There’s been much justifiable excitement about social media recently; are you on top of it? The recognition that learning is 80% informal suggests that we need to support natural connections between people who can help one another. And we can distribute that support between employees, partners, or customers. You can see real benefits, but you’ve got to have a way to think about them!

There are lots of social networking tools with weird-sounding names: blogs, wikis, Twitter (also known as micro-blogs), Ning, Facebook, and more. Similarly, we hear buzz phrases: learning 2.0, social media, co-creation, user-generated content, and so on. The question is, what are the real opportunities? 

Things are not getting slower: we are seeing decreasing time to market for products and services, more information coming in, and fewer resources with which to cope. The rate of disruption in industries is increasing to the point that it’s almost continuous. The days when you could plan, adapt, and then execute are mostly behind us.

What we need, going forward, is the ability to take a continuous read on the environment and to adapt quickly. The nimble organization will be the one that thrives.

The ability to adapt comes both from a good background of theory, and from the ability to problem-solve and innovate. You need to support learners in communicating and collaborating. That’s where social learning comes in. The new ideas, the collaborative problem-solving, can be augmented with tools that provide value even with co-location, but when geographic reach is added in, the value is even higher.

I’ll first explore the informal learning roles for social media tools, and make the case that social learning tool skills make sense. Then I’ll explore the formal learning applications of these tools, concluding that using the tools for formal learning provides a valuable “onramp” to their use more broadly. I’ll focus on five particular tools, but the arguments extend.

Informal learning payoffs in real life

Think of the way people work together in the workplace: they pop over the cubicle to ask a question, they sit together over a document, they brainstorm around a whiteboard, they hold meetings, and give presentations. Now, can we support, and augment, that? 

Let’s turn it around, and think of some particular activities. We’ll go through several cases, and for each we’ll look at the benefits, and then see the social media tools that support this.

What’s the value of a discussion?

Making it possible for a group of people to converse means that they can cover issues, solve problems, debate approaches, ask questions, get thoughtful responses, and more. Someone in the group can schedule specific topics, or the group members can call for discussion as needed.

E-mail forums are just such a discussion tool. Group members receive questions, and their responses go back out to the group. Before the World Wide Web, Usenet was an internet-based e-mail discussion list that was quite popular and very useful.

We often overlook discussion forums in the excitement of new technologies, but the simple capabilities of an e-mail list are quite powerful. And anyone interested (and appropriate) can become a forum member, or opt out, while no one has to figure out just who to send it to. For over 10 years, ITFORUM has been a way for those interested in instructional technology to discuss current topics, as well as to get and provide help.

What are the benefits of collaboration?

Having people work together to craft a statement, document an approach, or generate a response can be a powerful tool for developing a shared understanding. A team can develop their ideas, others can review, add, and edit; ultimately the best ideas can coalesce. Managed properly, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Wikis are collaboration tools. In essence, they are shared editable spaces, where individuals can access and edit a document in an ongoing process. A wiki can track contributions and history, so who does what is known, and participants can revisit previous versions. Wikipedia is the poster-child for these tools, but organizations from Intel to the CIA have used them. Collaborative document services, like Google Docs, are essentially the same as a wiki.

What are the benefits of having one place to go to find tools and resources? 

In the old days, this “one place” might have been a manual or a library. When users can find the tools they need in a reliable place, they don’t waste time searching, or making things up in lieu of the answer. The estimates are that people spend 15-20% or more of their time searching, and up to 40% of that unsuccessfully. People do prefer self-help, if they can, but if they can’t find what they need easily, or if there are too many places to search, they’ll use more costly resources such as phone calls, or worse, just wing it and make mistakes.

The modern-day equivalent of the library is the portal. A well-configured portal provides a place for people to stash and look for the resources they need. Note that “well-configured” is a rare quality, and it’s all too common to hear “we’ve got hundreds of resources,” just to find that they’re organized in only one way. You can’t let someone handcraft a portal; it requires the same information architecture that other online resources need. So, doing it by role or task makes much more sense than doing it by, say, department.

When done right, however, portals are powerful resources for self-help and performance. IBM has taken it a step further and actually created custom portals, based upon employee roles and tasks.

What is the value of knowing who knows what? 

The person nearest to you, or your boss, may not be the best person to ask! If you have met folks in the organization, you might know who to go to. If you don’t, you could waste time asking around. Being able to identify people based upon their knowledge and expertise is powerful both for getting answers, and for getting collaboration when it’s a new problem. (And the latter is increasingly going to be the case!)

In knowledge management, the usual way to identify people based on their knowledge and expertise is an employee “yellow pages,” and personal profiles are a common tool to provide this. Granted, having a system auto-troll for people’s expertise by parsing their e-mail or documents is going to be more accurate than what they self-describe, but it’s also part of building a culture of trust, and it’s much easier. There are additional benefits in allowing people to express not only their expertise, but also their personality (for instance, the customization of avatars in virtual worlds).

Personal profiles are a way for individuals to present themselves to the organization. People can use officially sanctioned tags, but they can also add personal characteristics or interests. This combination creates a richer picture of the individual, supporting communication and a sense of support of self-image.

What’s the value of a journal? 

Typically we think of journals as personal, but there can be benefits from sharing reflections. Recording your thoughts is a valuable way to make them concrete. You probably have experienced the situation where, by writing something down, you had to work out some details that were missed when the idea was pure conjecture. Keeping a journal forces you to take time for reflection. Moreover, if you share your journal, you can get feedback on your thoughts. If a leader keeps a journal and makes it available, then that person’s employees or peers can follow the leader’s thoughts, and keep in better touch with where the leader is going. It’s a form of virtual mentorship, or thinking out loud (an important aspect of learning).

A blog is just such an online journal. It’s a way a person can write their thoughts down and easily publish them for all to see. Better yet, others can add their own thoughts as comments. It provides a simple and useful way to share thoughts, progress, etc. Blogging has proved valuable both internally and outwardly to customers. Similarly, a project, or a product or service team, can update progress with a blog, and solicit feedback on new ideas. Sun and Oracle are among the companies exploring blogs.

There are more tools we could discuss, including IM (Instant Messaging) and “micro-blogs” (read: Twitter and Yammer), but the goal here is to point out some more common business goals and how these tools augment and/or accelerate them. Some of the emerging tools provide capabilities that are truly new, and it’s worth getting on top of the old ones to fully comprehend the opportunities of both.

Why adding social learning to formal learning makes sense

I hope that you see the tangible benefits of making such tools available to your employees. A rich ecosystem of tools supporting communities to share thinking, solve problems, and create innovative new solutions is a fountain of new value to the organization. And we haven’t talked about the relative cost-benefit tradeoff here. Social media is relatively inexpensive, and the payoff is huge. Jay Cross has talked about the value proposition of informal learning, and these tools provide a concrete step to reap those benefits. It’s no longer reasonable to ignore the 80% of learning that happens informally! (See Jay’s blog post: .)

However, getting such a system to “critical mass,” where these activities are ongoing, is not easy. There have typically been challenges in getting these community tools to a self-sustaining level. Nancy White, one of the gurus of social learning, cited an 18-month process of getting a particular community going. On the other hand, the Defense Acquisition University found a number of communities already in existence, and spent resources finding a common way to support them.

Consequently, ways to foster the use of such tools are to be encouraged. One of the most successful ways to encourage use is to demonstrate value. To carry this story forward, we need to survey the development of people through their job-related learning.

Consider the traditional expertise by learning mode graph (Figure 1). At the novice stage (regardless of whether it’s an experienced employee moving into a new area, such as a technical employee being moved to a managerial role, or a new hire), employees need support not only for basic knowledge, but often in motivation as well. We largely direct formal learning at the novice learner. At the practitioner stage, employees typically know what their goals are, and they know what they need to know, so we can strip down much more content. At the expert stage, individuals are looking for collaboration to advance their joint understanding.


Figure 1 Expertise by learning mode

Social network tools typically help the practitioner and the expert, although the novice may benefit from virtual mentoring. In cultural terms, novices move from the periphery of a culture of practice towards the center, where practitioners and experts are in active dialogue defining and advancing the field.

However, to separate out the novice practices from those of the others doesn’t communicate an elegant segue from the outside in. So, one of the powerful ideas is to start the social networking activities at the periphery. The question is, are there legitimate reasons to engage social learning for formal learning? And the answer is a definitive yes.

The formal learning benefits of social learning

To consider the reasons social learning is beneficial to formal learning, it is useful to review what learning is. Our goals are twofold: retention and transfer. We want learners to retain the information from the learning experience until the time they have to perform, and we want them to transfer that information to all appropriate situations (and not to inappropriate ones).

Given the ways our brains work, tools to hand include reactivation of the relevant material, elaboration of the learning, and application to particular situations (the latter is critical). When we face a problem, the context triggers other relevant associations. The more associations to information that’s relevant, the more likely we are to bring useful frameworks to bear. Consequently, we want to make associations between our understanding, knowledge, and contexts.

We also know that social interaction facilitates learning. Working together helps unearth different views of what’s happening, and allows negotiation of shared understanding. It’s about dealing with misconceptions, ambiguity, and learning together. When done well, learners work together to share their understandings, and to develop their ability to apply it to meaningful problems.

Several meaningful goals accelerate learning, including connecting conceptual knowledge to personal experience, elaborating conceptual knowledge to other ideas, and applying that knowledge to solve problems. Our social learning tools do just that. Here I’ll relate several activities I have used successfully in teaching both in the classroom and online that demonstrate the principles.

Personalize learning with journals

Journals have been a time-tested way for individuals to personalize their learning. By either connecting their learning to explain past events in new light, or indicating how they intend to change their behavior as a consequence, they’re making connections to prior knowledge and their expected patterns of behavior. By having a requirement to regularly blog personal revelations about how this information relates to their experience, as well as how they anticipate applying the information in the future, learners are performing powerful cognitive processing.

Making those thoughts available to others, and receiving feedback from mentors or peers, is a real opportunity to explore and benefit from not only the reflection, but the feedback that can help refine and shape understanding.

Use discussion questions to stimulate elaboration

Creating discussion questions is a time-tested way to ask learners to elaborate their understanding of the concept. Discussion forums provide a useful channel for learners to each pose their answer to the question, and then respond to others. Even a simple requirement that learners post a thoughtful response to a thought question, and then comment in a relevant way to another (not just saying “great”), constitutes the valuable additional processing that leads to retention.

Provide problems for application

One of the most important ways to process information is to apply it to relevant problems. And doing so in a group facilitates articulating thoughts, and comparing and refining them. Requiring a group response to a problem, particularly if there is more than one group, is a great technique to force learners to work together to create a unified understanding.

A deliberate amount of ambiguity in the problem statement will facilitate the necessity of working together to understand. Obviously, there are issues in managing the effort and learning of each member, but these techniques are not new, and wikis now track contribution and schedule to facilitate that task. Having to produce the response closely resembles tasks they already must execute, whether responses to proposals, engineering designs, or patient prescriptions, and increases the likelihood of useful transfer.

Social learning in a social context

In addition, the learning should acknowledge the resources that they will be using in performance, and they should be “to hand,” as they will be outside the learning experience. Having one place to go for additional resources around the topic, and to have that portal incorporated into the learning, anchors the learning in the real world, and provides scaffolding both in the task and to performance beyond the task.

Having the ability to learn about your fellow learners, and get to know them as people and not just as learners, facilitates learning. Knowing their background and interests can help explain the way they perform in group assignments, and help develop the skills to tolerate diversity and communicate to other cultures whether near or far. Having profiles supports that in concrete ways, and helps develop the social bonds that form some of the basis of the informal social learning network. In addition, the language and categories used can convey the values and language of the organization.

Combining these techniques is additionally powerful. Even one has its benefits, but adding them together provides different forms of reactivation that increase the benefit. Realize that the benefits here are double. First, they’re conducting meaningful processing on the original content. In addition, however, they’re gaining fluency in using tools that can continue to be valuable, as are the connections they’re making to individuals.

Beyond the formal: enculturation into a community

Once learners have used the tools in their formal learning, the question is how to transition them to the larger community. Several models are possible: they could switch to the new community using different tools, they could be using separate categories within the tools used by practitioners, or their contributions could be part of the community.

It’s likely that the latter is an unfair burden to the practitioners and experts, though if you could get them to provide feedback as well it would be an elegant introduction into the community. Switching tools would actually have a positive benefit of decontextualizing the tool from the task, so that learners could generate more transferable skills in the social media. However, the downside is the extra cognitive overhead.

The ideal may be to introduce them to new communities in the social learning tools. One possible role of the instructor, ideally a member of the community of practice, would be to introduce the learners into the community, maybe even drawing upon ancient traditions and having a “rite of passage.”

The important point is that using social learning tools for formal learning serves as a useful social skill development role for introducing learners to the online learning tools. As social tools become more part of everyday culture, that role may diminish, but currently it is still relevant.


The discussion above raised some issues that we should address. Successful collaboration requires several cultural factors, including the need for safety to contribute, openness to diverse ideas, and shared commitment. You won’t get contributions if it’s not safe or individuals don’t care, and you won’t get full input unless you tolerate all viewpoints. Introducing such tools will quickly point out whether these factors are available or not.

The second requirement is for individuals to have the skills to successfully participate. It’s unfair to expect that your learners are fluent in using the tools, or in working collaboratively. If there aren’t clear guidelines for how to contribute successfully, what the appropriate ways to behave are, and how to learn in these environments, the outcome may not be ideal. Consequently, identifying the necessary skills, providing support, and modeling by the leaders will likely be necessary.

The final requirement is organizational support, so that there are concrete rewards for contributing. If it’s touted, but not valued, the disconnect will be obvious. Note that in most cases, some nurturing is required in order for communities to come to life. Organizations have taken steps including providing incentives for recognized leaders to participate, and providing rewards for contributions. A rating system for comment usefulness can be helpful, too.

That latter brings up the tools that weren’t discussed. Such ratings are part of some of the new tools, and other tools have other capabilities, such as instant messaging, and micro-blogging (for example, Twitter, or it’s corporate cousin, Yammer). They didn’t cover them here, but the principles extend. Instant messaging provides quick access to someone discovered via a profile search. Micro-blogging can leave trails of thought, and similarly can quickly bring an answer from a broad population.


The informal learning reasons alone are enough to justify investing in social learning. The benefits for formal learning similarly suggest independent value. The two together, along with the transition path to support adoption and enculturation, make a compelling case for social media in the organization. There are nuances and details about what to emphasize, what tools to choose, and how to get there from where you are, but the point is to get going.

Organizations are getting real value from some or many of these tools, possibly including your competition. I reckon you surely want to empower your people to work together as effectively as possible. Fortunately, most of these tools are quite inexpensive. Getting it right is more difficult, but you can do it if you can marry an understanding of learning with a comprehension of the fundamental capabilities of the new technologies, all in the context of organizational goals and processes. Get help if you need it, but get going!