Going social

network-92904_1280This is an extract from Chapter 1 of the Social Learning Handbook 2014.

Just as the Social Web is changing the way that individuals learn, more and more organizations are now appreciating the power of social media for their own businesses. Many have already understood its value for marketing and promotion to customers, e.g. by using Facebook pages and Twitter account, but an increasing number are now realizing it has an important part to play internally for employee collaboration and engagement.

Alistair Mitchell in Conversation and collaboration: the next generation of working practices summarizes the changing business landscape.

“Today’s enterprises are seeing and experiencing the value of both social software and cloud-based content collaboration systems.  By connecting people and giving them the means to discuss, unlock and increase knowledge sharing across the workforce, these services are driving productivity and increasing efficiency in organizations across the globe.”

One of the main types of collaboration systems that is dominating the landscape at the moment, is the Enterprise Social Network (ESN). These are internal platforms that are designed to foster collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing among employees.  Examples include Socialcast, Yammer, Smartforce Chatter, Socialtext and Jive.


Screenshot of Yammer network showing main functionality

Many of the key features of ESN technology, are very similar to public social networking tools, like Facebook. At their core lies an activity stream that supports a constant stream or flow of real-time, threaded conversations through user updates and replies. In fact, the activity stream has now replaced the old-school discussion forum as the way in which people have conversations, and many believe that ESNs will ultimately replace email as the primary vehicle for employee communications.

ESNs generally also include a range of other capabilities like:

  • polling tools for asking questions and eliciting feedback
  • a file storage area where members can upload resources
  • the ability to create private groups for both internal and external membership. (In the case of external groups, external members do not have access to the main organisational network.)
  • member profiling, where individuals can provide information about themselves including an avatar
  • private messaging between users, which can often take place in real-time using chat functionality.

A large number of organisations now have an ESN in place to support employee knowledge sharing and engagement. Some like PwC, who had installed enterprise systems in the past, have found that the technology wasn’t really ready until now.

“It’s only in the past two to three years the technology has reached a maturity where it can meet the business promise.”

Deloitte predicted that by the end of 2013 more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies would have partially or fully implemented an ESN. Many of these networks have been “voluntarily adopted” by employees who saw the value of such a system for their own work, and which have subsequently been formally adopted by their own companies.

In other organisations ESNs have been implemented top-down.  But according to the Deloitte survey, when that is the case and their use is mandated,employees have been less enthusiastic about them. This is probably due to a number of reasons, but it is clear that becoming an effective social business requires more than just implementing social enterprise technology.

Many commentators make it clear that becoming a social business changes the way we do everything as organizations move from being traditional hierarchical businesses to networked businesses. Paul Adams sums this up nicely in Stop talking about social ..

“Social is not a feature. Social is not an application. Social is a deep human motivation that drives our behavior almost every second that we are awake ..

The leading businesses are recognizing that the web is moving away from being centred around content, to being centred around people. That is the biggest social thunderstorm, and all of us are going to understand it to succeed. So stop talking about social as a distinct entity. Assume it is everything you do.”

Social is therefore not just “bolted-on” to traditional business or learning processes but underpins a fundamental new approach to working and learning in the organization. Harold Jarche, in Social learning is for human work explains ..

“The learning imperative for the new workplace is not to know more stuff, because software can do that for us, but to become more human. Social learning will help us collaborate and cooperate in doing customized work, requiring thinking and building skills in order to innovate and craft unique products and services.”

Although some organizations have embraced the new world of social business and social learning, others have been reluctant to do so. Jeff Gibbard writes in Social business: “this is not a drill, people” ..

“I sometimes get the feeling that some of today’s leadership, are just waiting for “this whole social media thing” to pass.  I get the sense that leading a conversation for whole-hearted, organization-wide adoption of social tools and principles, seems idealistic, unrealistic, and that the best solution might be just to “wait it out” and “see where it all goes. I’m sorry to be the one to do it (though I’m sure there are others who came before me), but I have to deliver the wake up call.  This is not some cute little trend that the kids are doing.  This is not the wave to let pass. This is not a drill.”

So, as more and more organisations transform into social businesses (or collaborative organisations,) workplace learning professionals will have the opportunity to have a hugely important role to play in that transition process – although it is also clear that to do so their work will not be the same as it has been hitherto.

Social learning, or learning in a social business is therefore not just a new training trend and adding social tools into the “blend”, as Harold Jarche points out in Social learning: the freedom to act and cooperate with others.

“One current theme in the workplace and education circles is to “blend” social with the formal and structured. But social learning is not a bolted-on component of our formal educational and training programs. It is a sea change … Yes, we have always learned and worked socially, but we have never had the power of ridiculously easy group-forming or almost zero-cost duplication of our words and images.”

In the age of knowledge sharing and collaboration, therefore it is not just about knowledge transfer, there is a need for new learning practices that take into account all this This involves understanding that workplace learning …

  • is not just about delivering courses but about helping people to make the most of how they learn naturally and continuously as they do their jobs – in the flow of work – in  project or work teams.
  • is not just about internal experts telling people what they should know or do – but about peers sharing their thoughts and experiences, and in doing so learning just as much from one another.

Although a social technological infrastructure can help to underpin the new ways of working together more effectively, the technology is not the key thing, as Dov Seidman points out in a Forbes magazine article, The Top Ten ways to become truly social.

We can’t automatically make employees interact in deep and sustainable ways simply by hitting the on button, creating a Facebook page, launching internal social communication or real-time performance feedback platforms and replacing e-mail addresses with hash tags any more than we could generate long-term shareholder value by slapping an “e” in front of our business name.

We can’t order an employee to have a great idea or mandate rich, creative collaborations any more than we can order a doctor to become more humane or a teacher to be more inspirational in the classroom.”

Dov believes you need to focus on the behaviours not the technology, and developing these new behaviours requires a different approach than the traditional method of technology training. I frequently remark:

“You can’t train people to be social only show them what it is like to be social.”

So the new work of L&D will be more about modelling and demonstrating the new social behaviours –  leading by example – rather than training people to “be social”.

Role of the ESN in social learning

The Enterprise Social Network provides an ideal technological environment to host organised social learning activities, so that individuals can learn with and from another in the very same way (and platform) that they do for collaborative working. It  provides a big opportunity for L&D, because by integrating their own learning initiatives in the very same platform that is being used to underpin work processes, they can now play a major part in inspiring, encouraging, supporting and embedding social learning, knowledge sharing and collaboration throughout the organisation.

Supporting working and learning within an ESN brings a number of other significant advantages:

  • It means that your thinking about “learning” is not constrained by a dedicated learning platform (or LMS) that underpins the traditional training approach.  In other words using an ESN lets you think differently not just about what you do but how you measure the success of your learning initiatives.  That is, it helps to think in terms of performance outcomes – i.e. what individuals need to be able to do as a result – rather than on learning outcomes.
  • It means you can start from a position of thinking about the people in your organisation and how you can encourage connections and engagement between them – rather then focusing on creating content.
  • It means that all that the knowledge and experiences shared in more structured events are not locked away in a separate learning system.
  • It means that it’s not just about internal experts telling people what they should do or know, but about peers sharing their thoughts and experiences, and learning from one another.
  • It means that an individual’s personal activity stream will consist of all their subscribed activity streams – from all their learning initiatives as well as from their work teams and communities too.
  • It means that “learning” is no longer seen as a separate activity from working; and that for the first time it can be truly become a continuous, social experience in the workflow.

So for those in L&D who are looking to support learning in wider, more relevant and more ways, then using an Enterprise Social Network offers a significant opportunity to have a bigger impact on organisational learning than ever before.  It also means that those organizations who have been reluctant to use public social media tools, can now offer a more modern and appealing range of learning activities that are more in line with the Social Web.

It also offers the opportunity for L&D to help to build and inspire a culture of knowledge sharing, collaboration and social learning across the organisation – and in doing so help to build adoption of the platform in their organisation.

If you’d like to find out how to harness your ESN for social learning in your organisation, our next online workshop is about to start, find out more about it here.

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