In the summer of 2009, international media headlines proclaimed "Facebook Makes You Smarter, but Twitter Makes You Dumber." As a professional in the training and development field, the headline instantly attracted my attention. What does this mean for our field of practice?
Dr. Tracy Alloway, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, conducted a small study with 15 grade school children. Her results suggested interactive online mental exercises could improve young children's results on generalized intelligence compared to a control group. The mental exercises shared conceptual connections with highly-interactive social networking sites such as Facebook. Yet we cannot leap to conclusions. Dr. Alloway's study, while interesting, must be replicated before researchers can offer meaningful advice to learning and development practitioners.
At this point, we cannot make sweeping statements, and say "Twitter and YouTube weaken corporate learning programs" while "Facebook accelerates corporate learning." We do not have conclusive evidence for such claims. While academics build their carefully constructed experiments, we must actively respond to urgent needs and explore new technologies.
In this article, we will look at what we currently know about the rapidly evolving field of social learning. We also will identify current knowledge and skills gaps that must be filled within the field.
Social learning comes to the corporation
Unlike many recent technologies, social media first became popular outside of the workplace. Many employers often view social media as a temptation that lures employees away from "real work." Some companies have even banned third-party social media Websites entirely.
Other employers have taken a different approach. Rather than looking at social media as the enemy, they see new opportunities. Many savvy learning and development people have found themselves examining social media and asking themselves a difficult but powerful question: "How can we use social media to enhance learning?"
As director of training and development at The Continental Group, Doug Cooper oversees training for approximately 6,000 property management employees at more than 1,500 properties across the state of Florida. While the company has implemented a learning management system (LMS) and Webinars to train its highly-distributed workforce, Cooper already is focused on next generation solutions for blended learning. "Our incoming workforce belongs to the generation of Xbox and Wii. For this audience, the LMS is already passe." According to Cooper, companies need to look beyond the LMS, and even proven peer-to-peer tools such as blogs and wikis. "These employees are comfortable with technology, and they have come to expect it throughout their life. Therefore, we must embrace today's tools and deploy the just-in-time training our employees need."
Social networks produce clear behavior change
Successful workplace learning initiatives prepare people to make clear behavior changes; however, no single learner is an island. They exist within a social network of colleagues, direct reports, supervisors, peers, clients, and vendors.
Recent research has shown social networks directly impact behavior change. Let's look at two striking examples.
In 2008, the New England Journal of Medicine published research on how people quit smoking. Entire groups of smokers essentially quit at the same time. According to researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler:
"A person's decision to quit smoking is significantly influenced by their network—not only the people they know but also second and third degree connections they don't know."
A person's second and third degree network connections influence their behavior even when there's no direct connection between the individuals. Think about that insight within the context of the corporate world. How well do you know your learners' second and third degree workplace connections?
In a 2009 study, Christakis and Fowler analyzed the social networks of 5,124 people who had participated in the multi-generational Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 in Massachusetts and still continues today. This study collects information about cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, but Christakis and Fowler focused on the participants' self-reported lists of colleagues, close friends, and family members. This information allowed them to track the spread of obesity through the study's population. Obesity broke out in clusters, like a virus.
- In 1948, just 10 percent of the study's participants were obese. Today, more than 40 percent of participants are obese.
- Having an obese spouse raised the risk of obesity by 37 percent, but an obese friend raised the risk of obesity by a stunning 171 percent.
- It was rare to find a lean individual within a cluster of obese individuals.
These research studies suggest why it is often so hard to drive behavior change within an organization. After training, learners return to an ecosystem filled with colleagues who remain unchanged.
Instructional designers often analyze the direct learning audience. However, the social network can accelerate, delay, or even prevent behavior change within learners.
- Can you use social media to overcome the inertia of "behavior as usual" within the social network?
- Will the learners become champions for change?
- Will they revert back to the average behavior of the group?
Learners will adopt behaviors more quickly when they see their peers put the principles into practice. However, learners will soon shrug off a new initiative if no one else adopts it.
Social learning for digital natives
Learning and development practitioners now have access to many new social media tools. Each tool may be suitable in some contexts and wholly impractical for others. Some solutions include:
- Third party Websites (Facebook and Twitter).
- Peer-to-peer blogs and wikis.
- RSS feeds from subject matter experts.
- Real-time 3D workplace gaming simulations for groups.
Neil Wadhawan is the co-founder of Heartwood, and his company creates virtual 3D simulations for the workplace. He describes the potential for social learning within the incoming workforce. "When these employees leave work, they often play team-based video games such as Harmonix's Rock Band. Four people assume the roles of guitarists, drummers, and vocalists. Everyone performs individually towards a team score. At the end of the song, everyone receives instant, personal feedback. Then the team huddles together to discuss how to improve their score. That's social learning driven through technology. These people want to learn the same way at work."
Wadhawan explains that the digitally-native generations instinctively understand peer-to-peer learning and crave instant feedback—whether they're a team of soldiers operating complex systems or skilled energy-industry workers with interdependent roles. According to Wadhawan, "These people need learning solutions and platforms that provide them the opportunity to practice, discuss, and learn complex skills together."
Most digital natives want learning available beyond formal classrooms and desktop computers. In their personal lives, they access social media from their smartphones. They keep up with friends, locate peer-based restaurant reviews, and share videos. When digital natives need answers they want them immediately. Therefore, they will soon be asking their employers, "Do you have an app for that?"
Using social media to enhance learning
How do we take today's social media tools and implement them within learning programs that drive workplace behavior change? We have entered a transformative period for corporate learning where both theory and practice need to adapt to the next generation of technology and learners.
As you might expect, there's no one single answer. In many ways, the technology is so new we don't have any clear solutions—yet.
However, we can articulate a series of principles and next steps for training directors, instructional designers, facilitators, and LMS software providers.
1. Training departments must create training programs that resonate with the digitally-native generations without creating barriers for other learners.
2. Instructional designers must learn how to leverage social media training tools as both stand-alone training and within blended solutions.
3. Training departments must deploy the most relevant social media tools for the specific training need. For example, a group of factory workers may need different solutions than either software engineers or field sales teams.
4. Subject matter experts, mentors, and facilitators must develop virtual competence to support remote learners through social media tools.
5. LMS vendors must provide tools to structure and deploy social learning within organizations. We need to move beyond the LMS to a Social Learning Management System.
6. Organizations must respond to the rapidly changing needs of the workplace and be able to provide just-in-time learning on a variety of platforms. Otherwise, we produce bottlenecks within the organization and put a strain on subject matter experts and managers.
7. Researchers must rigorously test social media for different types of learning, and report their findings.
8. Professional organizations must compile and share best practices within the field.
At this point, social media can easily integrate into blended learning solutions. In some specific cases, social learning can serve as the primary training delivery vehicle. Over the next few years, organizations and training professionals will become comfortable with these new tools and find consistently workable solutions.
In the next article, we will examine practical tips on how to leverage social media within today's blended learning initiatives.
Bill Sherman co-founded Intulogy, and serves as a managing partner. He specializes in diagnostics and analysis, in projects ranging from needs analysis studies for the state of Alaska, curriculum-mapping initiatives for Fluor, and retail sales diagnostics for a vehicle manufacturer. You can contact Sherman at email@example.com.