As corporate America continues to embrace social tools for learning and development, social learning has shed its reputation as a transient industry buzzword. The ability to collaborate, innovate and gain expertise in real time has never been easier — and vendors in the learning industry who believe the sky’s the limit are working to ensure this is just the beginning of the social collaboration era. With a laser-like focus on the end user, emerging technologies are shifting some of the power and onus from the learning function to the individual learner.
“[What] people have used both in their personal and professional lives is bleeding into a learning overtone or context — like using discussion forums, groups or communities of interest,” said Jason Corsello, vice president of corporate development and strategy for Cornerstone OnDemand, a talent management software company. “Many organizations see this as an opportunity to augment informal development. Since employees are doing it already, it makes sense to provide tools for the entire enterprise to do so.”
Now, instead of placing all their eggs in the formal learning basket — typically characterized as top-down and corporate driven — organizations are seeing the benefits of the employee-driven, learning-in-real-time approach, he said.
These are by no means mutually exclusive worlds: The sweet spot appears to lie in a harmonious blend of the two.
Formal Versus Informal: Room to Coexist
Organizations today are recognizing the business value of social learning — the use of various social media and collaboration technologies to facilitate learning — to, in many cases, drive informal learning, though it can be used to drive formal learning as well.
Some of the most common social networking tools organizations are using for formal and informal learning are internal blogs, LinkedIn and Facebook, according to Chief Learning Officer magazine’s 2012 Learning Technology survey, conducted by the Human Capital Media Advisory Group (Figure 1).
What’s key to many organizations’ learning strategy is to formulate the right balance between formal and informal learning methodologies.
Southland Industries, one of the nation’s largest mechanical contractors, uses a blend of formal and informal learning. When new employees are undergoing classroom training at the company’s corporate facility, there are ample networking opportunities — including shared meals and team building activities — so informal learning can occur organically, said George Benoit, the company’s director of training.
There’s still value in formal learning, and that will never go away, according to Chris Lennon, director of product management at SilkRoad, a provider of talent management products.
Some of the top areas for anticipated L&D technology spending were formal learning methodologies like instructor-led learning delivery, asynchronous e-learning delivery and learning management systems (Figure 2). Meanwhile, social learning tools and platforms ranked near the bottom. Formal learning is still very much a part of the learning leader’s toolkit.
This is especially true when it comes to compliance training — such as anti-sexual harassment training — or to pre-empt safety and other potential risks where trial and error can be detrimental. For example, if an employee is brought on to run a piece of equipment, it would be in an employer’s best interest to put in place a formal learning process to avoid liability issues.
While there’s a time and a place for formal learning, Lennon said employees can’t afford to wait around for a class — they need to be equipped to find information in real time to perform their jobs, and that’s where informal learning comes into play.
Keith Meyerson, director of learning and development for luxury retailer Neiman Marcus Group Services, views social learning as a complement to his existing learning and development toolkit, not a replacement for formal learning delivery options.
He recommends e-learning for highly technical training; experiential learning for hands-on practice; and eventually using leaders as teachers will be part of leadership development or management development at Neiman Marcus.
These formal learning tools are balanced out with the company’s use of social learning tools, which are leveraged to meet just-in-time learning needs. Online social collaboration enables Neiman Marcus’ employees to find what they need to get the job done immediately.
“With a virtual community, I can ask a question and get an answer in almost real time rather than having to wait for an L&D department to determine that I have a need for a class, find an instructional designer to meet with an SME and then to schedule time away from my office to get an answer to a question,” he said.
Similarly, Canada-based Smart Technologies, a collaboration product provider, employs a combination of formal and informal learning. Face-to-face, instructor-led training sessions, webinars and a YouTube series are just some of the learning tools employees have at their disposal.
Formal or informal, it’s important that any type of learning isn’t a one-off, stand-alone experience without a connection to the big picture, said Wayne Williams, manager of learning systems at Smart Technologies.
“We want it to be a steady progression so that people know where they’re headed; they know what the next steps are; they can prepare adequately and they can see the growth in their learning and the return on investment of mostly the time that they’ve put in to learn what we need them to learn,” he said.
For this reason, the company has what Williams calls a mapped out continuum for learning. For example, employees who leverage the YouTube series for informal learning might be prompted to take assessments associated with the video to demonstrate their knowledge — which in turn earns them credit in the learning system.
“We’ve built in some ‘iframes’ into our Saba system, our LMS, where users can easily connect in to these YouTube videos as well as our Facebook and Twitter feeds so that it’s one-stop shopping,” he said. “The iframes are essentially portals or connections to our other sources [of] learning so people can connect right from our Saba environment and don’t have to go searching for our YouTube channel or other sites.”
Smart Technologies’ sales and field staff, who travel globally and work remotely, don’t have the time to attend classes or even sit in front of a computer for self-paced e-learning. Learning materials must be easily accessible.
“They need something they can do on the go, so we’ll usually publish some sales training through our LMS, which is more of a “vodcast,” so they can watch a video — quick, short, to the point and they can get up to date on new things as they’re going to sales calls on those exact topics,” Williams said.
Given the fast-paced nature of learning required at Smart, this on-demand content is often supplemented by a community of peers and subject matter experts — usually trainers or instructional designers — who follow discussion threads and respond to questions that arise to ensure a more substantive follow up.