A top-down approach to social and collaborative learning/working isn’t going to work!

I’ve just returned home after a week away speaking at, and participating in,  a number of different conferences and events in Belgium and Germany. My main focus has been on the use of social media for working and learning, and I’ve been having lots of conversations and listening into other discussions about social learning and working smarter.

What I’m becoming more and more aware of is that there are two ways organisations are considering “implementing” social and collaborative approaches : Top-down and bottom-up.

With the Top down approach, organisations are thinking about how they will need to get people to use social media – either within a formal learning context (in the classroom or online course) or for enterprise collaboration (sharing and collaboration with colleagues).  The type of questions they are asking are

  • How do we get people to collaborate and share?
  • How do we ensure what they share is accurate?
  • When are they going to have time in their workday to collaborate and share with their colleagues?
  • What platform can we ensure everybody uses to allow us to track every piece of social activity that takes place?

In other words, this approach is about imposing social and collaboration on their people, trying to compel them to share and collaborate, and then controlling and tracking what they do share.

This is the traditional way that organisations have operated when implementing new approaches- we have seen it with e-learning and the LMS – but I don’t believe this approach is going to work well with social learning and collaborative working.  I predict that organisations that take this  approach to “implementing ” social within their organisations, will report that it has failed; that workers are not using the collaboration systems, they are not sharing and that it is not effective.

The other approach to “implementing social learning” that is taking place is Bottom-up, this is about encouraging and supporting those individuals who want to connect with others and collaborate to work and learn together.  It is about recognising the fact that it works best when individuals and teams (themselves) have a purpose or need or interest to do so. eg to deal with a common issue or problem or to support one another.

According to my own research, many people are already using social media like this; creating trusted networks of colleagues (both inside and outside the organistion), and using these and othersocial tools to communicate, collaborate and share resources, experiences and ideas.  In many organisations  it is actually happening UNDER the radar of L&D and IT, as individuals by-pass enterprise systems and use online tools and their own devices (smartphones, iPads, etc) to address their own learning and performance problems  – particularly where access to public social sites has been blocked.

Smart organisations who are recognising that this is happening, are therefore asking very different questions about “implementing” social and collaborative approaches, e.g.

  • how can we build on what is happening and support those who already using social and collaborative approaches?
  • and how can we help those who would like to find out how to work and learn collaboratively, who are not already doing so now?

This supportive bottom-up approach to “implementing social learning” I believe is much more likely to be successful.   In organisations who adopt this appraoch, social learning and collaborative working becomes an organic process. And as more and more people recognise the value of it, they will become involved, participate, share and collaborate.  It is these organisations who will, I believe, be reporting productivity improvements,  increased customer satisfaction and an improved bottom line.

29 thoughts on “A top-down approach to social and collaborative learning/working isn’t going to work!

  1. Neil Mehta

    Great post. I recently saw the TED talk by Dan Pink talking about how very few businesses recognize the importance of intrinsic motivation and instead tend to offer carrots and sticks which sounds very similar to the top down approach you mention.
    On a separate note, I find your collection of resources very useful and use them often. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and collection!

  2. Jane Hart

    Neil – thanks. Yes, I agree Dan Pink nails it in his latest book, Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us. My favourite quote from that book is “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement”

  3. Michele Martin

    This has been my experience too, Jane. What is a challenge for the organizations I work with is when they try to nurture bottom-up activities with top-down strategies. For example–one org I’m working with had a group wanting to use Facebook to engage stakeholders. The leaders spent most of their time, though, focusing on things like control and policies, effectively killing the initiative and motivation of their internal group. They got the point that they needed to nurture from the bottom up, but not that this means asking different questions and using different strategies.
    Great post!

  4. Jane Hart

    Michele – thanks – you make an excellent point that nurturing from the bottom up “means asking different questions and using different strategies”.

  5. Ralph

    Another great post… I agree that bottom up approach alongside higher up sponsorship works well and augment chances of 2.0 adoption. Identifying pain points and suggesting 2.0 working tools will increase chances of using these same tools – as long as values and benefits are felt and obvious.
    One of the reasons why more and more folks are going to ”external ” tools/resources might be tied to
    – either their company does not have the tools they are seeking to work with – and companies should be happy the their employees are seeking solutions in the first place ? –
    – IT is still controlling security measures and are unaware of the blocking employee learning ops and productivity – delay time to competence-
    – or as we know it , we are living in the information economy , and, at this point in time, is much more potent outside of organizations – for the time being – (not part of the capacity recession cycle) and employees have a chance to learn and achieve their goals they way they feel is right and therefore connect with folks/contacts/resources outside of their company walls
    and to your point of banning external tools –
    Banning some social sites kind of represents a conflict of interest towards social learning itself because SL is totally driven by the working individual and controlled/customized by the same working individual – not other teams – as this might start to look like pushing social learning toward formal learning command and control approach .

  6. Aleksander Jakobson

    Jane, I like your post!
    One more reason to turn to the Bottom-up approach would be due to differences in using socialmedia by managers/executives and representatives of the bottom-line.
    Managers mostly belong to the Baby Boomers`generation while more and more employees belong to Gen X and Gen Y. The new generation of workers has been borned at the era of Internet, older colleagues do not understand their needs and interests.

  7. Mattiaskareld

    Hi Jane and Aleksander,
    I agree with you that the bottom-up implementation has a greater chance of working than top-down. I think the time when things could just be pushed down into an organisation has passed.
    I don’t agree with the generalization Aleksander makes when it comes to how different generations react to social media in the workplace. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t like these kinds of generalizations since not all people are the same way.
    I ran a workshop yesterday with managers within an IT-organisation. Most of them were 45-60 years old. Maybe it was because of my excellence in running the workshop (I don’t think that was the case though) but when we were done they all talked warmly about SoMe and how they could actually benefit from it. And on the other side I have co-workers aged 20-30 who prints all their emails because they don’t trust Outlook and rather store them in huge binders.
    Most (not all) people like to socialize. The ones that don’t see the benefit of using SoMe just haven’t realized how great they can actually be. So as I see it, it is our job to convince them of the beauty of SoMe. If we give them extra attention and gently guides them in the right direction they will come along for the ride eventually no matter which generation they belong to.

  8. pannirbr@gmail.com

    Jane , ate the beginning we may need both bottom up e the top down combined so that the criativity of the bottom up is not killed by top down approach , rather make incentives so taht socialnetork realy grows.Some combination is always needed to make this system more practical and sustainable, so that network really works

  9. Kelly Meeker

    Jane, thank you for sharing your insights. It will be interesting to review case studies as large enterprises attempt to implement your advice; and it will be doubly interesting to see if learners engage in top-down approaches that you describe. I think fear of asking for help (or advertising that they are doing so) might keep many learners from actively participating in a social learning platform.

  10. Jane Hart

    Kelly, forcing people to collaborate, share or whatever is not going to work – I’ve seen it fail time after time after time in education and business. Implementing (formal) social learning or enterprise collaborative working SUCCESSFULLY needs to be considered and implemented VERY differently. But time will tell; I’d be very happy to be proved wrong!

  11. Emmadw

    Thanks for the post, Jane 🙂 Don’t often comment, but do often read (and, even more often, point students/ colleagues to the tools lists!)
    This is very timely, though, as the Uni that I work at is looking at alternatives to the current VLE (WebCT Vista) – wanting to take into account what some of us are doing outside it; yet ensuring that whatever they select is suitable for all students/staff – who all differ in their ability to use Social tools (and how much they want to/ etc,. etc., etc.)
    You made the point:
    “and how can we help those who would like to find out how to work and learn collaboratively, who are not already doing so now?”
    … and good to see that you’ve said “like” … rather than “how can we make them” – collaborative work doesn’t suit everyone all the time.
    I think it can be very hard for those who support infrastructure (as well as ‘protect’ students from too many innovative ideas, if those innovations mean that they spend so much time learning to use the tools, they’re not really covering the content). You have to find a balance – and not sure where it is.
    Referring back to my original cpoint – that’s what’s coming out; some staff (e.g. me!) want total flexibility) – but others need a system that can have some set ‘guidelines’ – so they can concentrate on what they really want to do. Not an easy balance to get.

  12. Jane Hart

    Emma – thanks for the comment. Yes, for me it’s not about forcing and enforcing collaboration – but about supporting and encouraging it. The people who currently don’t collaborate or share, don’t see a need or reason for it; they can get on with their jobs quite happily without it. Once they do (if they ever do!) then the tool/system itself will be seen as a means to end,, so it’ll be much more about making it happen.

  13. Silverwaver

    I have had a similar experience. I have been working with an organisation and I was delighted when they adopted a Workspace, particularly because it was the one that I had suggested, I was also given a part to play in helping people to use it, the first problem being to get them to join up.This was achieved.
    However, I have now realised that the management believe that the workspace is for restoring research data and files have to be named with much care, but they do want to any pay attention to the way in which the data is to be found and retrieved. I have set up a Main Menu for this purpose but I am unable to convince them that the Workspace has writers and readers and they each need a different sort of help. Where am I going wrong or is this a common problem?

  14. Michael Krossly

    This is a rather remarkable and honest blog. Jane and other SLEs (Social Learning Evangelicals) infer that what ails social learning is not in the technology but the implementation. The supportive bottom up approach is offered as the alternative implemenation where it is “believed” benefits may be found. The operative word is believed which lays bare that the benefits of social learning is still very much an act of faith or to be more brutally honest, wishful thinking.
    Ultimately the success or failure of the “social learning thought” will revolve around your model of human nature. Man for some is perfectable and social technology is a tool to help advance us to some utopian vision. For others, Man is not perfectable, capable of vice or virtue and motivated by self-interest (not to be confused with selfishness). Most organizations subscribe to the later which means SL technology has to connect not just to others in a social web but also intimately connect with self interest. Until that connection to self-interest is made, SL will struggle no matter how it is implemented.

  15. Jane Hart

    Since many people are already using social tools in the workplace not just because they believe that this will be of use, but because they actually DO bring big benefits to them, it is an easy next step for organisations to support these efforts rather than try and ban them. Others will become engaged when they can see the value too. The supported bottom-up approach is therefore ALL about supporting self-interests.

  16. Michael Krossly

    Jane, supporting self interets for whom? The oganization or the worker? Ideally they are interconnected but perception and reality is often not the same nor are Micro and Macro self-interests aligned.
    Can you also clarify whether you mean there are BIG benefits from Social Technology or Social Learning or what you really meant? Much of ST has no application to learning and is down right scary… (http://www.infowars.com/iphone-snitch-network-launched/). When applied it might save a life or even a city (a BIG benefit if there ever was one), but at what cost to human liberty and privacy?
    The data I have seen so far for social learning oriented technology is poorly quantified and BIG benefits more accurately coming from technology outside of the SL domain. It’s not to say there are some interesting SL applications, but I do tend to think SL is still meta in nature and what SLEs describe as SL today, will be very different in 1 to 2 years.

  17. Sknupp

    I agree that top down implementation of SL is not optimal. Unfortunately, the bottoms-up method isn’t a compelling approach for management to invest in, unless there is evidence of impact in terms of demonstrated capabilities and business results that coincide with SL investments. I’d like to see SL case studies with coincident metrics which would provide a framework for justifying a bottoms-up approach which would no doubt be more effective, while keeping the stakeholders on board during the early phases of SL maturity in the organization.

  18. Jane Hart

    @sknupp Notice, I said a “supportive” bottom-up approach, that is one where you build on and grow a social approach where it is already happening, and providing the infrastructure/investment where it is needed – rather than forcing it on individuals that don’t want it or aren’t ready for it (as is the old way of doing things) The “traditional” organisatons that want to wait for case studies with metrics for frameworks can do so, but meanwhile it is already happening in forward thinking organisations who have aifferent mindset on how organisations need to operate in this fast moving world.

  19. Alexandra Stang

    You are right, the traditional top down approach is not going to work in the web 2.0 environment. Many organisations have fears because this approach questions the traditional social hierarchy in teacher-student relations in schools / universites as well as in the superior – employee/ staff relations in companies.

  20. Alexandra Stang

    I’m looking for ideas and exchange how to best motivate knowledge sharing in virtual heterogenous communities. I’m looking forward to any suggestions you may have? Thanks in advance.

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  22. Henk

    Hi Jane, came across this via a Twitter repost. So a rather belated response.
    Your position is valid and indeed timely. However, I think the use of top-down and bottom-up is confusing, in fact it is wrong from where I stand.
    Top-down starts with the problem and the need, not with what is available. Your description of top-down is exactly about starting with: we have this social media thing, so now use it to solve issues. Which is in fact bottom-up.
    What is valid is that we should start with those that will work with the tools and paradigm and allow them to synthesise the solutions we need – bottom up again, but this is true bottom up.
    What we need is to have analysis-synthesis loops, starting with the why and what. What is the problem? Map that on the approaches and paradigms available. If we see we need new things, or approaches, we invent them, then we synthesis a good solution, and so on. Part of that is to allow the social platform savvy people to fill the gaps and invent the approaches.
    Your thoughts on this?

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Henk, thanks for your comment. The post was intended for those who are intending to implement social technologies across their organisations – because they have been convinced that is the current thing to do by vendors, etc. So the point was to say that (en)forcing people to “be social” won’t work, rather they need to support those who are already doing this stuff and then build outwards. Ideally of course they would work as you suggest, but in my experience this is not what is happening. Either people are happily doing their own thing at the grassroots under the radar of IT, L&D and others, or a senior management edict says “everyone must become social in the way that we define it to be”. That approach is fraught with problems.

      1. Henk

        Yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for clarifying. And while all this is going on, the opportunity passes. Frustrating. Thanks again for putting the post up.

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