Within the last five to ten years, our collective use and experience of the Internet has changed radically. Remember when we used to “surf” the Web, navigating from site to site through memorized URL’s or aggregator sites?

Google changed all that. Today we are disappointed if we can’t find what we want in our first search – a search that requires just milliseconds to sift through billions of pages. Algorithms and logic models that mine implicitly identified and socially-validated relevance have replaced aggregator sites through link weighting, site ranking, keyword density, and frequency of site updates.

Another key shift in our Web experience is the transition from the passive Web to the interactive Web. Remember when we used to visit sites with no other intention or option but to read what was there? Today’s site designs and marketing stories are about interaction, contribution, and sharing. Where marketing teams once measured “eyeballs” on a page and site “impressions,” they now measure stickiness and engagement. Increasingly, the Web is a platform technology through which people conduct transactions, create content, manage processes, and interact socially.

Learning organizations are going through similar changes. Once we focused exclusively on courses and curriculum – effectively aggregator sites for lots of related content. Now, we’ve begun developing smaller chunks of content, not just through social software like blogs, but through simulations, videos, games, and individual lessons. We’re also moving toward a deeper appreciation for engagement. Once we measured “butts in seats” (the learning equivalent of marketing’s “eyeballs”). Today, many organizations have begun creating opportunities for interaction around content such as comments, ratings, and reviews.

As with the advent of the Web itself, these advances in Web technologies are changing the way we think about learning. With the widespread corporate adoption of the Internet in the 1990’s, the central question for learning professionals was whether and how to deliver learning over the Web. What once was strictly instructor-led classroom training (or maybe computer-based training delivered over a wide area network) became Web-based training and virtual classrooms. Yet, despite this change in delivery medium, the basic idea of instructor-led training and expert-created content remained unchanged. Experts still created content, instructional designers massaged it, and trainers delivered it.

The social Web raises fundamental issues

The impact of the social Web is proving to be much more significant, striking at the heart of these various roles and responsibilities. As we move closer to learning models that rely on search and engagement, training and development managers need to rethink long-held beliefs about very fundamental issues:

  • Who is a subject matter expert?
  • How do I know if someone has expertise, or that any particular piece of content is accurate?
  • Who should be authorized to create content? Everyone? Known experts? Trainers?
  • When does the accuracy of the content expire?
  • What is the role of the instructional designer, or the instructor, in a world where everyone is both a creator and consumer of content?
  • Is a blog or discussion post a “learning object?” What about a microblog post in Yammer?
  • Is a tag instructional content? What about a comment, a review, or a rating?
  • How can we create and deliver content quickly but still “manage” it?
  • Is it better to organize engagement around specific topics for a targeted group of participants, or to provide engagement opportunities in more general ways for anyone to participate?

Naturally, these aren’t all the questions we should be asking. There are a whole host of peripheral issues that are also important:

  • Sarbanes Oxley compliance for things like discussions, chat, and comments;
  • Liability and legal issues that might result when an employee acts upon inaccurate information or worse, acts as a rogue agent in ways that reflect on the company brand; and
  • Global issues related to privacy laws and cultural adoption of social media.

Think about the analogues to our situation

Fortunately, many of these issues have analogues in the transition to e-mail or in the adoption of consumer-facing social media, enabling us to draw on existing precedent and processes in other areas.

We have similar analogues to look to in relation to our roles and our content creation models. In just the last few years, the news industry has been going through changes that are very similar to those we are facing. In both the news industry and the learning industry, the process of disintermediation, where the content producers and content consumers are able to interact directly via technology, have displaced the expert intermediaries who interpreted, vetted, and channeled the information.

Disintermediation and e-Learning

In the news industry, the advent of blogs and digital video and audio made it possible for anyone to report the news, and for consumers to “get” news from thousands and eventually millions of sites. A few years ago, a blogger effectively scooped CBS news and anchorman Dan Rather by debunking a story about President Bush’s commanding officer. At issue was the kind of typewriter that was used to produce the centerpiece of the story – a “smoking gun” sort of document. The FreeRepublic blog, among many others, eventually discovered that the typewriter in question was not manufactured until after the date when the document was purported to have been written. The end result was a firestorm around Dan Rather, and his eventual resignation.

In the time since Mr. Rather’s resignation, blogs have come to be regarded as legitimate news sources, and mainstream news outlets have even begun embracing user-created video, such as CNN with its iReport feature. Most recently, the ACORN story became national news because of the work of an amateur filmmaker and a 20-year-old college student who took it upon themselves to investigate ACORN offices around the country. Ten years ago, this sort of work would have been done exclusively by one of three major news outlets; today it’s done by “amateurs” who publish their work via blogs.

Similar patterns of disintermediation are happening in the learning space:

  • Intel Corporation has adopted wiki technologies as the backbone of an informal knowledge management initiative
  • Sun Microsystems encourages everyone in the company to blog, with just a simple set of guidelines on what to share
  • Ace Hardware uses discussion boards and profiles to share domain expertise between locations with zero vetting or controls, other than the opinion and feedback of peers
  • Best Buy is using a combination of social technologies, including Idea Sharing tools and even Prediction Markets, to empower its front-line workers to share ideas, network, and collaborate

In each of these cases, the learning organizations were on the outside looking in as these initiatives were launched. Just as the major news organizations eventually found a way to include social media in their strategies and content models, we in e-Learning need to partner with IT, Corporate Communication, and HR strategists to weave social media into our learning strategies.

Transitions in roles

In the news industry, corporations have made a transition from being the sole reporter of the news, to sometimes being the vetter and producer of other people’s news. The content that comes into iReport is monitored and vetted, and, when it’s warranted, certain pieces of content are highlighted on the main page as legitimate stories. Fox does the same thing with Fox Forum stories – more opinion pieces than news, but nevertheless, a kind of editorial content once reserved purely for the news industry to deliver.

Strategies for evolving e-Learning

Similar possibilities exist for us in the world of training. How do we effectively transition from always reporting the subject matter expertise through courses, curriculum, and instructor-led events, to facilitating an environment in which anyone can contribute their own expertise? How do we move from always writing the story, to editing and producing the story? How do we become the plumber responsible for laying out the information conduits and shut off valves within our organizations, when for most of our careers we have been the pipes through which the information flows?

Begin by analyzing the needs

The first step is to do a “needs analysis” at an organizational level. At a very high level, we need to decide on the kinds of learning strategies that are most appropriate for the culture and the organizational objectives. A manufacturing company, for example, will likely focus less on innovation and invention than a high-tech company. A globally distributed retail organization will likely have a much higher need for collaboration and formal learning than a small business with one office. Below are a list of questions that learning groups may want to begin asking themselves:

  1. To what extent will your business or initiative be dependent on the creation of new ideas, new processes, new products, or new services to drive key performance indicators (KPIs)? To what extent are KPI’s driven by efficiency and adherence to known best practices?
  2. What percentage of your team’s best practices will you need to base on principles and theory, as opposed to concrete steps and rote processes?
  3. What percentage of your best practices will emerge “from the trenches?” What percent from “group consensus?” What percent from “management?”
  4. For the majority of your core initiatives, how important is a diversity of perspective or expertise to achieving your project goals or key performance indicators?
  5. In terms of succession planning and talent identification, what percentage of your existing “experts” and leaders did the admiration and esteem of peers identify? What percent did management first identify?
  6. How often do coordination and issue resolution happen through the ad hoc assembly of networked teams or individuals versus formal hierarchies?
  7. How much of your team’s execution is dependent on the sharing and coordination of distributed expertise? How much is dependent on efficient and timely sharing of centralized expertise?
  8. How much of your team’s intellectual effort will be expended in collaborating to develop known best practices or processes? How much time will be spent improving the efficiency of known practices?
  9. What percentage of your best practices and domain expertise exist in “pockets” organized by geography, shared interest, or network affiliations? To what extent are you organized around identical job roles and functions?
  10. When you think about a core contributor on your team, how much of his or her value and influence is a result of socially recognized expertise vs. longevity or management opinion?

Consider the organization

Getting a sense of the organization’s overall leaning toward collaboration, formal structures, or emergent practices and new solutions provides a necessary foundation in re-designing a learning strategy. Twenty years ago, all organizations were highly formal and structured; we knew the problems; and subject matter experts and managers created solutions. Today, many organizations are flatter, with distributed power and control; problems are relatively unknown and novel; and we must create solutions on the fly by rapidly assembling ad hoc teams with specialized expertise. A significant portion of companies isn’t fully in either camp, presenting characteristics of both kinds of organizations during their transition from an industrial economy to a networked economy.

In some organizations, this same checklist of questions may also be answered differently between divisions or even initiatives. Compliance-related initiatives will typically present more formally in a needs analysis. A software rollout may start formally but end more collaboratively as new ideas emerge and people begin discussing new best practices. In any of these cases, it’s important that we begin to consider social questions like the ones above in our various needs analysis: audience, task, culture, objectives, etc.


Once we’ve identified an initiative or organization as primarily formal, collaborative, or emergent in its learning needs, we can begin thinking about interventions.

For emergent learning needs

Let’s start with a highly emergent learning need. Imagine a scenario in Pharma or high-tech where a team is working on creating a new product or service. Learning in this scenario is about facilitating the exchange of ideas, relevant industry or market data, and building on each other’s work toward a common objective. Some of the tools or approaches that might be used in this sort of approach include:

  • Course authoring technologies: This may not seem like a tool for emergent practices, but by placing rapid authoring tools in the hands of any learner, we can enable them to capture and document their own expertise and the work they are doing.
  • Virtual classroom technologies: Again, if we let anyone record and share their desktop or files, it’s another quick mechanism to document and share their expertise.
  • File sharing: File sharing may be standard files like documents, PDF files, and the like, but it might also include video and audio sources. Ideally, video and audio sources would be converted to text transcripts so that they are searchable.
  • Blogging: Blogs provide an excellent vehicle for knowledge sharing and documenting lessons learned, new insights, and the like that are essential for emergent learning activities.
  • Discussions: Discussions are typically used to share information and insights in a collaborative exchange, but discussions can also be used as a mechanism to communicate new best practices via frequently asked questions or idea exchanges.
  • Idea Sharing: Idea-sharing tools are the cornerstone of emergent learning technologies.
  • Wikis: Wikis provide a central location to document expertise and learning in semi-structured formats.
  • Tagging: While not content per se, tags provide insight into the way learners perceive the connections between knowledge and information. Tags are a kind of emergent taxonomy, suggesting future structures and descriptors.
  • Chat and IM sessions: If you cannot save these content types, then it diminishes their usefulness as an emergent learning media. If you can save and search them, then these exchanges can provide a rich history of the emergence of new ideas.
  • FAQ/Ask an Expert sorts of tools: As with Discussions above, FAQ tools provide a mechanism for experts to document their unique knowledge and insights.
  • Comments: In some cases, comments can contain as many new ideas and raw insight as the original post.
  • Q&A during classroom or virtual classroom activities: As with chat and IM, these exchanges only provide value if one can capture and search them after the sessions.
  • Social profiles: While most learning professionals do not yet consider a social profile a kind of content, a profile can be among the richest repository of emergent knowledge. A profile also serves as a guidepost toward additional expertise, either in someone’s extended network, or in the individual themselves.

For collaborative learning needs

Collaborative learning, while using many of the same tools, is more about connecting learners together to discuss ideas, create new socially-validated best practices, share information, and strengthen connections between individuals, resulting in greater group cohesion. Two classic examples of industries where collaborative learning makes sense are healthcare and franchise environments. In each case, there is a high need for collaboration and sharing of best practices across common job roles. Some of the tools or approaches that might be used in this sort of approach include:

  • Discussions: With a collaborative focus, discussions aren’t about asking for answers from known experts, they are about the exchange and sharing of ideas and opinions to reach a joint understanding or consensus.
  • Wikis: Typically wikis are about documenting known information and known expertise; however, there have been several well-publicized uses of wiki technology as a shared collaboration platform. The most notable of these is Cisco’s iZone, an internal wiki used as a collaborative tool for idea capture and vetting.
  • Idea Sharing: As with wikis, idea tools are typically about capturing new ideas, but when the ideas are editable and rate-able, and when the tools enable comments, idea-sharing technology can become very collaborative.
  • Comments: Commenting on blogs and other forms of social media as a means of sharing ideas with others and requesting feedback is a classic collaborative learning exercise. Nested discussions can make this experience even more collaborative.
  • Ratings: While this is a not a kind of content per se, ratings provide a necessary filter by which content surfaces to colleagues. They also provide group feedback to the content creator.
  • Reviews: Reviews provide a mechanism through content such that consumers can share opinions with each other or with the content creator.
  • Enabling search and connection around Social Profiles: While a social profile itself is an example of emergent learning technology, the ability to find and connect profiles is very collaborative, particularly when other learners can see and act on a learner’s activity streams.
  • Social bookmarking: Social bookmarking tools enable learners to share relevant sites and information with each other in a collaborative way by tagging items in the “cloud” for all other learners to see.
  • IM, Chat, and Microblogging: When used as a mechanism to share ideas and discuss relevant topics, these tools are a classic form of collaborative learning technology. IM is typically one-to-one; chat is typically constrained to a defined set of individuals; microblogging is typically used as a public chat where you are broadcasting your exchanges for a much larger audience. In the last year or so, these technologies have been converging.

For formal learning needs

Formal strategies are what we have been pursuing for most of our adult careers, so they probably don’t need much explanation. It is worth noting, though, that some social approaches can still be pretty formal. A blog that’s used as a corporate communication channel may not be very social, particularly if the comments are disabled or ignored. An FAQ engine may be somewhat formal if experts create both the questions and the answers. Conversely, traditional formal technologies like course authoring tools may play a big role in a social strategy if the average learner is empowered to use them. The value and impact of the technologies is heavily dependent on the philosophies and objectives that define their use.

Blending interventions

Not surprisingly, there are very few instances where a purely formal or purely collaborative approach will work well. In most corporate initiatives, a blend of formal, emergent, and collaborative learning strategies will prove most effective. The tricky part is finding the right mix, both initially and over time. As in the aforementioned example of a software rollout, it may be that the initial need is formal. Prior to the rollout, learners will have questions that can best be answered through formal communication plans and formal FAQ’s. As the rollout gets closer, the organization will want to begin formal training – instructor-led, Web-based training, virtual classroom, etc.

Once these formal learning programs conclude, however, things may change. After learners begin using the new software, they will see new possibilities and new ways to use the tools. They may develop new best practices. They may be curious as to how others in their roles run reports and queries. All of these needs require more collaborative and emergent learning strategies: FAQ forums, wikis, communities of practice, and similar approaches may make sense at this point. From these emerging best practices, the organization might even decide to create new courses and new formal material.

Our roles change, too

Across these various interventions and strategies, our roles may shift and change several times. At the first stage of this initiative, our role is to be the traditional instructional designer: gathering information and known FAQ’s from the subject matter experts and management team. In the second phase of the project, we’re still the traditional learning professional creating formal training or performance support for the initiative.

In the third phase, however, our role needs to change. The learners are the ones sharing insights and knowledge. The learners are the ones with the information, rather than the subject matter experts. In some ways, we have the same job as before – we need to convey expertise from the subject matter experts (our former students) to our learners (our former SME’s). It’s just all reversed. The problem is that we can’t scale adequately to do this effectively across all learners. Instead, the answer is to lay out the plumbing by providing the discussion boards, blogging tools, etc., that enable these exchanges to happen “without” us. In reality, we’re still involved, and in a much more strategic capacity, but our involvement is less “hands on” and more about organizational enablement.

In other examples, the exchanges may be more peer-to-peer where learners are helping each other. Again, we have the problem of scale. How can we possibly scale to a level where we can be a conduit between any groups of learners, or even between individual learners? The answer is that we can’t. The only solution in this case, too, is disintermediation. We need to remove ourselves as conduits, and put technology in place instead.

Becoming strategic

This does not diminish our role. In fact, we have an opportunity to be more strategic in driving learning as a strategic initiative that is woven throughout almost all organizational activity. Consider again the questions that I posed at the beginning of this article:

  • Who is a subject matter expert?
  • Who is allowed to create content?
  • When does content expire?
  • And so on.

These are weighty questions. The answers depend on a new kind of organizational needs analysis. Who better to do this than learning professionals? Who better to lead an organizational transition where the sharing of personal expertise and unique insights is the central objective? One of the key strengths we possess as instructional designers is the knowledge of how to convey complex information in ways that can be easily consumed by others.

The mantra for our profession is to “teach a man to fish,” but maybe we should be teaching people to teach instead. In the first model, we are a linear asset, upwardly bound by our team size. In the second scenario, we provide exponential value and our impact is bounded only by the size of the extended organization. We need to rethink our roles and embrace this transition to more social forms of learning, not as a replacement for formal learning but as another set of tools in our belt.

Conclusion: Be quick or be left

We do need to be quick in jumping on this train. One only has to look at the news industry to see what happens when disintermediation is something that happens to you as opposed to happening through you. If we don’t begin driving the social learning agenda, then IT groups, Corporate Communication, Marketing, and HR will drive it. “Training” will be limited to corporate initiatives, compliance requirements, and annual certifications. Other groups will facilitate “Learning” on software they chose, and through models they developed.

Training groups have not driven most stories of social learning to date – it’s time for us to take our rightful place as the owners and initiators of the social learning agenda. If not, we may find ourselves working from the same backroom where the company stores their old printing press, both of us relics from a time when expertise was centralized and the masses were nothing but consumers.