Social Media and Learning-Related Technologies

by Chad Udell and John Feser
The Iona Group

From the beginning of humanity, people have used the available technology around them to relay and share information with others.

From the pigment and primitive brushes used to make cave paintings at Çatal Höyük, to the modern mobile devices we have in our pockets today, implements and tools have allowed people to convey knowledge to one another. Another key aspect that has nearly been universal in people’s pursuit of learning is the social aspect of sharing and collaborating while learning. From ancient Greek universities to the salons of the Age of Enlightenment to the cafes of the Beat era—all of these were places of discussion. Those with great ideas shared them with the group, and the group could then discuss and determine the merit of these ideas, improving on them when possible and always adding value to the work brought forth by the thought leaders.

Something that has changed in the last 20 years, though, has been the advent of solitary learning done under the guise of “eLearning.” Oftentimes developed by trainers and subject matter experts, this learning content can be described as top-down and one-way. Being discreet and measurable, and certainly having a realized value, eLearning is a vital part of human performance improvement for many corporations. These courses are primarily solo activities, with the learner consuming the content and offering very little ability to provide feedback into the process and add to the conversation. When viewed from a purely historical standpoint, these courses are starkly out of step with how learning has taken place for thousands of years.

With the advent of the “Web 2.0” movement, things are starting to return to normal. Collaborative platforms, social media and mobile ubiquity are all combining to provide a modern-day equivalent of the salon. People can convene and talk and share without having to be in the same room or even on the same continent. A lot of this technology is used in your personal life, with social media sites like Facebook and microblogging services like Twitter constituting the single largest segment of web traffic today.

Some numbers to consider: It’s estimated that over 18 million people actively use Twitter daily. It is estimated that there are 400 million Facebook users, with roughly 120 million users visiting the site daily. According to a new International Data Corporation (IDC) survey of 4,710 U.S. workers, 57 percent use social media for business purposes at least once per week. Additional findings from IDC’s social business research include:

  • 15 percent surveyed reported using a consumer social tool instead of corporate-sponsored social tools for business purposes.
  • The number-one reason cited by U.S. workers for using social tools for business purposes was to acquire knowledge and ask questions from a community.
  • While marketers are the earliest and largest adopters of social media, these tools are now gaining deeper penetration into the enterprise with use by executive managers and IT.
  • Software companies will increase their social software offerings significantly as customer demand steadily increases and “socialytic” applications will emerge, fusing social/collaboration software and analytics to business logic/workflow and data.

Creating a Collaborative Learning Network
It’s obvious that people are finding value in using social tools for work purposes, and it is likely that your employees are there already. It would serve you well, then, to provide the tools and access to allow this behavior, but focus it in ways that are productive to your business and use methods that protect your confidential business information.

Example: Within a company, someone may be seeking information on sales material or case studies for best practices. Using a traditional, non-social approach to learning, it may take hours of scouring the company’s network or sending dozens of emails to amass the information for which people are looking. But by storing this information in an enterprise-wide wiki, the content is instantly searchable and always available, even after hours.

Another thing worth considering is how you currently assess who the experts in your company are. With a private microblogging application, it’s extremely easy to find out who your thought leaders are and what they are talking about at any given time. Beyond that, are you creating a culture that supports sharing and professional growth? With a social portal, creating enculturing programs and meet-ups moves from a hit-or-miss collection of emails that may or may not get read to a centralized place of discussion and healthy team building.

Once one recognizes the benefits that these tools can offer, it’s still not time to simply jump into the fray. Like any other learning or human performance initiative you would undertake, it is wise to plan for success up front. Implementation can take any number of forms, but without a plan in place first, it is going to be difficult to roll out any effort and expect success. Some things to consider: Who will lead this effort? How will you institutionalize it? How can you incentivize it? How will you know if you have implemented a winning solution? You should consider building out an effort like this only after these basic questions have been answered. Visualize the type of information you want to save and gather from your employees and allow that to help guide the path.

It can be difficult to convince management of the advantages of using tools like this given the connotation of the word “social” and the informal nature of most of these sites. But with a small amount of research, it’s easy to find commercial versions of these tools. The versions can usually be integrated with internal network policies or secured by other means in order to protect trade secrets and proprietary information. Whether it is a corporate wiki, a private version of Twitter or a Facebook-style, work-centered social network, there are many ways your company can harness the discourse going on inside the firewall to create a collaborative learning network that benefits everyone in the organization.

So you have taken the plunge—now what? Even after rolling out new services or tools like social learning offers, you may need to provide some simple training and new software on users’ desktops to help them make sense of the new media outlet available. Feed readers, specialized Twitter clients, smartphones and more can assist with filtering the noise and creating focused productive interactions with other employees. How do you go about learning how to use these? One suggestion might be asking your local in-house social media expert.

Good luck. It can be daunting to consider providing social tools like this in the workplace, but once set in motion, the sharing becomes second nature for most, and the benefits will be realized. iBi

Chad Udell is the lead solutions architect for The Iona Group, a corporate communications company located in Morton, Illinois, and leads Iona’s interactive practice. John Feser is the managing partner for Iona’s Learn Practice Area.

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