Residential and commercial real estate provider Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC has a unique challenge in that half of the offices it supports are independently owned and operated. Sales associates are independent contractors, so they are twice removed from any requirement to leverage learning opportunities sanctioned by headquarters. In a company with more than 90,000 sales associates and brokers working in approximately 3,300 offices in 50 countries and territories, facilitating learning can be a challenge.
The upside to this independence is that managers and sales associates often seek out networking opportunities to generate business, especially within their own franchise network. Further, shared practices amongst peers — experienced managers, new managers, experienced sales associates — as well as mentoring opportunities from experts in niche markets often take place without corporate facilitation.
In 2010, Coldwell Banker University (CBU) launched Web 2.0 social learning portals to enhance and complement informal learning to increase performance and productivity. To leverage collaborative learning, in March CBU launched a portal for managers called Managing Broker Academy (MBA). In July, the company launched a second portal for sales associates.
The MBA social learning portal facilitates peer-to-peer, mentor-to-peer, user learning and development, knowledge sharing and collaboration, and it relies mainly on user-generated content and participation rather than structured content from instructional designers.
Portal First, LMS Second
For many years, CBU has had a presence on the company’s intranet and employees have leveraged content, user guides and a link to the learning management system (LMS) for structured learning opportunities, learning history records, certifications and competency mapping tools. However, Coldwell Banker noticed most associates and managers did not go into the LMS on a regular basis, and they never collaborated with other users in the LMS, likely because it does not incorporate social learning tools.
Further, the organization was trying to create an engaging social experience, and a database-driven template LMS wasn’t suited for that, so the CBU portals sit outside the LMS. By putting the portal links before any LMS links in its intranet, and by embedding links to LMS courses, Coldwell Banker encourages users to visit the portals first, and link to the LMS when needed. The portal is publicized as an everyday work tool, not as a discrete learning intervention.
CBU included communities of practice discussion groups and user-generated video content to allow a free flow of shared ideas. CBU staff members and selected small and medium enterprises (SME) in and out of the company write blogs. Learners can leave comments on blogs to start discussions with their peers. Streaming videos and podcasts also allow users to add comments and ratings, creating a social atmosphere similar to the blogs. The portals also contain job aids, links to self-paced courses that don’t require registration and development plans. Associates can decide when they need formal education from the LMS, but more often will opt for small modules of instructional content such as streaming videos and blog entries.
CBU added streaming videos to its social learning portals to promote user participation and collaboration. Video content may come from multiple sources including user-generated content as well as purchased options. Some videos are longer, but most are less than 10 minutes. The longer a video is, the more likely it is to need graphics, editing or some other production value.
For instance, a video created by an SME in his or her office with a FlipCam is quickly shared and may hold more credibility than a well-produced, green-screen video produced by CBU. The university also built a feature to associate links, still images, guidebooks, job aids or links to a course in the LMS to be tied to any video. There are no right answers to video production — only good choices based on time, budget, adult learning methodologies and desired outcomes.
Inside the Portals
CBU’s MBA portal was created in a 3-D interface. The newly created sales associate portal has similar features, but with a 2-D interface. Coldwell Banker wanted to experiment with both types, and in three months will gauge feedback and usage metrics to determine which to use in the future.
From the start of CBU’s portal development the university planned to measure the benefit, value and impact of the portals on business results. There is no industry standard for measuring informal learning, but Coldwell Banker used Google Analytics to measure visitor patterns and tendencies and partnered with KnowledgeAdvisors for an informal learning evaluation program. CBU spent several months crafting questions and drafted an informal learning evaluation strategy and initiatives. In the end, the questions were shared with other Fortune 500 companies who use informal learning evaluation modules. (See Figure 1)
The portal is averaging 1.48 visits per learner per month, and Coldwell Banker sees managers returning more often compared to monthly return visit metrics from the LMS.
CBU has a detailed plan to keep the content and resources fresh to increase the percentage of users who return monthly. However, there are several areas of the portal CBU will need to improve based on current and ongoing measurement and data collection. In particular, the company is working to improve learners’ ability to locate resources within the portal.
Traditionally, learning that starts in the classroom stays in the classroom and doesn’t become a part of a learner’s daily practice without a lot of effort to translate the classroom model into daily business experience. Informal learning takes place much closer to the everyday work. Using Web 2.0 tools and learning techniques in the context of carrying out employees’ day-to-day tasks has helped Coldwell Banker reinforce structured learning experiences and create new informal ones.
David Birnbaum is vice president of learning for Coldwell Banker Commercial and Coldwell Banker LLC. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.