I’m convinced that there’s an enigma around social learning.
Recently I presented at the eLearning Instructional Designer’s Meetup and I had a massive realisation. Learning and Development don’t really understand what social learning is and the business doesn’t care much about it.
It was confirmed by a quick survey I created and disseminated on Yammer in the previous organisation I worked at where 70% of respondents said that they don’t know what social learning is.
This may explain why I have difficulty gaining traction with corporate Learning and Development teams to consider guided social learning approaches in their suite of learning solutions when I consult with them. (These are blended online programs that require an online facilitator or ‘community facilitator/manager to facilitate discussions and drive learning). There’s little interest in these as a learning solution – let alone for people who have skills in designing, implementing and facilitating one.
To many Learning and Development teams, social learning incorrectly means:
- An online discussion forum added to the end of an existing e-learning course
- A Yammer <or insert Social Network of your choice here> group that has been created as an afterthought for their training courses which has little to no interaction, engagement or activity by participants (let alone L&D)
- A throw-away question like “Discuss this concept with your peers in <insert Social Network of your choice here> group” at the end of an e-learning course
- Forcing employees to interact with their insert newly implemented <Social LMS of your choice here> to click on ‘Likes’ or ‘Replies’ or ‘Follows’ to boost activity and engagement data on their system usage reports
That is, little by way of facilitating, guiding, empowering, inspiring cross-business unit conversations, collaborations and communities around business content; or inspiring employees to build new skills in being able to seek and search for information and people inside and outside the company to do their work; support collaborative work practices using existing organisational systems or working and learning out loud.
In my observations and experience, this is because corporate Learning and Development teams may be unaware of what social learning really is about and be under the mistaken belief that it’s another way to push content or their new systems onto their time-poor employees without understanding the motivations behind workplace collaboration and knowledge sharing; and also not role modelling these behaviours themselves.
A Back Story
Recently, I was chatting to Rachel (not her real name) who lamented her experience within online communities in Slack (and others) had left her somewhat disheartened, overwhelmed by noise and inclined not to participate anymore.
Since then, I have had some Learning and Development people proudly confirm that they do not participate in these online communities – or their enterprise social network – citing lack of time, lack of value and also interestingly, some feel that participation is for those people who “big note themselves or who stroke their egos”. (I found that observation particularly disturbing as I’m an active participant in online communities and made some meaningful and purposeful connections over the years and wondered, “Crap. Are they telling me something about myself now? Is that their perception of me?!”).
She mentioned that there was no “host” made to welcome and introduce people, connect people to others and link ideas and themes. She felt that at times, the discussion boards were channels in which people could enter into when they were bored, and check out what people were saying, lurk, present what they were working on but with little meaningful discussion, debate or conversations that yielded anything worthwhile such as achieving some sort of end goal.
That is, she felt that there was little to no spirit of community and as a result, started to decline using the online boards because she didn’t derive any value from them.
As Rachel was talking, I recalled my own excitement with online learning communities in the open courses (otherwise known as the connectivist MOOCs) that I had been involved in the past such as Alec Couros’ Educational Technology MOOC (many of the people who undertook this STILL keep in contact with each other and there’s an Alumni); Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning and Jeff Merrell’s Exploring Personal Learning Networks cMOOC .
These connectivist MOOCs created an unforgettable and moving learning experience for me because I received enormous personal and professional value out of them through interaction with a wonderful community of people from around the world who were there to do one thing – learn from each other and with each other.
For all participants of these MOOCs, the jigsaw puzzle piece fell into place when we realised the power of networked learning with a community of peers. We had a ‘host’ or a facilitator who posed questions to us around topics (but who never directed, lectured or told us answers) and we were encouraged to reflect on the reading, explore, create, solve and participate. We couldn’t wait to meet again every week to reconnect and learn something new.
Learning was exciting! We were part of a global learning community. Albeit our involvement had a timeframe but we were a group of people who were engaged and motivated to learn and apply this learning to our work.
What’s This Got to Do With Learning and Development?
I believe that some Learning and Development think that social learning has to be forced or pushed onto employees. Or, it’s about how to get their employees to use their social learning system forcing people discussions, asking people to interact or automatically subscribing them to groups.
Actions like these are community BUSTERS and should be ringing ALARM BELLS immediately. This is NOT in the spirit of collaborative learning because the choice to participate is TAKEN AWAY from employees. This KILLS collaboration.
In effect, the cMOOCs I participated were not exactly a Community of Practice but they were more like a Community of Inquiry. (Wikipedia defines this as a “group of individuals involved in a process of empirical or conceptual inquiry into problematic situations). I wrote about these distinctions in a previous blog post called cMOOC, Social Learning Guided Program or Community of Inquiry All The Same because I saw the value of these cMOOCs or guided social learning programs (call them what you will) within a corporate context to solve business problems – and how Learning and Development can support the business to build communities of inquiry.
That is, communities of cross-specialist teams who can work on business problems together while being guided by an online facilitator who knows how to inspire people to engage, present open questions, connect ideas and themes and above all, facilitate co-operation between team members to support and respect each other’s goals.
In effect, face-to-face facilitators are doing this already in organisations who run workshops and events anyway. What I was proposing was also building these skills into business people across the organisation (NOT just Learning and Development) so that they can facilitate discussion around organisational problems.
However, I always run into problems with some Learning and Development teams who see this as too time and resource intensive. It means they actually need to get INVOLVED, build and engage in these communities. It is also difficult to influence if they hadn’t experienced this type of learning themselves because they need to go through it to understand it. Instead, they focus on the wrong things such as:
- The question of what social technology platform to use when, where or how is IRRELEVANT.
- The question of ‘how do we get our people to use <insert collaboration system here> is WRONG.
- The blinkered view on arguments such as “but people won’t complete the program or completion rates are low therefore this won’t work for us”, is FLAWED.
- The perception that your people don’t know how to use <insert your collaboration system here> is SHORT SIGHTED.
So What Are We To Do?
We need to flip our thinking entirely. We need to stop focussing on the technology platforms, our new social learning LMS or the arguments as to what has worked in the past or what hasn’t and instead, take it down to the most basic common denominator and that is:
“How do we support ourselves and our people to work, connect and learn from each other and with each other at their place of work – wherever that may be?”
A starting point is to take a holistic view of the business environment your employees are currently working in to understand where the gaps are that prevent them from connecting with each other, building networks across the organisation and tapping into the people who can help them in their role.
One of the ways I do this is through a survey tool I have built and developed over my career which I call a Learning Readiness Audit. I’ll be writing more about this over the coming weeks. However, I’m interested in your thoughts as to how you encourage people to collaborate around business problems.