Research Study: Social Learning Gains Momentum

This is especially true among higher-performing organizations.

Brandon Hall Group’s 2014 Social and Collaborative Learning Study found that approximately 85 percent of companies are at least experimenting with social learning tools and techniques.

High-performing companies (defined as companies having increased revenues and improved a majority of their key performance indicators over the previous year) are leading the way, if only slightly, when it comes to using these approaches.

These companies recognize that people naturally want to learn through interaction, collaboration, and sharing. Employing the technologies that make these types of relationships possible is imperative to any organization that wants to be an employer of choice and have a continuously developing workforce.

The Oldest Form of Learning

From an anthropological standpoint, social and collaborative learning is probably the oldest form of learning. Humans have spent their entire existence learning from one another and working together to achieve goals. It is only in recent history that we have managed to turn learning into more formal, instructor-led events. Our research indicates that most learning is informal, even if it might not be the 70 to 80 percent that commonly is cited. The research was derived from a survey in April-May 2014 with 254 respondents, followed by interview of selected organizations.

High-performing organizations say there is more informal learning occurring than the average company. Among high performers, 55 percent say that more than half of the learning that occurs is informal, while 47 percent of all companies say the same thing.

With more than 60 percent of companies expecting their employees to interact with learning weekly or more frequently, there is no way a traditional learning format will accomplish this. Fortunately, we now are experiencing a time where technology has converged with this need for continuous learning, and companies finally are catching up to how humans already interact with one another. A few short years ago, companies were barely testing the waters with social media technologies for learning. Now, we see widespread adoption in some form or another.

Of the 85 percent of companies that say there is at least some social and collaborative learning occurring, the majority of them are still taking a relatively rudimentary approach. More than one- quarter of companies (28 percent) say this type of learning still takes place outside of official channels, meaning there is no enterprise tool or platform allowing people to connect or share knowledge. Another 30 percent use existing systems to allow people to message one another and share documents and other media. This is typically what you would find in any given company.

One-quarter of organizations, however, has moved beyond this stage and are engaging in truly “social” media for learning. They are leveraging things such as blogs, discussions, and other tools to make it easier to connect and share. A few of these companies have even deployed fully social learning environments.

Collaborative Tools

Attitudes toward social media for the enterprise are changing. A good barometer of how it is viewed by corporations is their policies on public social media platforms. In just the last two years, there has been a shift in how sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are perceived. While most of the policies have remained relatively stable, the number of companies prohibiting access to these external sites has dropped by about 40 percent.

The general population has caught up to high performers with older social technologies, such as videos and blogs, but has a long way to go with newer tools such as content rating and comments. Even the most commonly used item, discussion forums, are only employed to even a moderate degree by 40 percent of organizations. Obviously, it makes no sense for any one of these tools to become the default learning modality, so it is not expected that any or all of them should be used to an extremely high extent. But the fact that so many companies are not using them at all is puzzling.

What makes this “non-use” really troubling is the missed opportunities it represents. Take expert directories, for example. The ability for someone to quickly find a subject matter expert and connect with that person can be indispensable. Half of companies find expert directories to be very or extremely effective. However, 47 percent of companies do not use them. The most effective tools require the organization to give up a little bit of control. Enterprise micro-blogs are used because they are safe and controllable, yet they don’t produce results much different than e-mail. Learner-generated ratings, comments, and discussions scare organizations, but are the most powerful ways to let learners teach each other.

Connections

At the heart of any social learning initiative is the desire to help people work together. Organizations have been fostering collaboration for decades in an effort to complete projects. How successful could an organization be if its people can’t work together? Learning is no different, yet organizations still sometimes treat learning and development like a kind of solitary journey for each learner to undertake on his or her own.

Our study found that a majority of organizations are presenting their learners with opportunities to learn from one another, whether it is informal knowledge (information or knowledge that is learned from experience but is not captured or organized into a structured course or learning activity) or formal (organizational information or knowledge that has been deliberately captured and organized into a structured course or learning activity).

Measurement

As with all things learning, measurement plays a huge role in social learning. In fact, it is organizations’ seeming inability to measure social learning that is preventing many from exploring it further. If they cannot track and measure its effectiveness and determine its ROI, they would rather just not do it.

Before it can be measured, an organization needs to get people to actually participate. Very often, no incentive is necessary, as learners often are intrinsically motivated to collaborate and participate in social learning. However, as with any new technology initiative, it can be beneficial to nudge learners in the right direction in an effort to reach critical mass.

Once the tools are up and running, it does become necessary to measure whether or not they are working. What many companies fail to realize is that most of the metrics they currently use to measure learning are applicable to social learning, as well.

There are only a few metrics companies are using to a high extent. Even learner satisfaction, arguably the easiest measurement to make, is not used at all by 32 percent of organizations. Another metric that seems like a no-brainer for social learning is the number of contributions a learner makes. Only half of companies are measuring this to any degree, and less than 10 percent use it to a high extent.

The other important takeaway is how much better high performers are at measuring social learning. They use every single metric in the list more than organizations in general, especially items such as business performance, completed learning experiences, and employee engagement.

Budget

Currently, social learning initiatives take up only a small portion of the overall budget, although 15 percent of companies are spending more than 6 percent of the budget on social learning. High-performers are making more investment in social learning, as 51 percent are spending at least 3 percent of their budget on it, compared to 40 percent of companies overall. Just as the interest and importance of social learning is going to increase, so, too, is the investment.

Just about half (51 percent) of companies overall expect their investment to increase, with 6 percent saying it will increase significantly. However, 61 percent of high performers say they are going to increase social learning spending, including 8 percent saying it will increase significantly.

Conclusion

Social collaboration is occurring among your organization’s learners right now, regardless of whether any platforms or tools are in place. More often than not, the adoption of these tools comes from the ground up, where a group or team needs a way to communicate and share, so they use whatever they can get their hands on. Companies have an opportunity to maximize this potential by providing tools and platforms to make the collaboration easier, better and more effective. The irony is that one of the biggest fears around these tools is the loss of control and potential misuse. But by not doing anything, companies are fostering a Wild West atmosphere that ensures zero control. By deploying the tools as a function, your organization then can manage, track, and measure the types of learning interactions.

The takeaway is that companies cannot continue to ignore these tools as fads or timewasters. The brand names and features may come and go, but the concepts will not. Collaboration is an indispensable part of learning, and companies now have a multitude of tools at their disposal to facilitate it.

David Wentworth is senior learning analyst for Brandon Hall Group, an HCM research and advisory services firm that provides insights around key performance areas, including learning and development, talent management, leadership development, talent acquisition, and Human Resources.

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