Years ago, when McDonalds introduced the Big Mac, it wanted to separate its new sandwich from the rest of the crowd. It was the sauce, they said, that made it unique. The secret, special sauce made the Big Mac a success.

In the new era of social media, we must fully understand what makes one social learning experience stand out and another peter out. That’s our special sauce. With all the excitement over social learning, we can lose focus as to how difficult it can really be to do it well. Hype can only go so far. The good news is that several key success factors are emerging, beyond just getting the technology up and running, that make social media work in a learning context.

The eight ingredients of great social learning

These efforts are organizational, cultural, and strategic in nature, as well as technological. Unlike the Big Mac however, smothering social media with just one new ingredient will not be enough. In our special sauce for social learning, there are eight equally important ingredients we must blend in just the right way to make it all taste great.

  1. Make the tools and technology insanely easy to use. Technology is not the end game, but a critical enabler. As such, if it doesn’t work or if it’s too difficult to use, the game is over. To paraphrase a popular commercial, the technology should be so easy, “a CEO can do it.” Today, it takes very little effort to start a blog or a wiki, to create a video on YouTube or publish a Podcast. Easy-to-use tools that support social networking abound. Facebook, for example, would have never been a great success if it wasn’t practically effortless. Putting the means of content creation into the hands of all makes everyone an author, a far cry from the more complex authoring and design tools that remain the exclusive domain of a small group of select developers and e Learning specialists.

    Our role: Focus more on content and design and less on the latest gizmo. Partner with I.T. on technology infrastructure, platforms, policies, etc. If the technology is as easy to use as it should be, it will take care of itself.

  2. Nurture authorship. When everyone has the means to create and publish content, you just know that not all of it is going to be good. Mastering Microsoft Word does not guarantee that you will be the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. While the technology may be painless, creating and communicating information, from tweets to blogs to Podcasts, in ways that are useful for the content consumer, is not so simple, and being a subject-matter expert does not necessarily imply solid communication expertise. Yet such skills are critical.

    Our role: Provide guidance and training to help people become better authors, or, in some cases, understand their limitations and defer to others. Templates, tools, and other job aids help, but the ability to write and discern important knowledge from trivia cannot be developed instantaneously; it is a critical long-term support issue. Lots of coaching, feedback, role models, and work product examples will be of great value.

  3. Support mobility. You cannot schedule social learning; it cannot have a start and stop time, and it cannot be limited to certain places. Scheduling, an artifact of traditional training, won’t work here. The ability to interact with colleagues, experts, and others — wherever and whenever — is an essential requirement for social learning. Nor can you predict the need to collaborate, but when it occurs, it must be met quickly — and at the user’s convenience — or the enthusiasm for the process will wane just as quickly.

    Our role: Support a collaborative learning environment that is mobile, immediate, and 24x7. Remove barriers to anytime, anywhere, and any device, while still making the whole process as trouble-free as possible to use.

  4. Have a clear purpose or goal that’s actually important. Unlike the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Establishing a social learning environment and then simply hoping people will use it effectively can be a fool’s errand. There must be compelling reasons to get involved. Social media, especially when just being introduced, benefits from a razor-like focus on the most important or challenging tasks at hand. Social networks will certainly be, well, “social,” but one of the most compelling reasons to participate is when doing so truly leads to new knowledge or an accomplishment that has great value for the individual and the organization.

    Our role: Establish initial social networks and communities of practice around compelling tasks, problems, or other aspects of the business. Make sure everyone knows why the community is forming and what it hopes to accomplish. Then let users “have at it.”

  5. Make membership valuable. It’s no secret why successful social networks use phrases like “join us” and “become a member,” and eschew terms like “customer” or “learner” (Facebook’s use of the term “friend” isn’t happenstance). A sense of belonging is very important to an individual’s motivation to stay involved long after the initial curiosity with the medium has faded. Some social networks can be wide open to all, but others might benefit when membership is limited to those who truly want to participate, either because of their own interests or because of their job roles. In some cases, nomination strategies can help make membership in a community more valuable to those involved and a goal for others to achieve.

    Our role: Set up proper incentives for participation in social learning. Help organizations carve out time for people to get involved, and not attach any negative connotations to participation (e.g., it’s not real work, just goofing off). Refrain from too much oversight to avoid a “big brother” culture. Whatever approach you take, strive to create an environment where individuals want to be a part of a network or community.

  6. Put effort into facilitation. There are times when you should leave members to their own devices when interacting in social networks, but there are many situations where some guidance and facilitation will not only move the group along, but members will welcome it. Facilitators can come from outside or inside communities, they can be peers or experts, and they can be part or full time. Facilitation may also represent an important new role for trainers. How it is structured depends on the organizational need and culture, but no one disputes that facilitation can be the engine that drives a social network from just a place to meet and chat, to a true and valued collaborative learning environment.

    Our role: Tap the considerable teaching and facilitation know-how within the training organization to create role models and implement development programs for facilitators. Advocate for specific full- or part-time job roles and competencies in this area.

  7. Align with formal learning. The dichotomy between formal and informal learning is quite useful, but this does not mean that social learning and formal learning should be estranged from one another. Formal learning environments can be excellent starting points for introducing people to social media, which they can then carry forward to more informal learning situations. Furthermore, social networking can be indispensible for bridging the time between formal training events.

    Our role: Integrate social media into formal training curricula and use it to support informal learning outside of class. Training and learning departments can be excellent initial catalysts of social learning long after the formal course has ended. Broaden instructional design toolkits by incorporating informal learning and social media into mainstream design strategies, methodologies, and technologies. Use part of formal training courses to help learners become comfortable with social learning tools and practices, and create a partnership with client organizations to develop transitions from formal to informal learning.

  8. Develop a long-term strategy to build a knowledge-sharing culture. Creating social networks is relatively easy; integrating them into the mainstream of the organization is quite another thing. Social learning will fail if the culture does not support it. No technology by itself can overcome a restrictive or non-existent knowledge sharing culture. Social learning may not be something implementable overnight, or over several months or even a year. This is a change management challenge and it will take time.

    Our role: Infuse social learning into the long-term enterprise learning and performance strategy, and work with senior management and line organizations to get their support. Build on and support social networks that already operate in the business, beyond the training/learning realm. Help change the performance management process to encourage and reward knowledge sharing, and integrate social media and social learning into management training and talent management programs.

Make it all-natural

The bottom line is that for people to accept and use social learning, it must be a seamless and natural part of the workplace, and the work. Failure to focus on all the ingredients for successful social learning is a showstopper and will kill it in its tracks. Getting the technology in place and operating is a good start, but the work is just beginning; there is much more to do to get the special sauce of social learning right.

Remember, social media technologies have no value. Only the people who use those technologies, and the knowledge that people share through, them have value. And that’s where the focus must be.