For many organizations that are considering the use of social media in learning, a common fear frequently comes up, phrased as a question: “What if our learners post inaccurate content?”
This question is really just shorthand for, “What if they post inaccurate content and we, as an organization, get sued, fined, and sanctioned, and I, as the sponsor of this initiative, lose my job?” While this is certainly a valid concern, and one that needs to be addressed in certain scenarios, for the vast majority of social learning initiatives, the real issue is not whether learners will post inaccurate content, but whether they will post at all.
It’s tempting to assume that the launch and growth models of successful consumer-facing social media platforms such as Wikipedia, Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, and YouTube, to name just a few, can serve as a blueprint for the launch and growth of internal sharing platforms. Unfortunately this is not the case. To date, the launch and growth strategy for consumer-facing platforms has largely followed the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. Given their global, consumer-oriented nature, these strategies have succeeded by virtue of sheer volume of their participant pool, and of viral propagation.
When the potential user base is measured in the hundreds of millions and even billions, even a 1% compound annual adoption rate is still sufficient to fuel significant growth. Many of these consumer-oriented social media communities also accept very low user participation rates. These are typically expressed as a 90:10:1 ratio – 90% “lurkers” who read and consume information from the site, 10% “occasional contributors” who share but infrequently, and 1% “power users” who are frequent contributors and tend to be highly connected to others.
Corporate entities, by contrast, tend to be much smaller. Even the largest global organizations typically employ just a few hundred thousand workers, and a far greater percentage of enterprises number in the tens of thousands. Corporate entities must also reshape the 90:10:1 ratio when they deploy social learning and sharing platforms. Imagine telling your CEO that you will be rolling out an enterprise solution (with an enterprise price tag), and that even the most successful launch will mean 89% of the employees won’t be active contributors. Good luck with that.
Given these twin problems of much smaller participant pools and a much higher need for active participation and contribution, corporate social learning initiatives must follow a different launch and growth strategy than “if you build it, they will come.” Specifically, organizations must deal head-on with the issue of self-efficacy.
According to Wikipedia, “Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals. It is a belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations.” In the world of social media, the “belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner” encompasses many disparate competencies and attributes:
- Self-confidence – do I possess enough self-confidence in my subject matter knowledge and opinion to share my perspective or respond to someone else’s?
- Self-esteem – do I regard my own perspective and opinion highly enough that I am willing to share it with others?
- Social proof – will I be the only one to contribute, or am I one of many in the community who will be participating?
- Trust – do I trust the community enough to share my opinion without fear of retaliation, humiliation, or rancor?
- Cultural awareness – do I understand the cultural norms of social media, and do I feel comfortable contributing and responding within the confines of those norms?
- Technical knowledge and aptitude – am I familiar enough with the social technologies that I can meaningfully share my knowledge and expertise?
If organizations are going to drive active participation, they will need to address each of the above issues as part of the change management and optimization strategy. Far from the infrastructure-centric model of “build it and they will come,” a corporate social learning strategy needs to focus on the people first and the technology second.
Each of the above issues can be addressed directly with some common-sense approaches:
- Set up areas in your learning community where people can share their perspective and expertise on subjects outside of “work” topics. This will provide a place for people to connect across disciplines, driving cross-pollination of ideas and insights, and it will enable people to showcase their unique expertise, helping them develop confidence.
- Enable “low-level” participation through ratings and simple recommendations, as a gateway to higher-order participation.
- Acknowledge their fears, and provide encouragement through direct messages from senior leaders.
- Provide fun, extrinsic rewards for contributions: clothing, paperweights, or key chains – something tied to the initiative and tied to the learning community but lacking in significant monetary value. Highly valuable extrinsic rewards have been shown to decrease internal motivation, while rewards of recognition and acknowledgement have been shown to increase motivation.
- Encourage senior management to respond positively to contributions from all parties, even if they disagree with an idea. Initially, it’s far more important that people are valued for contributing at all than for contributing the perfect post.
- Seed the community with content. No one wants to post into an empty forum or be the first to write a blog comment or submit a new idea. Add some innocuous posts and even responses to encourage people to join in to what appears to be an active discussion.
- Seed the community as a community – do “barn raisings” where everyone contributes “x” amount of time over a certain timeframe to populate the content.
- Don’t “boil the ocean.” It’s much better to start with one or two kinds of social learning environments – one or two forum threads, a few broad blogs, a rating and review capability – than a bit of everything. Fewer kinds of social media and fewer topic areas will initially concentrate activity and make the community seem more active and larger than it is. This is in turn will drive participation in a similar fashion to seeding, but with the added benefit of tapping into a “joiner” tendency – when an activity or destination looks to be popular, people are more likely to join in.
- Establish “rules of engagement.” What kinds of behaviors are not allowed? Flame wars and personal attacks on discussion boards or in blog comments are a clear “no no,” but what about shooting down ideas in disrespectful ways? Or “gaming the system” by rallying votes for an idea competition, or trying to earn points by knowingly contributing a large volume of poor quality material to be regarded as a “top contributor?” If someone violates the rules of engagement, action should be swift in correcting the situation.
- Allow for dissent. Managers and subject matter experts may not be comfortable having their ideas challenged or even ignored, but if we’re going to learn from everyone in the company, managers need to get a lot more comfortable influencing, rather than dictating. Accepting and even embracing differing opinions is essential to this process, but also signals to participants that they can share differing opinions without repercussions.
- While managers should tread lightly in stifling alternate opinions, they should be very comfortable in pulling down incorrect posts, particularly if the content exposes the organization to legal, regulatory, or compliance-related risks. It’s important that the social learning environment is a safe environment: part of that stems from enforcing civility and fairness, part of it comes from allowing for genuine differences of opinion, and part of it comes from knowing that the content is accurate and monitored.
- While there will likely be many employees for whom social media is “old hat,” for the vast majority, even among younger generations, this is new territory. Provide them a “Miss Manners Guide” on expected behavior and norms: When does it make sense to friend someone? Should I link back to my own post as a reply to theirs, or should I comment on their post? Is it OK to share someone’s contact info to a third party without asking them first?
- The “Rules of Engagement” mentioned above provide guideposts about what participants shouldn’t do. It’s equally important to tell them what they “should” do. What are some of the positive behaviors you expect? What is the tone and tenor of the space you are creating?
Technical knowledge and aptitude
- As with “Cultural Awareness,” many employees will be better at this than you. Way better. But it’s also possible that their advanced skills may be narrow – expert in blogging, newbie at Wikis, or vice versa. Or maybe someone hasn’t used RSS feeds or tagging before, but lives on discussion boards. Ironically, in the rush to social media and social learning, one of the first things we may need to do is develop some courses or formal material to make sure everyone is “on the same page” regarding basic skills so that they feel empowered to contribute.
- Also consider a good help system or electronic performance support model, so that if participants start slowly, they can build their skills over time, not just by learning about it, but by actively contributing.
Addressing these fundamental issues will go a long way toward addressing the challenge of self-efficacy and participation in your social learning community. While the majority of these topics were not factored into the launch of most consumer-facing social media platforms, they are essential to the success of corporate initiatives.
Many of these strategies also provide a level of oversight to ensure that inaccurate content does not stay on the site for long. If you are monitoring for poor behavior, and actively looking for contributors to reward with either words or prizes, everyone on the team must be reading and responding to posts. If subject matter experts and senior managers want to be part of the knowledge and learning exchange, then they need to participate, and they should also be monitoring for incorrect information.
This is not to suggest that formal pre-approval, moderation technologies, and post-approval processes aren’t necessary. For many topics and in many industries, “n-tiered” approval workflows are essential, as are audit trails, reports, and maintenance of secure records. But before any of these issues of moderating and managing content come into play, we first need the content. Effectively dealing with self-efficacy head-on is the first step in this process, and a key ingredient in the successful launch of a social learning strategy.