When salespeople at LifeSize Communications, a video conferencing company in Austin, Texas, wanted advice about how to sell a product against a competitor, they didn't turn to formal training or e-learning. Instead, many logged onto an internal online collaboration network to access content posted by a LifeSize partner in South Africa. It describes an approach he used to win business against that competitor.
The post, made on social-learning technology supplied by vendor Bloomfire, features a detailed recounting of conversations the partner had with the customer and includes iPhone photos of the competitor's product that highlight key differences between the two video conferencing systems.
"It quickly gave everyone around the world this effective new way of selling against our competition," says Wayne McCulloch, senior director of social collaboration and education at LifeSize, a division of Logitech.
Such employee-driven informal learning has become more common as organizations implement social media tools behind their firewalls to complement—and in some cases replace—structured classroom or online training. With managers' resistance to social software such as Twitter and Facebook abating, more HR leaders are looking to implement cousins of these consumer tools for corporate use.
Whether it's microblogging, wikis, YouTube-like repositories of learning videos, expert directories or communities of practice, these technologies enable HR professionals and learning leaders to foster knowledge sharing on enterprise platforms across dispersed workforces. By positioning these learning tools within the flow of daily work, training specialists want to reduce age-old complaints from line managers about taking employees off the job for instructor-led or self-paced e-learning courses.
A survey of 1,600 companies by network security company Palo Alto Networks in Santa Clara, Calif., found a 300 percent increase in social networking and browser-based file sharing on corporate networks in 2011 compared to 2010. In addition, a joint 2010 survey by the American Society for Training & Development and the Institute for Corporate Productivity found managers in 80 percent of 3,800 global businesses planned to increase their use of social media for employee learning during the next three years.
Designing social learning to happen within the flow of work, rather than as standalone events, can be powerful.
In companies that have effectively used social media to facilitate employee learning, business leaders
understand that it takes far more than bleeding-edge technology to make these systems work. Without a culture that encourages knowledge sharing and staff dedicated to managing and promoting these initiatives, organizations can quickly lose traction as busy employees find little time or reason to use the tools amid the demands of daily work.
Creating 'Trading Posts'
When Marsh Inc., a global risk management and insurance broker based in New York, launched its corporate university in 2010, the company didn't have a traditional structure of formal training courses in mind. Rather, trainers sought to anchor education for its 25,000 employees around an enterprise social collaboration platform, says Ben Brooks, vice president and practice leader for human capital performance at Marsh.
Citing research showing that up to 70 percent of employee learning happens informally on the job, Brooks and his team concluded that it made more sense to funnel resources into facilitating and adding structure to that kind of learning rather than to focus on developing formal training courses.
"It was a great opportunity to leverage the deep and diverse expertise we have across the company, rather than go outside and buy it from consultants or third-party providers," says Brooks. "Everything we needed to be an elite firm existed within the walls of Marsh. It was just a matter of extracting it from gray matter, e-mail and hard drives."
Operating under the credo "Everyone is a teacher" at Marsh, the collaboration network has several features designed to facilitate knowledge swapping among employees. A microblogging tool called "sparking" allows Marsh employees to ask or answer questions posed by peers, make resource recommendations and in essence spark conversations, insights or solutions to pressing problems with a goal of better meeting client needs.
Unlike Twitter, sparks can be more than 140 characters. The messages might be anything from someone asking if any Marsh colleagues have experience using certain flowchart software to sharing an article about cyber-risks in cloud computing.
Social learning experts say that designing such learning to happen within the flow of work, rather than as standalone events, can be powerful.
"If you're in the middle of a budgeting process and have a pressing question, you don't want to have to attend or access a training course to get an answer," says Marcia Conner, a Virginia-based social business consultant and co-author of The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Your Organization Through Social Media (Berrett-Koehler, 2010). "Instead, why not include a micro-sharing capability like Socialtext, a kind of Twitter for the enterprise, in a box at the bottom of a budgeting screen, so managers across divisions can communicate in real-time to ask questions and address their budgeting challenges?"
Blogging is another integral part of Marsh's internal collaboration platform. When the company wanted to teach finance to one employee group, it didn't enlist instructional designers or third-party vendors to create or tailor traditional training courses. It turned instead to its finance experts, who created a 27-part blog series that included Microsoft Word content and videos created with flip cameras and screen-capture technology.
"The knowledge we have on this internally was superior to anything we would have received from a third party, and there was a considerable cost savings," Brooks says.
To teach employees good blogging technique, Marsh's experts created a program that provides instruction in areas such as reader-centric writing, communicating with influence, Marsh's code of conduct and more.
"We wanted to de-risk blogging, but we didn't want to become the knowledge police," says Brooks. "This program gives people a seal of approval to be able to blog directly on the site without any intermediary."
Another social media tool, an expert directory, simplifies and improves the process of connecting subject matter experts to others in organizations.
Directories "can be a lot more useful if they extend employee profiles to look more like Facebook," recommends David Mallon, vice president of research at Bersin & Associates, an HR consulting firm in Oakland, Calif. "You can look up what competencies people have, what projects they've worked on and what they're working on now. Creating a culture where experts are willing to share their knowledge internally can be extraordinarily powerful."
Accenture, a global consulting and technology services firm with 240,000 employees, built a Knowledge Exchange that houses its internally created knowledge capital and is integrated with thousands of communities of practice. The latter are groups where employees with similar expertise explore ideas or ask questions on discussion boards, contribute or download content on specific topics and have content digests e-mailed to them.
Now residing on a Microsoft SharePoint platform, the Exchange features "people profiles" with biographies, photos and resumes, as well as descriptions of employees' interests and skill sets. The Exchange contains blogs, wikis, market insights and more. Company research shows a 42 percent increase in the number of employees engaged in collaboration activities through the Exchange from 2010 to 2011.
"Sharing and collaboration are key means by which we live our 'One Global Network' core value," says Tom Barfield, Accenture's director of social learning and knowledge sharing. The Exchange "reinforces our commitment to making connecting across the enterprise as easy as asking the person sitting next to you in the office."
Video has gained traction as an employee learning tool, fueled by the growth of smart phones with high-definition video and broadband networks. As a result, more organizations are creating YouTube-like repositories on enterprise networks where employees post videos created for knowledge-sharing purposes.
At Verizon Communications Inc., the New York-based broadband and wireless services company with 193,000 employees, a video repository dubbed VTube resides on a platform called MyNetwork. Employees are encouraged to post short learning videos, says Michael Sunderman, Verizon's executive director of training and development. His team and others alert the workforce to new posts.
"For example, our product group recently posted a video detailing how a new capability we have was used for a particular customer, and salespeople used a microblogging tool to alert others in the company to the video," Sunderman says.
At The Cheesecake Factory Inc. in Calabasas Hills, Calif., Mallon says managers received feedback that employees in some restaurants needed to improve the way they greeted customers. Rather than creating a formal training program to address the issue, the training function launched a contest asking hosts and wait staff to create short videos role-playing their best greetings. The best videos would be selected, credited to creators and acknowledged with rewards.
"Employees got excited about shooting videos with their colleagues," says Mallon. "At the end of the two-week contest, the company had a library of great examples of how to perform customer greetings that it could roll into future formal training programs."
Communities of Practice
To foster informal, employee-driven learning, employers have created communities of practice, worker groups with similar expertise or interests where participants can swap ideas and ask questions on internal forums. But more often than not, these efforts fail to achieve objectives, say some social learning experts, because of skewed expectations or by targeting the wrong employee groups.
Corporate leaders "often have unrealistic expectations that most of the workforce will immediately join it, but that rarely is the case," says Jane Bozarth, author of Social Media for Trainers (Pfeiffer, 2010) and an e-learning coordinator for the state of North Carolina. "A community is a living, breathing thing, and it's normal for employees to move in and out of it, to participate sometimes and not others."
Bozarth encourages managers to target such efforts to "natural" communities and avoid forcing topics on them. Instead, ask what they want to talk about. New hires, for instance, constitute a natural community. "They gravitate towards each other and are very open to learning."
Not all of the comments shared by employees on discussion boards, blogs or wikis will be factually accurate, of course. Solutions might be recommended that are not best practices, or that only work in specific scenarios. Those overseeing social media networks have to walk a fine line between censoring content or discouraging participation and ensuring inaccurate information isn't accepted as gospel.
"If you look at some of the early attempts to use social media for learning, training groups often tried to insert themselves too heavily into the process," says Sunderman of Verizon. "They wanted to review everything before it was published, which is a great way to squelch participation. What you want to do is open it up, but have enough visibility into the process that you can redirect conversations not heading in the right direction or correct information that might be flat-out wrong."
To sustain use of social media or Web 2.0 tools for employee learning, cutting-edge collaboration technologies are only one part of the equation. Even the most user-friendly and feature-rich idea-sharing tools won't overcome a culture where employees are discouraged by managers—overtly or subtly—from swapping knowledge for fear of taking time away from "real" work.
Another impediment: not assigning personnel to manage and cultivate participation on these networks. "You need champions or curators to collect the most relevant content, draw attention to it, keep conversations going and to reward people who are the most active in sharing their knowledge," says McCulloch of LifeSize.
At Marsh, a handful of designated "community managers" and "ambassadors" oversee and guide participation on the collaboration platform. These employees provide high-touch service, Brooks says, helping colleagues upload blogs if they don't know how or orchestrating "photo drives" to collect photos to attach to employee profiles on the network. Other employers offer rewards to encourage or acknowledge participation.
At Accenture, a companywide program recognizes top collaborators with "celebrating performance points" and badges that appear on their people profiles.
HR leaders who "recognize that informal conversations can be learning, that informal mentoring can be learning, and that listening and lurking in communities of practice can be learning are the ones who are ahead of the game," says Bozarth. "The fact that when I need help with a problem, I can usually get an answer right away from a community of experts I've developed on Twitter has great business value."
The author is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.