask yourself this question: what if your company could access its collective knowledge quickly when facing a decision, sorting through all other noise, and key in on the most relevant information?  Would it vastly improve your ability to deal with complex, urgent problems?  Would it help you get the best possible understanding of a situation, including the best possible solutions?  You better believe it would.  

There is a dramatic shift occurring where content is now considered to be living and breathing documents. The most famous example of this is Wikipedia, where the entries are being edited at approximately 4.4 edits per second, or 11.5 million edits per month.  Never before have the tools been available to ensure that our knowledge is not only complete, but completely up to date.

Creating systems that support updates and contributions from many people is the order of the day. Not just people who are affected by the knowledge either - anybody at your company who might have an additional perspective should be welcome.  

There are plenty of free tools that you can use such as wiki software and Google Docs to get you started.  Remember, Wikipedia started with one entry, and so will your knowledge sharing system.  And while it will never reach the size and scope of Wikipedia, it will become the one place everybody in your company looks to in order to find the information necessary to do their jobs well. 

Need some inspiration?  Have you ever had an employee leave your company and wish that there was a way to capture all that was in their head in order to pass it along to new up and comers?  Of course you have.  No imagine you are IBM, with literally hundreds of people leaving each year.  They have created a wiki tool specifically for capturing knowledge from retiring workers called “Pass It On”.  New employees are now able to understand how the company functions not only on a work-instruction level, but also the other subtle nuances that only the departing employee can impart.  Now that’s innovation in action.


Lesson #4 - Run Better Live Events by Making Them More Social

Does social media replace all in-person events?  Of course not.  However, it has the potential of bringing every conference and learning event to a whole new level of effectiveness if social media is employed correctly.  As Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory describes in-person events as a communal Petri dish for growing connections and insights.  Here’s how you can create one of your own.

First, consider that the social media connections you create may actually be the precursor to the conference itself. In other words, use social media to determine what the conference topic itself should be. Consider Graham Martin-Brown, the creator and producer of the Handheld Learning Conference.  It started first as an online community, and then it made sense for him to bring people together every so often so that the conversation could continue in person.  

Second, forget about the old paradigm of those who are there to teach, and those who are there to learn. The cliche of the “power to the consumer” that’s bandied about to describe the shift in power from producer to consumer applies here as well. Even just a couple of years ago, you could assume that if somebody had their head down and was typing on their smartphone that they weren’t really engaged with what you were talking about. Now, however, it’s just as likely that they are more engaged than the person who just sits there nodding politely because they are sharing what you are saying with the world through Twitter or Facebook.  Your most pithy and insightful comments are likely to be translated into 140 character tweets and appended with a hashtag so that people following online can see what they are missing.  This has created what some people are calling the “back-channel”, where the audience can now connect with each other and talk back.  This will happen whether you like it or not (unless you somehow know Evan WIlliams and can convince him to shut down Twitter).  Your job is to embrace it and see how this can add to your event.Lastly, make your conference website more social.  Here are just a few things you can add to your website:

  • An attendee list with links to their websites and Twitter handles so people can connect before the event even starts.
  • Twitter posts from the event so people can follow the conversation (remember, this is happening anyways, so why not bring the people who aren’t at the event to your website to follow along?)
  • A Flickr badge and links to tagged photos.
  • A wiki where attendees can post notes and summaries about sessions they attended.
  • Encourage people to “live blog” the event.

Do these things, and you’ll be well on your way to creating your very own Petri dish of connections and insights for your next learning event.  The best thing?  Your attendees will stay in touch after the event and continue learning together.  Brilliant.


Lesson #5 - There Will Be Objections to Overcome

So you are pumped up and ready to start injecting some social into your learning. Well, that’s half the battle because there are plenty of people who have a large stake in seeing things remain as they are.  Here are some of the objections you’ll get to the new social learning, and how you can overcome them.

Our People Need Training, Not Socialising

Yes, that is true. Adding “social” to learning is additive.  It doesn’t replace training, it enhances it.  As we’ve already learned, there’s plenty of evidence that this actually increases how much people learn and how well they perform. Is your goal to have people consume information as quietly as possible, or is it to learn and increase performance?

This Can’t Be Governed

A very real and logical fear is that this could very easily get our of control.  And it can. However, take measures beforehand to minimise the possibility like showing people how to  classify content they create and which content/data is appropriate for which use. Finally, make it clear what you want the social tools to be used for, and what you don’t want them used for. Do those things and your fears will never become reality.

People Will Waste Time

This one is easy. Count how much time is “wasted” on personal calls on the telephone, sending emails, standing around the water cooler, and in pointless meetings. It should be clear that social media didn’t event wasting time, people did. If you are going to ban social media, you should probably rip out all of your phones lines as well, just to make sure.

Not Everybody Will Participate

Not everybody is going to be as excited as you are about this new learning program.  But that’s ok.  Because we know that for every 1 person that actively makes a contribution to a program like this, 99 will be lurking in the weeds, just watching. They will get immense value out of this as well.

So there you have it - it’s time to make learning social.  It’s the only available long-term competitive advantage, and it’s waiting for you. Take it, before your competitors do.