The rise of social media over the past decade has altered nearly every facet of our everyday lives, making interpersonal communication and collaboration as simple as pasting a link or uploading a file. Nevertheless, learning organizations have generally been reluctant to integrate social media tools into training and performance initiatives.
That is finally changing, spurred on by innovations like the Tin Can API that make it possible to track, quantify, and even curate informal learning.
Effective learning solutions all have one thing in common: they're able to successfully engage learners. Social media is inherently engaging—engagement is its raison d'être—and so it should be no surprise that learning organizations that embrace networking platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and others, have a baked-in advantage when it comes to learner engagement.
There are other good reasons for providing social learning opportunities that go beyond engagement. Learners will turn to the Internet to supplement their learning anyway, so a proactive social media strategy can help direct them to quality resources with complementary messaging. Social networks can help keep content top-of-mind and relevant long after a training session or workshop.
How to Use Social Media in Training
Leveraging group teach-backs in a workshop or meeting setting can be a way employees can learn from each other. Facilitators can give options. The team can decide how to do it, such as creating and projecting slides or recording video or audio with their phones. What used to take a sizable budget can be done with a smartphone or tablet and can be loaded to a blog, SharePoint site, or other internal locations for viewing.
Here are some specific examples of integrating social media into learning initiatives:
Encourage the use of Twitter in meetings or workshops to engage your participants by allowing them to capture notes and key points. Using a unique #hashtag identifier can be a way to poll your audience and gain feedback, not to mention facilitating conversation amongst the group. Asking participants to use Twitter, knowing that there will be times in which you will be monitoring the back channel, encourages participation. People are learning from what others are taking away from the workshop and can refer to it later.
Create a LinkedIn or Facebook group—they can be set to private—for learners to stay in touch and contribute ideas after a learning event. This can be particularly helpful for new hires to get integrated into the company culture and share on-the-job learnings as they discover them. If all participants are with the same organization, it might make sense to form this private group on Yammer, which features closed social networks restricted to a single company.
Launch a customized wiki to be an online repository of topical audio, video, URLs, files, and photos. A wiki is any group of webpages that allow users to freely edit and upload content; the best known example is Wikipedia, but you can create your own private wiki from several sites, including MediaWiki, Wikia, Wikispaces, or Wikiworks.
Have a company blog space where subject matter experts can post what they know or answer tough questions. This is particularly helpful if a SME is located in one place and people in other locations need the information. Social collaboration sites like this exist specifically for the business world, most notably SAP Jam and Sharepoint, but the aforementioned social networking groups and wikis can also serve this purpose.
Suggest participants generate and post their own teachable content—a job aid, or a short topic lesson—on a sharing site like Slideshare or HaikuDeck. This could even be done in an analog way, taking a photo of writing on a whiteboard and uploading it to a group page or a wiki or a blog space.
Have small groups post video of their activity—role-play a process or demonstrate a concept—to YouTube. (Suggest that they set it to private or unlisted, for the sake of participants' privacy and to protect any proprietary training content.) Share snippets in a class or group, or let learners review and nominate their favorites.
Create an electronic bibliography using social bookmarking tools like Delicious and Diigo to provide particpants with easy access to references and resources.
Bring diverse groups together by having them share about their culture, interests, and background. A bulletin board site like Pinterest can be especially useful, as would an image-sharing site like Instagram or Flickr. This can be useful in classroom introductions, for unifying a team, or for a virtual group to get to know each other better.
Any of these platforms can also serve as options to house training pre- and post-work. Upload a short lecture via video or audio of the instructor or a colleague. Introduce the instructor and the learning program, and begin to build a safe classroom environment in which the instructor can start to plant seeds of information. Gather feedback and keep the discussion going well after the training initiative has formally concluded.
Considerations When Embarking on Social Learning
As with another burgeoning training tactic—gamification—integrated social media is not embraced by everyone in the learning & development world, with a segment of learning professionals deriding it as "not real learning." Naysayers worry about maintaining accuracy of information, about issues of confidentiality and proprietary content, and they are apprehensive about whether participants may say embarrassing or inappropriate things.
These are all legitimate concerns to varying degrees, but they are not reasons to shut the door on social media in training altogether. Instead, learning organizations should develop a governing policy or guidelines addressing good judgment, appropriateness, and protection of confidential information, and then trust learners to behave accordingly. Facilitate participation, and define the areas you would like to see contributions. Encourage communication that is respectful, and define what should be off limits. Clarify expectations and what people should do if they see something offensive or inappropriate. Have an internal resource monitor.
Speaking of governance, an executive sponsor is a helpful ally when starting a social networking initiative. Debut the program gradually, starting with a department or function that expresses some interest, and gain some limited traction before attempting a widespread rollout.
We've talked about what social learning is, but it's equally important to understand what it is not. It is not a substitute for a formal training curriculum. It can be designed to support formal training, but social does not do away with the need to teach specific skills and knowledge to improve performance.
At the end of the day, social learning is about making knowledge acquisition more efficient, fun, and engaging, so allow participants to be adventurous when learning something new. It's curating the good information and making it available in a format that useful and helpful to the audience. Good social learning is simultaneously self-guided and collaborative—these are all good things.