Web 2.0 technologies have given new energy to informal learning. It’s now easier than ever before to access immediate, relevant, personalized information. Such technology is changing the standards of speed and efficiency for business success. Not only is there faster access to knowledge and answers, but it’s now easier for teams to work across countries and time zones and search for their own experts who have the exact skills necessary to contribute to the team. Such flexibility and openness in learning delivery is what many organizations are harnessing as they continue along the path of economic recovery.
The recent economic downturn had a negative effect on workforce productivity, engagement and performance. Companies had to reduce costs in training, learning and employee development, but are now leveraging employees to produce, deliver and contribute to content both time- and cost-efficiently through informal learning platforms such as social media. Organizations are resourcefully compressing the time to competence needed by business-critical workforces and are creating a more agile workforce.
“The current global economic situation demands more creative and efficient thinking and working practices,” said Martin Baker, founder and managing director of the Charity Learning Consortium. “Twitter is a great example of something [that] forces you to think both creatively and efficiently because of the restriction on the number of characters you can type.”
Findings from consultancy the CARA Group’s 2010 survey, “How Informal Learning Is Transforming the Workplace: A Pulse Survey on Social Media’s Impact on Informal Workplace Learning,” indicate that 90 percent of respondents encourage or support informal learning in some way; 81 percent feel social media offers valuable learning opportunities for employees; and 98 percent of respondents agree that social media is changing how employees are learning and accessing information. On the other hand, only 47 percent agreed that social communities were one of the most useful tools for supporting informal learning in the workplace.
Survey participants expressed skepticism about social media’s ability to be truly effective and efficient because the broad empowerment of the individual is too high a risk for some businesses. Organizations also worry about security risks, productivity drains and distractions that could occur with widespread access to social media.
According to Jane Ehrenstrom, CARA Group co-founder and senior vice president, businesses should work in partnership with employees to define how social media should be used in the workplace for learning purposes in order to dispose of such hindrances.
“The best policies involve the employees, so it’s a collaborative and collective agreement in order to get their buy-in and make it agreeable, acceptable and enforceable,” Ehrenstrom said. “If you provide the guidelines and ensure that people are operating within the environment of the organization’s values and goals, employees will do the right thing and the entire business will benefit from it.”
A few participants independently indicated that they have a feeling of trust toward their online networks. Through social media resources, individuals are beginning to select their own experts and are separately choosing who to seek out — thought leaders are no longer defined by an industry as a whole. Social media is giving credence to a much larger pool of resources and information.
When asked to describe how they are changing the way they access information, many participants cited speed and the fact that people can access information more quickly through Web tools such as social media.
“Learning and development departments have been hard hit by [the] recession, and I truly empathize with the move toward proving a return on investment but equally fear that perhaps that path has lead us too far down the road toward number crunching and a check-box mentality,” Baker said. “Meanwhile, society has moved on apace. The challenge now is for L&D to catch up, for organizations to embrace new ways of learning — through informal learning and social learning, for example — and embed them into their learning cultures.”
Ladan Nikravan is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.