Friday, December 4, 2009

Social Networks: Are they the "Learning Portals" of today?

Con and I had an AMAZING time at Learning 2009. It was great seeing many of you there, as well as meeting the new members of this ever growing community. We are now up to over 550 member companies worldwide! Although communicating with you through a blog like this is has always been wonderful, still nothing beats seeing each of you face to face from time to time! Our thanks and kudos to Elliott and his entire team for hosting such a wonderful event. It was very well attended by today's standards with over 1,300 learning professional from around the world in attendance. The enthusiasm and energy level was great. Con and I ended up delivering 6 breakout sessions and a pre-conference all centering on some aspect of Performer Support (PS). We were overwhelmed by the turnout and by the excitement surrounding this discipline. Clearly PS is on the rise and is quickly becoming a vital part of any learning organization's offerings.

There was one moment in particular which helped validate this feeling for both of us. Elliott likes to use audience response units throughout the conference, especially during the general sessions. It's a very powerful and effective way to quickly take the pulse of a large group like this. At one point, he let the attendees submit questions to be asked of the entire conference. Obviously there are plenty of topics being showcased and it's often hard to get a feel for which are hot and which are not. So, someone from the audience asked which learning trends or technologies we felt were overrated: Mobile Computing and Learning, Social Networking, Gaming, User Content, and Performer Support. And the two clear "winners" were...Gaming and Social Networking with both receiving over 30% of the vote. The "loser", which in our case was a GOOD thing :), was Performer Support with 9% of the vote. Not only is our industry finally seeing PS as a powerful learning approach, but we are also seeing it as something achievable.

For the sake of this week’s blog, I would like to focus on our industry’s discussions around Social Networking. First, let’s start by stating that although Social Networking may appear to be overrated, our belief is that it is, or will become, a powerful learning resource for many. Being overrated does not necessarily mean that something is bad or ineffective. Our concern surrounds the long term effects on social networking if it continues to be poorly positioned or implemented in its early stages of development. Many a powerful and viable learning approach and/or technology never got off the launching pad due to poorly positioned expectations. For instance, I still know of organizations where you are carried to the curb if you even mention the acronym LMS. Does that make LMS's bad? Clearly not! But for some the promise, investment, and overhype of the technology and approach eventually outweighed the benefits and that's unfortunate. The question is, will Social Networking suffer the same fate?

Lately, we've been asked to speak with organizations about the integration of social networking into informal learning frameworks. At times the vision ends up being a bit broader than that. The dream is to create a one stop launching pad of vibrant and supportive communities that will act as a learning portal for informal learning. If you've been around the learning industry long enough you'll remember that this approach was also what killed many efforts around corporate learning portals in the 90's. They were overrated as a one stop landing page for every learning asset imaginable. Although the premise was good, the execution left much to be desired. Most learners visited once or twice, were immediately overwhelmed, and never returned again. Will we let history repeat itself and allow the Social Networking sites of today become the "learning portals" of a decade ago?

It always makes Con and I anxious when we see a single modality being labeled informal learning or PS. As we've shared in this blog many times, effective PS is rarely driven by any one modality, but rather an overarching framework that supports learners across the 5 moments of need. Social Networking can be a highly effective tool as a part of that framework, but there are reasons why it may be dangerous to position it at THE primary one. Here are some issues to consider:

1 - Searching, navigating, and digesting a Social Networking site takes time: A PS framework is made up of shades of grey. Some elements are meant to be experience over time, processed, and applied, while others are meant to be quick, short, and easy to access, or what Dr. Allison Rossett would call a "Sidekick". When a learner expects an immediate answer they become highly frustrated and disillusioned with resources that don't provide this level of support. Social Networking can struggle when positioned as one of these types of tools. Although the information can be vast and powerful, it typically takes time to search and sift through these communities. They are a wonderful support network, but not an immediate one.

2 - The information can often be dated or incorrect: The number one killer of a PS tool/strategy is inaccurate information. Since many of these resources are accessed at critical moments of need, any wrong answers can have significant consequences. Although there can be a definite ”wisdom of the crowd" benefit to these communities, there is a huge overhead in keeping the information current and accurate. Many struggle with maintaining this thus making the information suspect.

3 - Social Networks are often not integrated well into the workflow: The most effective PS tools and resource are found within the environment and workflow they are designed to support. The simple fact that many Social Networking websites are accessed out on a network can impact their ability to act as an effective PS resource. An effective PS framework offers an immediate and concise answer to the issue being addressed often based on the learner's job role or workflow. Although many social networking sites are role based, they are anything but contextual. The more removed a PS asset is from the problem or situation being addressed, the less likely a learner is to stay the course and use the resource.

With this said, how can we make Social Networking sites work and optimize the power of communities? The simplest answer is to broker them appropriately in the context of all the other resources available through an organization’s PS strategy. The danger is that Learning Assets are often positioned to over promise and under deliver. A Social Networking community should be positioned as a fundamental tool that can sustain the underpinning of an overall PS Strategy. They are rich repositories of an incredible amount of acquired knowledge from peers, experts, and mentors throughout the organization. That's an amazing resource when consumed at the right moment and under the right circumstances.

Let's continue to see PS as a powerful overarching discipline made up of a rich array of well positioned learning assets. Social Networking is but one of these tools. Allowing it to do what it does best relative to all that surrounds it is the best way to move beyond the hype and make it a reality.

1 comment:

  1. Having lived through the days of 50 page documents posted on line and being called eLearning I see the industry starting to make the same mistakes. If we build it they might come but if we don't do it right they might not come back.

    It seems the trick is to identify which moment of need could best be supported by which tool, whether it be a Social Networking tool or anything else, then make sure it is presented accordingly.