Scenario A: An international company rolls out a new product. The trainers are thrilled with it and, despite some technical glitches, eagerly hop on to learn more about it. There isn’t much user support, so understanding more about specifics of the product proves to be a collaborative proposition. Trainers working with the product run into each other and talk, sometimes teaming up to work together.

The company hasn’t provided any collaboration tools, so the trainers across locations begin talking in places like Facebook groups, Google communities, and Reddit. They share tips via text posts as well as screenshots, audio commentary, and video clips. A few create video tutorials about product features or shortcuts.

Something like a community of practice—in which people work together to get better with the product—develops, showing hallmarks like a common vocabulary, accountability to the effort and each other, and in-jokes. There’s fun and energy around conversations. Master trainers emerge: Some commenters try to game the system but are mostly shut down by the other trainers. Some post wrong information, but it’s caught and corrected. The company keeps an eye on the activity and announces it will make adjustments to the product based on feedback gleaned from the community.

Scenario B: An international company rolls out a new product. The trainers are thrilled with it and, despite some technical glitches, eagerly hop on to learn more about it. The company sets up an internal social platform that allows for text posts and photo attachments.

Trainers are assigned to “communities”—separate discussion areas—based on their geographic location. The initial post on all forums is a disclaimer from HR advising trainers of guidelines for participating in discussions and reminding them of company communication policies. Each forum has a designated manager who facilitates conversation by supporting, redirecting, and if necessary deleting comments.

Few people participate, and when they do they’re usually just posting a hint or two, complaining about a problem, or asking for help. Responses are sporadic, and back-and-forth conversation is minimal. People report glitches and offer ideas for improving the product, but the developers are not members of the communities, so the feedback never reaches them.

Scenario B describes most failed initiatives at companies attempting to “do” social.

Scenario A is … Pokémon Go.*

Figure 1: Pokémon Go players out collecting and collaborating, and a Pokémon (in case you haven’t seen one)

Here’s the thing: People talk about their work all the time. And they’ll find someone to talk to about it. They’ll talk about problems. They’ll talk about solutions. They’ll gripe. Some product experts will emerge. Some will give up and never learn to use the product. They’ll give out wrong information. They’ll help each other out. Maybe it won’t be on the scale of Pokémon Go—few things ever will be—but this is what “social learning” is. Conversation happens. Communities emerge. People self-manage. The game company didn’t provide any social features—you can’t chat or “follow” others, for instance—but people found ways to be social nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the organization with the goal of “doing social” will usually end up like the one in Scenario B. It’s not about forcing people to participate and trying to control every bit of conversation. It’s about listening, and finding out how they participate, and what they talk about, and how they prefer to talk about it (screenshots? text comments? audio clips?), and then figuring out how to best support them.

Pokémon Go’s creator, Niantic Labs, didn’t provide anything in the way of social features—it was fine with users gathering face to face and going to Facebook groups and other public tools. (As I submit this to the editor, there’s a rumor that the company will enable a feature that allows players to trade Pokémon; I don’t know what that will look like or how “social” it will be.)

A company that wants to offer something more tightly tied to the organization would do well to find tools that offer the experience workers need to have, with the features that make sense for the conversations. Maybe a private Facebook group. Maybe Yammer. Maybe something else. The company would hold back on all the vetting and assigning and managing and, instead, let conversation evolve. Help people in different work areas or geographic locations find each other. Watch for emerging leaders. Hold back a bit and see if the community manages a problem like incorrect information. It probably will.

So it’s not about “doing social.” It’s about supporting workers as they work by giving them the time and the right space to talk about it. It’s about listening. And it’s about using social tools to support conversations and performance already in progress.

Want more?

Lots of people have been writing about Pokémon Go the last few weeks. There’s always danger in singling people out, but for great ideas for using augmented reality (AR) in learning endeavors, see recent blog posts from Donald Clark and Koreen Olbrish Pagano.

Think the idea of a robust, engaged community around a real work product is fantasy? Check out Articulate’s eLearning Heroes, where members bring lots of energy and commitment—and often work created on their own time—to developing expertise with the Articulate products, adding to the knowledge pool, and helping each other out.

* Pokémon Go? It’s the newest piece in the Pokémon franchise, an augmented reality game played on mobile devices. As you move about the world, Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) appear on the screen. The goal is to walk around in neighborhoods and other environments to capture and collect them, then use magic items to give them more power and thereby train them to fight in virtual gyms. Hence, players are called “trainers.”

To offer some familiar terms, it’s a bit like baseball trading cards meets rock-paper-scissors. As so many began playing the game at once, when it was released a few weeks ago, most were all in the early stages of collecting. There’s really no competition there, and generous souls can even share “lures” that attract Pokémon for others nearby to collect. It’s easy to spot other players, who often stop to chat or even team up as they go hunting Pokémon.

While the game of course spawned the usual array of distracted people wandering out into streets and bumping into fire hydrants, many immediately saw value-add opportunities. For instance, animal shelters in the US offer dogs for players to borrow while they walk; players are using apps to donate their steps to charity; and others are committed to picking up a few pieces of trash each time they walk.