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Learning & Development: Social Learning

Did you know that we no longer know how to get to the moon? Really. NASA no longer has engineers who fully understand how we accomplished the moon landing. During the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, the fast pace of progress led to poor documentation about engineering that landed men on the moon. Now, with the prospect of revisiting the moon, NASA must reverse-engineer old parts from the Apollos program to figure out how to do it again.

NASA has been good at many things over the years, but they did a poor job of transferring knowledge on to the next generation of NASA engineers. Had NASA practiced knowledge management and social learning practices during the 1960s through today, they would have captured this essential information for future projects, including lessons learned and best practices.

With the coming retirement of the larger Baby Boomer generation, there is a similar threat of knowledge loss for organizations all over the world. This lack of knowledge transference is why today's organizations need to implement social learning technologies right away.

What is social learning? We hear this term a lot these days, but what exactly is it?

I have seen numerous, usually very abstract, definitions. Here is a simple way to think of it: It is the practice of taking what is inside people's heads and making it accessible to many. Using web-based tools, users can connect, collaborate, converse, and produce content. These "Four Cs of social learning" are a useful way us to think about social learning (Bersin & Assoc., 2010). Let's briefly look at these Four Cs and the practices involved in each of these categories.

1. Conversations: blogs, forums/discussion threads, microblogging, lifestreaming, and chat/IM.

Example:

Imagine you have just been promoted to be a store manager of a retail store. You have been given some training, but mostly the regional director spent a couple of days of on-the-job training when you first started in your new area of responsibility. You find that there are many unexpected challenges in this new position. So you turn to your peers for support. You open up Torch LMS, and click on "Collaboration." You navigate to the discussions area. Here you find an ongoing discussion between all of the store managers about the challenges they have encountered.

You notice that the discussion started over two years ago with a new store manager asking a simple question. As you read on through the discussion thread, you find more experienced managers gave great answers that helped the newer managers find their way through these challenges. As you continuing reading, you find dozens of best practices and lessons learned captured in this discussion thread.

This example illustrates the practical application of conversations as a social learning tool. Now, this new manager will save countless hours learning many of these lessons the hard way—or the expensive way!

With Torch LMS, a user can subscribe to a discussion, and the discussion updates are automatically emailed to the subscribers. Discussions can also be tagged and are fully searchable.

2. Content: content-sharing, content management, tagging/rating, social-bookmarking, syndication (RSS feeds).

Example:

Sharing content and making it easily discoverable (tagging for search) has become increasingly important in business. Being able to rate content, post content, and subscribe to an ongoing set of posts are all important features of sharing content in today's modern workplace. For example, with Torch LMS, users can rate any training course on a five-star scale so learners and administrators can make better decisions about consuming or publishing quality content.

3. Connections: User profiles, social graphs, friends/contacts, people-matching.

Example:

Sometimes taking a formal training course is not the best way to learn something. Sometimes we simply need to connect with subject matter experts, to answer our questions, to serve as a mentor, or to act as a resource in some other way. Tools that allow us to find people by searching skills or areas of interest can be very useful.

4. Collaboration: wikis, workspaces, project/process/performance support, innovation/idea generation, calendars/event.

Example:

Most of us have become accustomed to having one document in the cloud that two or more people can work on together, rather than passing around a Word document and tracking changes.  This is just one of many Web 2.0 tools that have changed the way we work. Wikipedia is a good example of a massive collaborative endeavor where people co-create content. Idea repositories and other project management tools have significantly improved the way we innovate and manage projects.

Measuring the Value of Social Learning:

Here are a few ways you might start measuring the value of social learning.

  • Initiative (how many people logged in)
  • Persistence (how many people came back, presumably because they found value)
  • Connection (how the network expanded)
  • Technology transition (fewer documents sent across email).

An ASTD study found a social learning initiative to have a return-on-investment of 75:1 over web-based training (with its own impressive ROI). More on this.

Conclusion:

It is clear that internet users have adopted social learning tools in a big way. Organizations need to find creative ways to implement these tools to capture the collective knowledge and intelligence of their workforce, as well as use these tools for broader innovation and recruiting initiatives. Torch LMS has some powerful tools what can help organizations of all sizes master these practices.

Further Study:

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce