This is a guest post by Dr. Jane Bozarth, author of Social Media for Trainers: Enhancing and Extending Learning, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, and booksellers everywhere. Follow Jane on Twitter: @janebozarth and @SoMe4Trainers. Connect with Jane on her Facebook pages: Jane Bozarth Bozarthzone and Social Media for Trainers or on her blog.
How do social tools (like Yammer) facilitate learning?
Social tools provide excellent means of accessing expertise within an organization or field of interest. Microblogging tools, like Twitter and Yammer, are especially good for quick updates and questions and answers. In my own work, I’ve found that I increasingly turn to Twitter rather than to Google. Google gives me most popular links that may or may not be exactly what need, but my Twitter community gives me answers. The tools are also a great way to build community within an organization, for instance, to connect staff who work virtually or who work in different offices or even different shifts. Within that community resides an enormous amount of tacit knowledge; the social tools help break down silos so knowledge can be more easily shared.
Creative companies have found ways to leverage social tools for learning that go beyond the usual “let’s have an online group” approach. Cisco, for instance, has created an initiative for managing the company’s knowledge base. The online system allows account managers to access virtual experts, discussion forums, and marketing materials. Ace Hardware (US) found that its independent franchise owners each had extensive, but different, knowledge areas (for instance, one knows plumbing, another concrete, another construction). So the company created an online community for store owners that includes social profiles highlighting store owner’s areas of expertise. When you consider the vast and varied inventory of a hardware store, you can see the advantage of helping people share expertise to help one another.
Recent trends in learning:
The idea that “learning” means sitting at a desk listening to a trainer is disappearing quickly. Nothing I described above mentions learners sitting passively waiting for information to be delivered unto them by an expert. The learning now comes through engaging in a community, through social and often informal interactions. But you know what? That’s how most learning is already happening anyway. Now people are starting to realize it. People are also realizing that “learning” is not only about how to do things, but how to get things done, and how and where to find people and information toward that end.
Technology has finally caught up with learner needs. They can easily access free, fun, popular, easy-to-use tools like Facebook and YouTube. Company blocks Facebook? Workers can access it from their phones. This is going to generate a big shift from the idea of trainer-centered to learner-centered workplace training. An example from my own life: I’ve taken Standard First Aid three times but have never needed to use it. The information isn’t fixed in my long term memory – no, the repetition didn’t help – and I wouldn’t know how to recognize or respond to shock, for example, if I saw it today. But I have an iPhone app from the American Heart Association. I can tap on it, enter ‘shock’, and get a quick list of “signs of”, then “responding to” complete with a video example if I need it. And it works even if the phone is out of range. I don’t need to “know” it, I just need to find it, and technology easily enables that now. Smart companies – and training departments – will start leveraging these technologies to deliver just-in-time instruction and, as with my first aid example, performance support.
What about Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) in particular?
Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) tools like Yammer provide a wonderful means of enhancing formal learning processes. For instance, companies could support standalone eLearning courses with a group chat on the subject matter, a book club discussion related to the company’s work, or as a way to meet others doing similar work in the organization. Company ‘experts’ in different areas could serve as virtual mentors, taking turns checking in and providing quick responses. I know of one company that set up separate microblogging chats for those in different work areas, and then made sure new hires were welcomed into and included in discussions there. I use ESN to accompany a course I provide, and frequently ask “How are you using the information from last week’s session?” or “Monday we covered x. What examples of that have you seen in your workplace?” This helps me conduct simple evaluation and help learners apply what we’ve been covering. It’s a quick, informal, and excellent way to build community and sustain the learning as workers implement it into their days.
How should companies view social tools?
I see so many conversations about risks or concerns with using social media, especially issues regarding decreased productivity. It’s absurd to think that people were 100% productive every day before the invention of Facebook. Employees who want to waste time will find a way to do it. But we need to deal with that on an individual level: When an employee abuses the telephone, we don’t take all the phones out of the building.
I would encourage companies to think about it in different terms. Rather than think about what social media might “cost”, ask instead what social media might save. How much time do workers spend in a week looking for information? How much re-work occurs because someone didn’t realize that someone else in the organization had already done that research, or written that report, or designed that workshop? How much time is spent learning about something because no one realized that the company had an expert on it in the Wichita office? What are the costs of those inefficiencies, and how could social media tools help?