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Dave Foxall 5 Key Considerations for Social Learning Technology

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 By Dave Foxall

Increasing Awareness of Social Learning Opportunities

The use of social media in the workforce has gone far beyond a handful of early adopting employers tentatively creating their own social presence on sites like Facebook. In recent years, organizations (and HR software vendors) have begun to fully leverage the tools of social collaboration for improved service, productivity and profit. In the words of Darren Hartley of Intrepid Learning, "Social networking. No longer trendy. Now, business-critical." Indeed, social media is now beginning to slowly but surely transform how companies relate to both customers and employees. Of all the internal organization areas that are ripe for social media usage though, employee learning and development is currently the biggest; thanks in part to the tie-ins to workplace social networking—an arena that provides a bevy of non-traditional avenues for skills transfer and knowledge-building.

Yet, although HR software companies like Jive, Telligent's Social Community, and NewsGator's Social Sites have seen major upticks in customers, uptake of social HR technologies for learning is still a long way off from majority adoption. In fact, CedarCrestone's 2011-2012 HR Systems Survey found that the rate of usage was sitting at a paltry 4%; and although that figure is expected to rise to 9% during 2012, these numbers still reflect the fact that organizations have yet to fully consider the benefits social HR technologies for learning can offer. To help boost those figures, this article is geared towards helping organizations understand the key awareness points for any company considering joining the social learning wave.

Social Learning Point #1: Features of Socially-Enhanced Learning

Adding a new layer to previous strategies of blended and even mobile learning, social media tools encourage the creation of "learning communities", cross-functional and free of hierarchy, which can support traditional events such as courses and seminars or operate independently. Such communities increase the dynamic quality of learning groups, allowing instant, ad-hoc and on-the-job learning requests to be met in a timely fashion by accessing the varied experience and expertise of the group's members. Networking tools, wikis, instant messaging, video chat and microblogging can transform the mentoring relationship, de-formalize trainer/student interplay, and ease access through a broad range of tools and techniques, including tagging, bookmarking, rating and sharing.

Social Learning Point #2: The Benefits of Learning Socially

Ellen Wagner, Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology wrote in 2011 that, "Innovative technologies like games, mobile apps, smartphones, Twitter, Facebook and other social or collaborative tools are definitely deepening learning today". Of course her sentiment was spot-on, but to put her statement in perspective, organizations should consider the benefits of social learning she identified; including: faster response times; a greater number of channels for sharing ideas and information; better communications; the ability to respond more quickly to specific learning needs; targeted messaging to specific learners or stakeholders; more holistic performance support; and improved analytics.

Social Learning Point #3: The Social Workplace

The use of social media in learning and other organizational arenas reflects changing workplace and career models. Futurist Elliott Masie suggests, "With the traditional model, the goal was to become a middle manager fast. As a result, you needed and required on-the-job training. Under the new model, however, the goal is to come in and get a range of experiences in order to become competent. That's where social tools become important". Indeed, with generational and technological workforce changes (not to mention the current global economic state), employee expectations are changing—and effectively leveraging social HR technologies such as learning is a significant strand in meeting those expectations.

Social Learning Point #4: A Social Generation?

What was once only in the realm of younger generations, social technologies within the workplace have become commonplace. However, as The 2011 Forrester Wave report for Enterprise Social Platforms states: "Highly empowered, tech-savvy individuals are …joining the 40 million Gen Yers already in the workplace. With four or more years of Facebook etiquette, three-way calling attacks, and celebrity Twitter-stalking, these new workers are not [intimidated] by media and social technologies; they demand and thrive in it." As such, organizations must understand that social technology (and in particular social learning) is not a passing trend, but rather an emerging business necessity that employees have already adopted, even if the organization itself hasn't. As Ellen Wagner puts it, "There is no generational divide when it comes to digital learning. If a new technology — whatever it is — provides greater return, and that greater return is articulated, and the value is clear, then people don't resist... It doesn't matter how old or young you are."

Social Learning Point #5: Gamification

The final point that organizations considering social learning technologies should factor in, is that of gaming. Of course, the use of games for learning purposes seems to be a permanently controversial topic, and ever since the Internet came to the workplace, HR and IT departments have been introducing policies prohibiting online gaming for its distractive and productivity-zapping effects. But it should be noted that games in the form of simulations, team-building activities, and analogous training exercises have been providing effective learning for decades. In fact, according to noted author and learning thought leader Clark Aldrich, "Games and drive confidence and conviction within an organization…a magical combination when it comes to learning". A prime example of how this plays out in an organizational effectiveness sense can be witnessed in the healthcare industry, where, in some U.S. hospitals, surgeons ask their medical students to play video games before operating. The gaming experience – irrespective of content – sharpens and engages the students. As Elliott Masie opines, "We still need to keep our eye carefully trained on this tool, because of its huge promise and potential."

Social Media in Learning – The Bottom Line

CedarCrestone's recommendation on social tools is to the point, "No matter what, keep a strategic focus, whether cost cutting with some of the transactional solutions or a real business outcome focus with learning and development or recruiting solutions". Indeed, as with any HR technology, social media is simply a tool whose value (or otherwise) lies in its use and adoption. Realistic expectations coupled with the freedom to experiment will enable any organization to begin reaping the social learning rewards for its workforce. End

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Organizations must understand that social technology (and in particular social learning) is not a passing trend, but rather an emerging business necessity that employees have already adopted, even if the organization itself hasn't.


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