Social Media Tools Redefining Learning in Organizations

By Theresa Minton-Eversole May 18, 2010
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CHICAGO—The weather greeting attendees here at the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition might have started out cold and wet, but the subject of how social media can and are changing the face of learning was “white hot.”

It’s not necessary to measure everything the training function does if whatever that happens to be is seen as valuable and relevant to the company, said Rob Lauber, YUM! Brands executive and chair of the ASTD board of directors, on May 18, 2010, in his opening remarks.

“Learning evaluation is failing today’s organizations,” Lauber said. “We’re spending money measuring the wrong things, like [training] participants’ reactions, which is irrelevant to a company. Instead of spending all this time proving ROI, we should be trying to increase our relevance to our companies by aligning our training outcomes to our organization’s business goals.”

And, ready or not, he said, social media tools are beginning to redefine the relevance of social and formal learning in organizations.

Bright, Shiny Objects

Keynote speaker Charlene Li, founder of Altimer Group, explained to a rather apprehensive crowd of approximately 8,500 trainers that social technologies aren’t just bright, shiny objects to wow us. She said these new social technologies transform the nature of relationships, and with that transformation comes a need for new skills—skills necessary to be able to lead in this new environment.

The “open” leadership model that’s needed to help organizations enhance relationships to foster collaborative learning requires companies to give up the command-and-control style of management, Li said.

“But how do you give up control and still be in command?” she asked. “The answer is based in the fundamentals of sharing. Nothing is more human than sharing and engaging with others.”

Li said there are five levels of engagement when it comes to social media-driven learning: Watching, sharing, commenting, producing and curating.

“So many people are creating content and sharing it so responsibly,” she said, adding that trainers should be focused on using their expertise to find meaning in all this and building greater dialogue around what it is employees (and customers) want and how that can be achieved.

“Many of us don’t like being ‘messaged’ or talked at,” she said. “It’s important to build dialogue all the time through the use of social media tools,” to enhance social learning and to connect it to formal learning.

Li shared a story about how her brother, an anesthesiologist for a remote hospital, accomplished this. She said he had read and studied how to handle a particular procedure but had never seen it or done it himself. One day he called her to say he finally figured out how to do it—by watching a YouTube video.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if I ever want to be your patient!’ ”

From a training perspective, his hospital hadn’t designed specific formal training to teach him that. But she said it was a powerful example of how people can use social media tools to connect the dots of their formal and informal learning to improve their performance.

“It’s not so much about controlling learning as it is about enabling learning,” she added.

Li said there are things companies can do to create the kind of “open leadership” that’s needed to support such social learning.

“You have to create your own groundswell,” she said. “Open up new relationships and align your [training] goals with the company’s business objectives. Find a problem area where trust and open dialogue will help resolve it and enable that to occur.

“Open leaders believe that if you give employees power, they’ll do good with it. These leaders have collaborative skills and know how to balance the limits of safe openness,” she said.

Companies have to embrace failure as well, she said. “To be good at success, you have to be good at failure—embrace it and learn from it.

“The best relationships can weather storms,” she said, “The best things happen when people take risks, and you’re there to pick them up when they fail.

“Be open and define clearly the boundaries and rules of play” when it comes to adopting social media tools, she said. “Also define the consequences for not following these rules.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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