Social Learning – Confusion 2.0: Getting Beyond Campfires & Cavemen

I wrote earlier that Social Learning was so simple a caveman could do it…but not if he has to facilitate a virtual classroom event. We are way beyond campfires and cavemen with social learning when we inject a plethora of technology into the mix. Call it Confusion 2.0 if you are pre-disposed to label everything. I’ve promoted the concept of reaching learning readiness in the context of effective learning when technology is involved. Never has this been important than when trying to extract the most out of Social Learning. This is true because social learning is not an event, and for the most part, those of us in traditional L&D roles are pre-programmed to build “events”, to facilitate learning transactions either on-line or in the classroom. Social Learning changes that paradigm whether we are at readiness or not – and that readiness component must include our learners too.

In one of my LinkedIn groups this morning, a member asked about what new skills or competencies the Learning & Development (L&D) organization needed to develop in order to integrate social learning effectively. This is a timely question for two reasons; number one – I think we are approaching the point where integrating social learning is a requirement to our success. Number two, I am working with several colleagues on a Masie Consortium project to identify new Learning Roles for the future. We have included Social Learning as one of them.

The project is not finished, but there are a few thoughts I feel are likely to make the final cut as new roles/capabilities the L&D function of the future must embed.

Routinization & Transparency

I call this “hiding the pill in the cheese”. It is important to “routinize” use of Web/Learning 2.0 technology to facilitate social learning by embedding the technology into the workflow. Make the use of it routine for the learners; and, the more transparent the technology the better. To that last point, I hesitate using the jargon of “wiki” or “blog” and instead suggest directing learners to a “site” or a “link” that will enable them to access resources and provide input directly.

I know this works because I actually pulled off a new LMS GoLive to 6,000 remote users a few years ago without telling any of the users what we were doing. Call me shamelessly covert if you must, but it worked like a charm. I compare the approach to teaching someone how to drink water from a glass…extreme example, I know…but I think it illustrates my point. Do we need to describe the features and functions of the glass, or should we just provide basic information to get to the water? I voted for the latter…tilt the open end toward your mouth. Place emphasis on accessing the water…not using the glass. In the case of the covert GoLive, we only instructed learners how to get to the “water”…click here to login…and then click “launch” on the course title called “Safe Use of Explosives and Things That Go Bang When Dropped”. Out of 6,000 users, the only Help Desk calls were pop-up blocker issues and two complete knuckleheads that tended to call all the time anyway. That was enough evidence to sell me on using the approach when appropriate.

Once the end-users have used the technology successfully, you can take off the shroud and let them know they just used a wiki…a blog…a community of practice…etc. My point is this – it matters not “what it is” and more on “what users can accomplish” by using it. We create fear in the technology averse among us sometimes when we [as promoters of technology] are so proud of our technology that we bluster and position the importance of it over the actual “capability” it enables in our learners. Trust me, it nearly killed me not to make a big announcement about the new LMS when we busted our humps for months evaluating, selecting, and deploying it. Lesson learned – it is not about the technology – it is about the capability [and the relevant user benefits] that are created by the technology.

Sustainability – Not Bull Riding

Hanging on for 8-seconds defines a successful bull ride. Hanging on until the ride is over is not an option when trying to sustain a social learning implementation – the “ride” is endless – if we do it right. Doing it right requires investment of human resources, and the learning organization has a responsibility to integrate some new work ethic and/or skills when social learning is involved. For example, when we consider blogs and communities, the L&D org needs to devote headcount to “market” the site, “monitor” contribution, “harvest” best practices, and “recognize” contribution by the users/learners.

The market – monitor – harvest – recognize requirements are part of the “endless ride” and are essential to ensure a sustained effort. A Community of Practice will not typically self-govern or maintain just from those who choose to show up. It takes focused intent and human resources investment to ensure the ride is indeed endless. Quite possibly, we can accomplish the marketing effort through the routinization effort by directing folks to the site as part of a routine workflow. Other approaches may require greater effort to offer campaigns to segments of the user population.

Monitoring the activity means that function is part of someone’s job responsibility. The more active the participation is on the site – the greater the potential to “harvest” best practices and valuable contribution worthy of recognition. Discovery of best practice potential is worthy of follow-up, and follow-up takes time and effort, and the result may turn into content worthy of inclusion to future training solutions. Should that happen, recognizing the contributor as “Contributor of the Month” is a good way to “spread the word” that participating through contribution is “rewarded”. By doing this, you establish a “currency” of sorts through recognition…sometimes even better than financial reward. People like recognition for their contribution to others and the company’s mission. The more formal/visible we are with recognition, the more effective in driving viral use of the technology.

Finding the L&D Fit in Social Learning

It is important for the L&D organization to expand competencies related to discovery and effective questioning that includes attributes of the “work context“…searching for attributes of the work environment [or “triggers”] that may stimulate a social learning interaction in the course of workflow. That means the L&D role must expand competencies to include consulting skills enabling “learning consultants” to dig down into workflows and processes to find performance gaps that could be closed through social means. Is it simply enough to provide passive access to FAQs, or is it appropriate for peer-to-peer collaboration? Should it be peer-to-SME, or learner-to-Help Desk, or learner-to-content owner? Without contextualizing the learning moment of need in terms of the work, it is most difficult to identify an appropriate source of learning resolution – social or otherwise.

The L&D staff need to be at a state of readiness to use social learning resources as a user themselves [I.E. eat their own dog food] before they can effectively encourage or educate users to use the same. They need to know when to use the resources and how to get to them. A great starting point is something as basic as effective use of search…expanding to effective use of social bookmarking…etc. Once again, it is important to understand the nature of the learning moment of need and the work context where the learner confronts their challenge. Having business acumen and being business savvy is a basic essential for the L&D consultant.

Virtual classroom facilitation is another often over-looked skill set. One does not just jump on-line and deliver a class the same way we deliver in a face-to-face classroom. The same holds true for the design/development function. Facilitators and designers need to use and build in triggers to engage remote learners. Using live polls…real-time survey and result segments…direct questioning …redirects and other hooks to ensure engagement in the content.

Beyond content design, the virtual facilitator has a new toolbox to manage. Consider an array of interactivity features from white boards to breakout rooms. They serve the same functions as the real ones, but muffed implementation during an event can be an utter disaster…been there, done that. Add to the mix easier-to-use icons that illustrate engagement are helpful but can serve up another distraction to throw a facilitator off their game plan. Some of the better platforms can even flag user engagement status, indicating who has opened another window and is checking email or using another application during an event…or identifying someone who has been inactive longer than X minutes. Having that knowledge creates a perfect opportunity to toss a question in their direction. Unfortunately, it also means the facilitator must know how to use the features of the platform effectively…AND …be able to remain focused on the topic of delivery. Easier said then done.

Another thought related to managing the virtual “classroom”…is monitoring chat – a perfect example of what one person cannot do well AND deliver content. Often this requires a facilitator AND a moderator to accomplish effectively. It is very difficult to be responsible for delivery…actively talking…thinking about where you are going next…AND…monitoring the chat channel for questions or comment flags. I do not care how good one thinks they can multi-task, this is waaay too many balls to keep in the air and remain effective. A moderator, either another L&D staff member or an assigned role to a participant, should be tagged to monitor the back channel conversations.

Summary Thoughts

Those are some ideas I plan to build into the current Learning Roles project. We are not yet finished, and new ideas about future capabilities are surfacing every time we chat. Suffice it to say, social learning is here to stay, and the sooner we staff up – competency up – and skill up – to embrace it in our L&D organizations, the more likely we will be viewed as value generators to our learner populations. I welcome any additional thoughts you feel like sharing. If so moved, please drop a comment to this post.

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning