Social learning is continuous learning, whereas more traditional forms can be more transactional. “A person takes a class and then forgets about it,” said Hemanth Puttaswamy, chief technology officer at enterprise software company Saba Software Inc. Creating ways for the two methods to complement one another can ensure both meet learners needs in tandem.
For example, newly hired software engineers at a development company taking coding courses can upload outside articles about best practices onto the company’s social media platform. The uploaded materials could enhance classroom curriculum as engineers have informal conversations about what they’ve learned.
Collaboration on social platforms can be enhanced if employees also have the chance to interact in person. Puttaswamy said one of Saba’s global clients gathered hundreds of its employees in one location for an “idea jam.” “Then they followed up with informal interaction. The results were really amazing,” he said. “They shared a number of ideas that were implemented, and the informal content was used to enhance their formal content.”
Part of that integration requires social learning to be accessible to employees in the field. Traditionally Ulthera used email to elicit more discussion from its employees and outside field reps, but the format doesn’t allow them to interact very well. Now the company relies more on webinars, videoconferencing, online white boards and Point, SilkRoad’s social collaboration software.
For example, Ulthera recently conducted a webinar to talk about compliance gray areas. The company voluntarily complies with trade association Advanced Medical Technology Association’s code of ethics concerning gifts to doctors that is required for the pharmaceutical industry but is optional for the medical device industry.
“We asked our field sales about some gray areas, such as, ‘What if a doctor was a longtime friend and invited the rep to a baby shower?’” Mallen said. “Does the rep give them a baby gift? Do they expense it? We came up with six or seven examples because by preparing for them ahead of time, sales reps won’t put themselves in bad situations by doing something they are uncomfortable with.”
Because the conversation was live, participants interacted more. But Mallen said a videoconference with a Skype-type of interface might have solicited even more discussion, as people could read each other’s body language and facial expressions.
“I also am concerned that people are not as engaged in a webinar as they could be in a videoconference,” Mallen said. “They may not be listening; they may be doing something else at their desk.”
It’s easier to get people engaged using Point even though they are not face-to-face because the discussions are not as sensitive. For example, a practice manager could post that he or she just walked into a doctor’s office, and the front receptionist had a bad experience with a product. What should a sales rep do to turn that office around?
If conversations on Point devolve, Mallen said the learning team can edit comments or post a disclaimer at the outset of the discussion reminding people they need to post appropriate content. “But I don’t really like doing either of those unless I have to; we pride ourselves in being a very transparent company,” she said. “With Point there is no filter; it is what it is. We trust our employees to do the right thing and have constructive confrontation on the site.”
When performing compliance training using social learning last December, the overall scores for knowledge transfer were 20 percent higher than Ulthera’s typical dial-in conference call. And while the social learning seminar was longer by 25 minutes, participant satisfaction was a full point higher on a five-point scale.
Brookshire Grocery Co. in Tyler, Texas, combines technology and in-person interaction in many of its social learning activities. It works because tech tools are grounded in a foundation of support and structure, said Ginger McCullough, vice president of training and change management. “Since we have three different banners and 152 stores, sending a mass email with information sometimes doesn’t reach all levels; everyone may not understand the change.”
As a result, Brookshire now has change management trainers in each location who make sure employees complete learning content within its learning management system. Trainers also report feedback from the front lines to corporate training developers and change management directors. This informal social learning can be critical to, for example, correct a rumor about Brookshire’s new labor forecasting and workforce management system.
“We got the word through trainers there was a rumor spreading the company was doing this to cut hours, but this is furthest from the reason why we launched the tool,” McCullough said. “So we pushed out a video to explain the whys behind the tool and offset the ugly rumor we were cutting labor.”
Brookshire plans to rebrand the SAP Jam social platform as BGC Connect and use it for key initiatives, such as its female manager networking forum. For example, women — from C-suite executives to deli managers — can use the platform to connect with each other, discussing books they’ve read together such as “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg as common ground.
Brookshire is also planning to use BGC Connect for project teams. “It would also be good to solicit input from store managers in locations that are not local, as we tend to get feedback from the same local people,” McCullough said.
Many companies enhance classroom experiences by incorporating online collaboration tools. For SAP sales’ new hires, Dearborn’s team created a five-day boot camp, a blend of instructor-led training with social collaboration using SAP Jam to complete assignments. In one assignment learners record and upload videos for product pitches. Then each sales rep has to comment on pitches from three classmates. Dearborn said this collaboration makes learning a richer experience.
It also produces better results. Graduates from the 2013 boot camp that included the social component made 50 percent more sales deals that were 30 percent larger in size than graduates from the 2012 boot camp without the social component.
“Social learning is a very hot topic,” Dearborn said. “A couple of years ago a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon, but maybe they got a little burned because they didn’t have an approach upfront asking what their goal should be. As a result, some of their social sites turned out to be free-for-all bitchfests, and they abruptly shut the site down.”
Instead, learning officers should dig into the matter to determine whether there are more systemic management or morale issues at work. “Shutting down social media is like putting tape on somebody’s mouth — figure out what the problem is,” Dearborn said. “Feedback is a gift that can be used to make the organization better.”
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.