Learning in the Social Workplace

This article is also available as an Internet Time Alliance whitepaper in PDF format.

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Social technologies are impacting the way we learn and work in the workplace.  Here I want to take a look at three key areas:

  1. How individuals are using social media to address their own learning and performance needs
  2. How organisations are using social technologies
  3. How frameworks are guiding new organisational approaches to supporting workplace learning

1 – Individuals and social media

For the last five years I have been compiling a Top 100 Tools for Learning activity – based on the contributions of learning professionals worldwide. I released 2011 list in the middle of November and it has proved to be a popular resource. (The presentation on Slideshare has now been viewed over 350,000 times.)

As you will see the list is once again dominated by free online social media tools. This is just one of the trends I have been noticing over the last five years. This and the fact that for many people personal and professional tools are merging, and people are now doing their own thing –  using their own tools and devices to do so.  These trends have also been tracked by other research organisations:

  • Back in April 2011 Forrester Research estimated that around 47% of business users were “using one or more website(s) to do parts of their jobs that are not sanctioned by their IT department” and expected this number to rise to 60% in 2011.   This phenomenon is known as the “consumerization of IT”.
  • Another article in CLO magazine around the same time believed that between 1/3 and 2/3 of employees were meeting their learning and performance needs by working around L&D departments. Some have referred to this as the “consumerization of learning”.

So who is using these tools to address their own learning and performance needs?  If you listened to the media you would think it was just Gen Ys or Mileniials, but my own analysis shows that this is clearly not the case – it is workers of all ages who are using their own tools in this way.  But these workers do seem to have some common characteristics. They are clearly web-savvy but they are also highly motivated, committed and dedicated to their work. and have a clear desire to do their job as well as they can and improve their own performance wherever possible. Individuals with these characteristics I call Smart Workers.  I’ve been able to identify 8 key features of how using social media is impacting and changing the way that they work and learn today.

1 – The Smart Worker recognises she learns continuously as she does her job

First of all it is clear that the Smart Worker recognises she learns continuously as she does her job. Although she acknowledge that training and self-directed study has a valuable part to play in this,  she also realises that formal approaches alone cannot possibly provide her with everything she needs to know. She also recognises that she learns more about how to do her job  just by doing her job – and that “learning” in this way is very different from studying a formal course. It is unstructured and often “messy”.

So she might find out something new when she reads a document, from overhearing a conversation, by observing her colleagues at work or by asking them questions in discussions in meetings. She might even learn something from the casual conversations in the canteen or coffee bar.  In other words she realises she learns all the time from  both content as well as from people.

It is also clear that Smart workers don’t have the inclination nor the time to learn in what me might call traditional ways – which take them out of the workflow – in a separate room for training or at a separate time to work on e-learning courses.  In other words …

2 –  The Smart Worker wants immediate access to solutions to his performance problems

He doesn’t want to have to study a problem – just in case he might need it. He  simply wants to find the solution to his problem, when he needs it – and in the quickest and easiest way possible. And it is for precisely this this reason, that the smart worker –  rather than use the internal LMS to find courses –  makes heavy use of Google to search the Social Web for solutions to hi sproblems – preferring to solve his problems by accessing quick and simple resources on sites like YouTube, Slideshare and Wikipedia

He therefore makes significant use of resources that have been created and freely shared  by others on the Social Web since they frequently  prove to be valuable performance support  materials (ie. job aids) for him. What is more ..

3 – The Smart Worker is happy to share what he knows

He is also very happy to share what he knows –  in the same way – using the very same social tools – in many different ways.

4 – The Smart Worker relies on a trusted network of friends and colleagues

Although the smart worker does like to access content-based resources to solve her problems, in fact like most people he actually tries and solve them by first calling upon the people he knows to help them. A few years ago this would simply have meant asking his colleagues in the room for help, but now smart workers have access to a much wider group of friends and colleagues through their online social networks.  In this respect, public social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ as well as other specialist online communities play a very important role in both their personal and professional lives.  And the Smart Worker interacts with her colleagues in many different ways, e.g.

  • to ask and answer questions
  • to share and receive ideas, resources and experiences
  • to solve problems and brainstorm together
  • to keep up to date with what their colleagues are doing and thinking, and
  • to learn from them in many different ways – sometimes even without even realising it!

5 – The Smart Worker learns best and from others 

It is also clear that smart workers learn best with and from others – both in a formal and informal context.  This is the true social learning.  It happens with and without social media – but social media can just make it even more powerful. In formal training contexts although the smart worker is  happy to be able to work on online courses at the time of his choosing and at his own pace; he doesn’t really enjoy having to sit at his desk ploughing through hours of online content. She much prefers to learn alongside others where she can discuss the topic and bounce ideas off them.

6 – The Smart Worker keeps up to date with his industry and profession

The smart work also keeps up to date both with what is happening in his industry as well as his profession by  using a variety of social tools and services. He keeps in touch with experts and analysts in his professional network. He reads industry blogs or aggregated feeds – and even content curated from a variety of different sources.

7 – The Smart Worker constantly strives to improve her productivity

It is also clear that the Smart Worker wants to do her job as well as possible – which  involves not just a continuous learning process, but also constantly reviewing her productivity in order to find better ways to do her job.  The Smart Worker therefore makes significant use of social media tools to help with both personal and team productivity. These tools are used not only to automate or improve existing tasks and activities, but sometimes even to innovate and do things differently.

8 – The Smart Worker thrives on autonomy

Finally, the Smart Worker is a self-reliant individual, who likes to make his own decisions  – about the tools he needs to do his work and the most appropriate way to learn.  He thrives on autonomy. And as Dan Pink points out is his book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.

“A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude.”

 Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement”

To summarise then, many individuals and teams now realise they now have powerful tools to more quickly and more easily solve their own learning and performance problems, without leaving the workflow – since a solution is often just one-click away in their browser – using their own personal tools and devices.

So we need to consider how can we help support the learning and performance needs of the new smart workers – who don’t want or need to be told everything how to learn, when to learn it and how to learn it.  It’s no longer just training people to be compliant – it’s about helping them engage – not just in formal training, but with others in the workplace, so that they are able to support one another.

2 – Organisations and social tools

So how do organisations view the use of  social tools.

There are still organisations who ban or block all access to social media – usually because they don’t understand them properly and see them as a threat.   In March 2012 Gartner reported that the number of large organizations blocking access to all social media is dropping by around 10 percent a year. It was around 50% in 2010 and they believed it is likely to drop to fewer than 30% by 2014.

Of course, in many of these organisations,  individuals can still access to the tools through their own devices. Hence a growing number of organisations have realised the futility of trying to ban social media, and are developing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy in the organisation – although this is still emerging practice – and in some organisations is still only an option for senior people.

But of course, some departments and processes, such as marketing, do have access to external social media, and use public social networking sites (like Facebook, Twitter etc) for promoting their products and services.  Some departments are also beginning to use social media for internal activities, and this includes the Training function. Some Training Departments have begun to incorporate social media into their face-to-face workshops or online courses.

But now some organisations are realizing that social media has an important part to play more widely to support employee collaboration and engagement, and are implementing their own internal social and collaboration platforms – either by upgrading their intranets into social intranets, or by adding extra social functionality onto their existing systems and in doing so are becoming social businesses.  What is a social business?  IBM put it quite neatly.

A Social Business isn’t just a company that has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. A Social Business is one that embraces and cultivates a spirit of collaboration and community throughout its organization—both internally and externally

Many other commentators make it clear that becoming a “social business” will change the way we do everything – as organisations move from being traditional hierarchical businesses to networked organisations.  ”Social” will not just be something that is bolted-on to traditional processes but will underpin a fundamental new approach to working and learning in the organisation.  Paul Adams summed this up nicely in Stop talking about “social”.

“Social is not a feature. Social is not an application. Social is a deep human motivation that drives our behaviour almost every second that we’re awake … The leading businesses are recognizing that the web is moving away from being centred around content, to being centred around people.That is the biggest social thunderstorm, and all of us are going to have to understand it to succeed. So stop talking about social as a distinct entity. Assume it in everything you do.“


We have now seen there are two ways that social media is changing the workplace.  So how can we respond? In practical terms, how can we support these new ways of working and learning and the fact that knowledge sharing and collaborative working  will be a key feature of the new social business.   The early adopters  are already developing new approaches to workplace learning,  but others will require help and support in terms of frameworks, models, techniques and tips.

This is where the Internet Time Alliance comes in. We analyse the  emerging practices of the early adopters in order to provide advice and support to the  early majority.  We work with those organisations who are ready to make a change – not try and force these new ways of working and learning upon organisations. So I want to talk about a couple of frameworks that might be of value to you if you are looking to help your organisation move forward.

3 – Frameworks 

70-20-10 Framework

The first one is the well-known 70-20-10 framework that was developed at Princeton university and is now employed by many organisations worldwide as a way of thinking and planning about the incorporation of informal learning into workplace learning. Essentially, it recommends that 70+20 that is 90% of learning initiatives in the organisation should be informal – with only 10% being formal training.  Hence this means 90% of the services provided by Workplace Learning Departments should be the new “working smarter” services to support this 90% and only 10% should be training services.

The 70-20-10 model does have its critics and these often focus on the numbers, saying that these shouldn’t drive initiatives within organisations.  It is also not that clear for many how to put the 70-20-10 model into practice, in terms of what it actually means on an operational basis.  For that reason, I have developed a framework which focuses on the services themselves

Workforce Development Services Framework

In the Workforce Development Services Framework there are 4 key service areas although there is a high level of overlap in the activities provided by the different service areas:

  1. Training/Instructional Services focus on designing, delivering and managing  training, e-learning and/or blended learning events
  2. Performance Support Services focus on providing access to, and supporting use of a range of resources (content and people) for performance improvement
  3. Social Collaboration Services focus on supporting collaborative working and the building of internal networks, communities  and  collaboration spaces
  4. Performance Consulting Services focus on finding the best solution to a learning or performance problem, which may well be a training/instructional solution but is more likely to be a performance support or social collaboration solution.  This service area  will therefore serve as the main entry point in the Framework. In other words, instead of managers coming with requests for courses, they would come with requests for help with performance problems.

In terms of activities

  • Training and e-learning activities include more informal and social approaches, but they are  also more and more embedded in the workflow.
  • Performance support activities include creating (top-down) resources like job aids, e.g. by re-purposing courseware, but will also involve supporting the creation of employee-generated content, as well the individual’s own use of tools, content and networks on the Social Web, and the sharing of useful external resources through content aggregation and  content curation techniques
  • Social collaboration activities include helping to set up online group and community spaces, developing new collaboration and community skills as well as encouraging workers to “connect and collaborate” and engage in new collaborative work practices.

Although many L&D departments are introducing more social approaches into formal learning (i.e. training) initiatives, as well moving slowly into the performance support area, social collaboration services is a completely new area of work – but  is the missing piece of the L&D jigsaw .  However, it is important to be clear, this area of work is not about the design and delivery of training but about the facilitation of learning through collaborative working. So let’s take a closer look at it.

Social Collaboration

Oscar Berg’s Collaboration pyramid shows how …

“The majority of the value-creation activities in an enterprise are hidden. They happen below the surface. What we see when we think of collaboration in the traditional sense (structured team-based collaboration) is the tip of the iceberg – teams who are coordinating their actions to achieve some goal.  We don’t see – and thus don’t recognize – all the activities which have enabled the team to form and which help them throughout their journey. We see the people in the team, how they coordinate their actions and the results of their actions, but we rarely see the other things which have been critical for their success. For example, we don’t see how they have used their personal networks to access knowledge, information and skills which they don’t have in their team already but which are instrumental for their success.”

Now Oscar Berg doesn’t mention the “learning” word  – but he does mention about using personal networks “to access knowledge, information and skills” – and this is the same thing. So social collaboration then is both about working and learning.  So do people work and learn collaboratively automatically?  Some do for sure, but others will need help.

Social collaboration services are therefore both about helping teams work collaboratively as well as facilitating learning through collaborative working.  It involves

(a)  encouraging workers to “connect and collaborate” and engage in new collaborative work practices, so that there is a  symbiotic relationship between collaborative working and learning; and

(b)  developing the new collaboration and community skills  to enable groups and teams for effective working. Although as I explained in my recent blog post, Collaboration and community skills are the new workplace skills, when I discussed some recent work with an organisation, it requires a different approach

“.. as for the new social and collaboration skills that workers require, well you simply can’t train people to be social! What was required was getting down and dirty and helping people understand what it actually meant to work collaboratively in the new social workplace, and the value that this would bring to them.  My Internet Time Alliance colleague, Harold Jarche,  refers to this as modelling, not shaping.”

So this new service area will require:

  • a new mindset – think facilitating or supporting learning through working rather than training (see diagram on right)
  • working with a new set of tools – it’ll involve using the very same social collaboration tools that people work with not course authoring or learning management systems
  •  and a new skill set – not instructional design but collaboration and community skills

I have been working with learning professionals around the world to help them acquire these new skills and work in order to provide these new social collaboration services in a number of different ways

  • I run a number of online workshops  in the Social Learning Centre.
  • I work with organizational teams within in-house community initiatives to support them as they discuss and/or provide these services in situ. Contact me at  [email protected]  if you want to find out more about how I can help your team.

This article is also available as an Internet Time Alliance whitepaper in PDF format.

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