Time to put social to work for enterprise learning

Profile picture for user jmilne By Janine Milne September 8, 2014
In the digital enterprise of today, it's time to rethink how organizations approach learning by making better use of social media tools.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY - In the digital enterprise of today, it's time to rethink how organizations approach learning by making better use of social media tools. [/sws_grey_box]

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Perry Timms at work

Social learning is like being able to create your own mobile playlist of content rather than sitting down to listen to a couple of albums back to back, according to Perry Timms, founder of PTHR, which aims to help companies unleash the potential of social media in the workplace.

Timms practices what he preaches, using Twitter, blogs, HR ‘hackathons’ and every social media platform he can to spread the word about social media’s potential to transform HR.

Recognising his expertise, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) has made him the organisation’s social media and engagement advisor. He’s also a visiting fellow at Sheffield Hallam University and a regular speaker on HR, social media and the future of work for the CIPD and others.

Social media is Timms’ business, but he believes it should be everyone else’s business too, stating simply:

Social needs to be put to work.

And there’s no better area in the workplace for it to be applied than in learning, asserts Timms. For, while organisations have been quick to realise the benefits of social media in areas such as marketing, and within HR to apply them to recruitment and engagement, its potential to transform learning has often been overlooked. Yet, as far as Timms is concerned:

Learning is where I see most benefits in social technology – it’s the best place to start and you have more benefits to gain.

It’s the best place to start because like most things in social media it is already happening whether you like it or not. The easiest way to solve a problem or find a solution is to turn to the online community – your co-workers - for help. So, for example, on the way to client meetings, sales reps can have advice on how to handle the meeting delivered to their smart device. Social technology provides targeted information, when and where it’s needed; all that’s required is a smartphone.

In turn, when you learn something useful, social technology enables that insight to be shared with the wider workplace community. Social media encourages sharing rather than Gollum-like protection of ‘precious’ information.

So, learning is decentralised and insight comes from experts in the field rather than a central learning repository. Most employees wouldn’t even recognise it as learning, which makes measuring learning outcomes an interesting task. Timms notes:

With social learning, the outcome of what you’re learning isn’t always obvious, but don’t worry about that. The likelihood is that it will surface at the time you need it.

Cultural learning shift

This all adds up to a significant cultural shift in learning for enterprises, believes Timms:

There’s more openness and people don’t hold onto learning – they share. Using social media you can graze on what you find interesting, so it can be much more targeted.

The beauty of social learning is that it is a living, evolving organism that is constantly being updated. As Timms says:

It doesn’t require maintenance – it gets ‘upgraded’ by the users themselves. It’s like Wikipedia; people are very protective about the information being right. I call it discerning learning. People are more discerning about what they need to get better in their job.

Social learning then is not e-learning given a glossy social makeover. In contrast, e-learning is a form of what Timms calls ‘injection learning’, where someone sits passively while learning is forcibly injected into their body. The trouble with injections is their effect can wear off.

Social learning is an entirely different mechanism: it’s interactive, exciting and delivers specific content in bite-sized chunks. Staff motivated to learn will suck up their new skills and knowledge and put it to better use than those ‘forced’ to attend a course. Cost - or lack of it - is another obvious and enticing benefit.

The one group of employees that may struggle with this switch to digital learning are the learning professionals themselves. User-led social learning could feel chaotic and out of their control, but it can be channelled and managed, believes Timms.

By using it for their own learning and sharing themselves, learning professionals will become part of the learning community rather separate from it. Their role will then be to ensure the digitally created media podcasts, videos, blogs, infographics and other content produced by the community us accessible to all.

What’s key about social learning is that people are more motivated to learn. They are in the driving seat. But beware of the dark side of social media, cautions Timms in closing:

People can manipulate and mine social platforms. Extracting yourself from the matrix doesn’t work. Be in it, but beware what you need to do to protect your integrity. And how do you find that out? Your user community and network will have all the answers you need.