Learning is woven into the fabric of every modern business. It’s the way we adapt to change. We’ve got to rid ourselves of the notion that learning is just the chief learning officer’s business. Learning is so much more than that. Learning is the lifeblood of commerce, and it’s every corporate citizen’s job to make it better. It’s time to invite customers to join the party.
Learning and social networks and customer communications and partner relations and marketing and sales aren’t islands. They’re all facets of the same thing: the corporate commons of work and learning. Some astute companies are exploring how a social learning community can remove barriers separating customer and corporation. It’s all about learning conversations.
The Cluetrain Manifesto is one of the most important business books of the late 20th century. Its primary message is that markets are conversations. That conversation must be authentic; you can’t fake it. Its language is “natural, open, direct, funny and often shocking.” Honest conversation builds lasting customer relationships.
Conversations also are the most effective learning technology ever invented. Learning is social. Most of what you learn, you learn from and with other people. You do so in the give-and-take of conversation. While it’s a book about business, not learning, The Cluetrain Manifesto presciently challenges its readers to “imagine a world where everyone was constantly learning, a world where what you wondered was more interesting than what you know, and curiosity counted for more than certain knowledge.”
Last week, I came upon an example of an online learning community that brings marketing, social networking and learning under one roof. It’s a marriage of informal, self-service learning and business analytics. In this case, it was the customer-facing site of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the business best-seller.
Six months ago, Covey replaced his traditional Web site with a free online learning community. Thirty-four thousand people from 188 countries have signed on as members. Many of them have enrolled in free courses. Learning is the lure that brings them in and brings them back.
Making a lesson stick takes more than a talking-head video, no matter how compelling the speaker. That’s why this community site challenges participants to specify their goals, set up milestones and receive reminders. There’s a personal learning journal for keeping track of progress, there’s a forum for asking questions and sharing opinions, and there’s a community that enables members to learn with one another. The entire site was designed with learning in mind.
When thousands of people join a community, its conveners need metrics to assess progress and chart their next steps. Web-based analytics are easily baked into online communities such as this, and Google now provides a service that enables a Web site to compare itself to its peers.
Most people who visit a social networking site never go beyond the opening page. Yet, the promise of learning and community motivates six out of seven visitors to the Covey site to continue on to other pages. Visitors to the average community site stay for two minutes, whereas members of the Covey community remain for nearly 15 minutes. Only one in seven visitors to a typical community site are back for a second time, but two out of three Covey visitors are repeats. People hate to be taught, but they love to learn.
Combining learning and marketing is win-win. Here’s why:
1. Informed customers are better customers. They know the goods. They trust the brand. They buy more.
2. Learning relationships are two-way. Customer-learners keep coming back. Familiarity breeds loyalty. Participants bring in their friends.
3. Analytics inform marketing decisions. Administrators monitor changes in customer interests and behavior. They have a channel for direct feedback and suggestions from the marketplace.
You can set up an online social learning community without waiting in line for IT to help. The Covey community runs on a turnkey platform. Cut it on, and you’re good to go. Isn’t it time to include customers in your organization’s learning plans?