It's just about Christmas time and now is the time of end of year catch ups and Christmas parties. The most common question at these is, 'so what have you been up to lately?" I respond, 'well I'm becoming more and more interested in the use of social media and microblogging for learning', I then get puzzled looks that say, "too much time on your hands", "what is he talking about?" and they nod politely! Some go as far as to put words to their thoughts with "isn't that sort of thing just for bored celebrities?"
Well, maybe that's what bored celebrities do, who knows? For me though I see a real role for social media as a platform for business learning.
Social media - fad or forever?
I suppose I'm attracted to new ideas and approaches, I like to bring together ideas from different spaces, I like to innovate. I did however miss the first wave of social media on the net, there are many who have written blogs for 5-10 years and are a great deal more connected than I am and are across everything web2.0. So, whilst I may be a little late, I keep being reminded that there are many, many people who are a whole lot less aware of blogs, social networks, wikis, microblogging and so on than I am.
This year I have become more and more interested in the use of online social networks as a platform for business learning and knowledge management. Credit where credit is due, a great deal of this increase in awareness has come through my use of Twitter (especially #lrnchat) and through a number of online social networks, such as Seth Godin's Triiibes, LearnTrends, Problogger and LinkedIn groups. As I've used each of these I've been struck by how easily this format (social sites) could be used as a platform for business learning. In fact I've written a number of posts through the year that now track the development of my thoughts on this. (Permission Learning, Fish are the last to recognise water, Breaking the learning drought, Informal learning - it's not new)
Where are we at?
At this point in time the successful use of social networks within business is rare and the use of social networks as a platform for learning is even more rare. Why is this so?
I see there being two key challenges to overcome:
- The first issue is that businesses are generally uncomfortable about introducing online social spaces into their workplaces. I have previously written a post addressing this point, so I won't go into detail on this again here, however it seems to have a lot to do with a 'fear' of losing 'control' of conversations.
- Secondly, if (when) businesses do introduce social media into their workplaces, the next challenge is to encourage employees to want to use it. In my post, "Permission Learning" I looked at one angle on encouraging uptake and usage of informal learning such as social media.
The image above is familiar to anyone involved in marketing, it describes how readily a new product is adopted by people over time. Without spending too much time on this, one issue with new technologies and especially social media is that there is quite a lot of hype when the product is first launched. The Innovators talk about it and spruik its benefits, however too often it stops there and never reaches a tipping point where it's use becomes commonplace, it's use never becomes commonplace and therefore it dies a slow (or sometimes quick) death. The aim therefore must be to make sure that the use of your social site moves beyond the Innovators and Early adopters through to the majority of your employees and perhaps eventually to the laggards.
Viral Expansion Loops
I first heard of this term whilst reading Mitch Joel's excellent book, Six Pixels of Separation, I'll explain the term with a story. One day Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, no doubt on the first day there were only a handful of users. It looked good, but with only a few users there were only so many connections you could make. Each of these early adopters saw that if they got all their friends to join, the platform would be a great way for them to keep up with what their friends and families were doing. So these people promoted the site, more people joined. These new people saw that the site would be better if all their friends joined and from there Facebook grew and grew.The key here is that it isn't just 'word of mouth' marketing at play, users saw that their experience would be improved by having more people connected. There were clear benefits in helping to expand the loop. Facebook would never have worked if users hadn't brought in their existing networks of family and friends. It succeeded because of Viral Expansion Loops.
Building a successful social (learning) site
Now I won't go into any technical details here. Businesses are able to adopt a range of systems and platforms for social sites, you can get sites fully customised for your business or you can use existing social platforms. The way I see it, there are two important parts to a successful social platform:
- Design and
Again, I won't use this post to look at everything! From a design perspective I have previously looked at putting design into learning design, and this makes sense in regards to designing a social site as well. It would also be worthwhile to consider broader graphic design concepts as well to help ensure usability and overall simplicity. I reckon Garr Reynolds' PresentationZen, site and book, are a great way of looking at the visual side of design! And I'd really recommend pre-ordering his upcoming new design book! However, whilst design is important, it isn't everything! You need compelling content if your social site is to be spread virally through your business!
ContentWhen all else is said and done, employees will use a site if it gives them something that they need or want. Now the question is, "but what content do they need/want?"
The short answer here is that users within a business will want content that:
- will help them do their jobs more effectively and
- lead to greater personal/business success.
That's pretty broad isn't it! (but true)
A Case StudyI'll use a multi-store medium retail store business as an example, I'll rename it (imaginatively?) "A Retailer". This business had a creative owner (we'll call him Bob) who saw the potential of a social site to improve business communication and to share great ideas around stories. He didn't really see this as 'learning' at this stage, he just thought that it seemed to make sense. He began by using the Ning platform, set it up and sent out details to his team. He didn't just build it in the hope that 'they would come'. He had already got 4 of his best store managers 'on-board', they kick-started the site by using the discussion board to ask and answer questions.
This was a retail business so some of their discussions were around:
- setting up for the mid-season catalogue (pictures were included)
- how to reduce unnecessary markdowns
- recruitment tips
- handling difficult customers
These are all important points for retailers, every retailer could use tips on these points! Each of the 4 initial users began to talk about the site with other managers, spruiking how it had helped them. Soon there were a dozen users (the retail chain had 50 stores). Use of the site grew weekly, within 6 months all store managers were signed up and in many ways the site was replacing many other communication channels (eg email). A range of key business indicators were all positive, sales were above budget, staff turnover was reduced and overall morale really seemed more positive. It was at this point that one manager said that she'd learnt more through the new site that from many training sessions she'd been to. Now Bob saw the real benefit of the site, it meant that the best ideas from his team were shared, anyone could come up with a great idea and over time the site was becoming a resource for all types of knowledge.
What is the key?
Use of the Bob's site grew through a viral expansion loop because of it's:
- Design concept - it was easy to navigate through and use
- Content - it met users needs, providing a forum to ask questions and source solutions
Most importantly however it worked because it was social. Users had pictures and profiles, they all had similar problems to solve and worked in similar environments, they were talking with people just like themselves. The site really helped to bring the team of managers within the business closer together, sharing their expertise and looking out for each other.
At the end of the day, learning is as learning does. Social sites mightn't look like learning, however if people learn through using them then let's not complicate things, they are a learning tool. I've really only scratched the surface in this post, as social sites become more and more embedded within a business's culture and users become more familiar with the platform and technology, users begin to create their own compelling content for the site, content that moves beyond write only into read/write and the use of multimedia such as audio and visual media. As the use of such sites grows, they will be seen as an essential component of business communication. My view is that they will also be seen as a key platform for knowledge sharing, innovation and business learning!