10 Steps for Working Smarter with Social Media

March 2011

Workplace Learning is changing!

A number of people, my Internet Time Alliance (ITA) colleague, Charles Jennings in particular, have highlighted the fact that training that simply involves filling people’s heads with knowledge, is ineffective and inefficient – as most people forget what they have learnt very quickly.  And that online courses, which do pretty much the same, take time, effort and money to develop.

Many are also “over-engineered” solutions – and this often leads to resentment by those who have to spend time to work through courses – when the material could have been provided in a much simpler way. But in fact this whole approach to workplace learning is not sustainable in a world that is moving very fast and where there is need for access to constantly changing information.

On the other hand, although we have now realized – due largely to the work of (my ITA colleague) Jay Cross – that most of an individual’s “real” learning takes place outside formal learning .. continuously … in the workflow … by reading or listening to things, or more significantly in conversations and interactions with other people, L&D have struggled to understand how to harness informal
learning, and perhaps understandably often try to force it into the formal model they feel comfortable with it.

But it is in fact, the emergence of social media, that has really begun to make us think differently about the way work and learning is happening.  For an increasing number of individuals and groups are using these new technologies in the workplace to connect with colleagues both inside and outside the organisation in order to share ideas, resources and experiences – often under the radar of IT and L&D. This use of social media has become a revolution in the sense that these tools are now in the hands of the employees. So the question is what role does L&D play in all this?

One key thing to remember is Learning is not the end goal; but is a means to an end.  It’s about PERFORMANCE; people doing their jobs (better).  In fact it’s all about working smarter.  So what is working smarter?


Jay Cross explains it thus: “Working smarter is the key to sustainability
and continuous improvement.  The accelerating rate of change forces everyone in every organization to make a choice: learn while you work or become obsolete.”

The working smarter approach therefore involves NOT just new tools BUT new thinking. As we have seen we can no longer sustain a model based on creating, delivery and managing courses – we need to think more about enabling and supporting people to work smarter – and the new social media tools lend themselves to this.   So this is far more than just adding on social media to training courses. It’s all about helping people connect across the business (as well as outside of it) so that they can solve business and performance problems faster.

What is more, social media (SoMe) tools are “enabling” technologies – so it is no longer about controlling and managing what people do with these tools,  but encouraging and supporting a self-sufficient approach to smarter worker – and of course providing support to those who need it.Many people are already making significant use of these tools to solve their own learning and performance problems, so the advice is to “let go” and let them get on with it; others will need
help to become self-sufficient and to help solve specific problems – and this is where L&D has a big part to play.

In the next 10 steps I want to look at how you can help your organization work smarter – based on my, and the ITA’s, experience of working with organizations who are doing this right now  – as well as other examples we know about.

Note: although I called them “steps” – they are not linear – they are in fact a set of steps that cover 3 main approaches:

  1. Raising awareness to develop self-sufficiency through SoMe
  2. Using SoMe within a Performance Consulting approach
  3. Embedding SoMe in the organization.

Note these steps are as much about the NEW THINKING that is required as well as the NEW TOOLS.

1 – Raise awareness of the potential of SoMe for working/learning

Even though Social Media might be not be banned in your organization, individuals may still not appreciate that social media tools are not just trivial tools, but are now considered as powerful tools for both professional and organisational use.

So in our work with organizations who are moving into this area, one of the first things we do is to raise awareness of the value of these tools for the workplace.

I use a resource I have built called The Smart Worker’s Guide to using social media – in 30 days. It covers 4 main areas of use

  1. Finding and using content
  2. Creating and sharing content
  3. Joining and building networks and communities
  4. Improving productivity.

Clearly everyone won’t need to use ALL these tools in their job, but they usually don’t know which tools they will find valuable until they have taken a look!

The feedback I normally get is that exposure to the new tools has meant people’s eyes have been opened to things that they were previously not even aware of, and they have discovered tools that don’t just help them to automate tasks or activities but help them identify new and improved ways of doing things.

Note:  the resource  is a very simple set of materials that provides quick guidance on these tools, but there is also a strong social element in that it encourages participants to share their own thoughts and experiences – so it is also a good way of demonstrating the valuable use of social media for learning and working itself.

2 – Help with Personal Knowledge Management

Part of the initial exercise in awareness building and developing self-sufficiency also includes a look at the new information skills required for effective use of social media – in terms of one’s own Personal Knowledge Management (or Networked Learning), as my ITA colleague Harold Jarche calls it.

This might include:

– Helping people to deal with information overload – by putting the most appropriate filters in place – that suit them and their way of working

– Helping people locate appropriate and valid resources for their particular job

– Helping people locate useful people to build their Personal Knowledge Network – a network of trusted colleagues – both inside and outside the organisation.

3 – Develop team collaboration skills

A third important area is collaboration skills. Often people say, “we don’t have a collaboration culture”. So how can that issue be addressed?

One way I know that is working well for a number of organizations is to bring a team together and use social tools as part of the process of helping them understand the value of collaboration.

This begins the process of working and learning together and as the team sees the value and purpose in it they continue to do so back in their job – as a Community of Practice.

4 -Help establish and sustain Communities of Practice

Helping to establish Communities of Practice (CoPs) is one of the activities that can begin to establish good collaborative practices and embed social media in the workplace.   CoPs are groups of individuals – in the same team, or diff parts of same organisation  or even different organisations – who come together with a common purpose – to improve their practice. CoPs aren’t a new idea; the term dates back before the emergence of social media tools,  but this is a term that does appeal to managers (rather than social networking)  so we are seeing more and more CoPs being set up in organizations – and using social media tools (particularly group spaces) to support their activities.

But CoPs may well need a helping hand getting going – which is where you can play a part. The role of someone who looks after a community has traditionally been known as a Community Manager – but  it’s not about managing people – but rather enabling conversations but people …

So my ITA colleague, Clark Quinn talks about Community Gardening which involves “seeding, feeding and weeding” the community to encourage discussions and help keep things active.

“Communities don’t want to be managed – they want to be nurtured.”

Guidance abounds on using CoPs so I am not going to go into this further here, but just want to add that the best way to acquire this skill is by participating in online communities and seeing how they are supported.

5 – Use social media within your Performance Consulting services

Let’s now take a look at another stream of approach to help your people work smarter with social media: Performance Consultancy. This provides a significant opportunity for L&D to help individuals and team solve their business or learning problems, and at the same time embed social media into work practices.

Traditionally L&D is asked by a line manager to produce a course to solve a problem.  The manager has in fact already decided on the solution, which, unfortunately, all too often only addresses the symptoms of the problem.  Performance consulting is about understanding the root of the problem and finding the right solution – which probably isn’t training!

In fact my colleague Harold Jarche says “Training should only be done in cases where the other barriers to performance have been addressed“.  He has created this flowchart to help identify when training is REALLY necessary. Don’t worry too much about the detail, just look at the dotted box in the middle. It says “only a lack of skills and knowledge warrants training”.

Let’s take a look at an example – of how a problem was resolved using social media.

This is Pat, she was struggling with a word processing task that  involved her trying to aggregate amendments to a document by 10 individuals onto one master copy.  It was taking up far too much of her time, and her productivity was very poor – her manager thought this meant she needed to go on a Word course.

But when I discussed the problem with her I realised that it was not her ability to use Word, but the process itself that was at fault.  When I suggested using a collaborative document tool like Google Docs which everyone could use to add their amendments onto a master document themselves, her problem was solved.

In this case training would have been an expensive and unnecessary approach to addressing her problem.  Whereas a new collaborative approach to working brought about significant productivity improvements.

6 – Help people design and build their own solutions

The traditional training approach in most cases is to design a solution to a problem and then impose it upon the individuals concerned, whereas Performance consulting involves working with the individuals and teams concerned, discussing the options and involving them in the design and build of their own solutions.  This way they own the solution.  My second example shows this.

The sales team at a large consumer electronics organisation were trained on products only once they were launched.  This meant there was a big time lag before the sales team could talk intelligently with their customers about them, which resulted in weak sales in the first few weeks after launch and poor customer satisfaction ratings due to an uninformed sales force.

The sales director thought their problem could be solved by training courses being developed more quickly after launch. However, when we asked why it had to be a training solution; their answer was simply, because it had always been done that way!

So in a meeting with the two teams involved: R&D and Sales, we asked why Sales couldn’t find out about the product while it was being developed and before it was launched.  We discussed a number of ways this might happen, and eventually it was decided that R&D would write regular blog posts during the development period about what they were doing and the Sales Team could ask post questions.

The result: When the next product was released, the team were knowledgeable about it from the get go. They could talk about it straightaway to their customers, so both sales went up as well as customers satisfaction ratings. It was evident the sales team had “learnt” about the product, because of these performance indicators.

So this was a successful outcome due to a collaborative approach to working – which also meant that the need for costly training was eliminated.  But the key point here is the teams involved helped to design and build a solution that worked for them.

7 –  Help teams build social resources together

Even when there is a defined need for a body of content, this doesn’t have to be created in the form of costly and time-consuming courses, in fact  teams and groups can build and share their own resources.  Here are two examples

The first one is about induction.  In this medium-sized organisation, induction training happened so irregularly that people left before they even went on it, and when they did, it was not perceived to be of value because everyone had already found out what they needed to know about the company.  Poor retention rates and low morale led the line manager of one department to demand an online version of the training so that everyone could access it as soon as they arrived.

However, when we talked to a group of newhires about what they would like to see as a “solution”, they agreed that it was more about accessing resources about their day to day job and the ability to ask questions of their colleagues – rather than training on the history of the organisation.  They also felt that a group space which they could join before they even stepped in the door would be valuable.  They all agreed to be part of a pilot to help share useful resources about how to get up and running in the organization – as well as answer newhire questions.  The result was increased retention rates and more motivated individuals who felt they were part of the organization.

My second example is the well-known BT Dare2share project.  Here BT Engineers were encouraged to share audio and video podcasts on engineering issues with one another; as well as to rate and discuss them.
This was a truly collaborative enterprise, that could not have been achieved in the normal traditional ways of being developed
and delivered top down, and brought substantial cost savings.

8 – Build Communities of  Learning

But even when a formal learning approach is the most appropriate solution, then there are many different ways that you could use social media in your formal course.

One of which is to build a supportive community around some pre-existing course or ideally build into new courses.

But it is important that these types of activities are not just bolted on, otherwise they will not be used; they need to be well integrated into the course or programme.

Also consider that a Learning Community might also consist of others outside the course who can take on the role of coaches or provide additional peer support with the formal learning.

And once you’ve established the Learning Community it can then evolve into a Community of Practice.

9 – Integrate learning into workflow and workflow systems

Which brings us back to the steps of how to embed social media into the workplace.

(1) By helping to maintain and sustain Communities and

(2)  By integrating them into the workflow

Don’t silo learning! This has been its problem up to now – locked away in separate systems. It needs to be as close to the workflow as possible. Learning needs to be integrated in workflow systems, where individuals can make use of the tools they have for working – they don’t need (or want) different tools for learning.

Remember that in most cases too the learning activity doesn’t need to be tracked and monitored – since these activity measures tell you nothing about what people learn – people just need continuous, access to resources and people, in the flow of work. If you need to measure success, then measure it in terms of performance outcomes – as I have showed in the examples above – by asking “did it address the business problems that had been identified?”

Up to now I’ve kept away from showing you social media tools and systems in close up, but below is a mock-up of an example of how a number of organizations are embedding their formal learning into workflow systems. This is an example of an enterprise social platform, called Yammer – a cross between Facebook and Twitter – for private company use. Here people in the company can share resources, ideas or experiences or ask and answer questions – across the company as well as in discrete team or project groups.

A number of these groups are actually course groups or groups that support more formal approaches, e.g. this is a group that supports the learning around the 30 ways programme I mentioned earlier.  When a user is a member of a group like this, then the postings appear in their personal feed alongside with the other postings.  In this way, both working and learning become almost indistinguishable – which for us at the ITA, is the key to learning in the new workplace.

Of course if such a system is not being used routinely, then the next best thing is to take learning to where the learners are – and that may well be somewhere like Facebook.  I know of quite a few instances of using Facebook groups to support enterprise courses.  In fact a week or so ago I was in South Africa, working with Eskom, an energy provider,  who have started in this way, by using a Facebook group to create a Learning Community around a 7 month leadership programme.

For some this route may prove to be the best way to TRANSITION to a new collaborative working and learning environment.

10 Lead by example

But now I want to move onto the last step .  As I said at the outset, it’s NOT just about the new tools but about new thinking about workplace learning, and is as much about building self-sufficiency rather than you trying to solve every problem.

Most of the successful uses of social media within organisations have been led by individuals (sometimes managers) who have inspired others – and by that I mean they have just started small initiatives and got small fires burning – and through their contagious enthusiasm have encouraged others to participate.  (I strongly believe you can’t force or enforce “social” top-down on people!)

So the last step is actually the first. It’s Lead by example! You will need to demonstrate value yourself in using SoMe, before you can convince others to do so. So you will need to raise your own awareness of what SoMe can do for you and your team – and build your own skills first.  You could even build your own Community of Practice to discuss the use of SoMe in your team – as well as how to encourage others.

As I always say “Social media is not something you talk about, it’s something you do!

So how can I help you further?

Firstly, I’ve put together a lot of my thinking, articles, blog postings etc in a cohesive format as a Social Learning Handbook. Part One considers the emergence of social media, its impact on workplace learning and the difference between social training and social  learning, the range of social technologies available as well as strategies for supporting and encouraging social learning in the business.  All the stuff I’ve mentioned here you’ll find in Part One – as well as lots more things I couldn’t put in this presentation. Part Two comprises the printed version of the 30 ways to use social media for working and learning smarter programme (with links to useful resources and people for L&D professionals).

Secondly,   I  would also like to invite you to another new initiative that I started in early March – a private Community of Practice – the Social Learning Community – for those interested in discussing how social media for smarter working. It’s hosted on Yammer, the private social system I showed you earlier, and is free to join.  It already has over 450 members worldwide.  You can find further details here.

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