2011 proved to be the year of high interest in the use of social media, from Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Diigo, to Tumblr and Scoop.it, and other online networking services to support learning, as well as through similar services behind the firewall. Industry conferences and organizations were abuzz on the topic. However, while many learning professionals are interested in social media for learning, relatively few organizations have begun to implement it.

It’s important for organizations to separate the buzz from reality and focus on the elements necessary to make a social learning program successful. As they become more comfortable with the concept and look to move forward, it’s important for them to keep some fundamental requirements in mind.

Social learning is a three- legged stool

The most important concept for those who are venturing into social learning to keep in mind is that there are three elements required for success: a technology platform, a vibrant community, and great content.

  The platform is necessary as it acts as a place to capture the organization’s interactions. Ideally, it’s easy to find and use in the course of everyday work. However, a simple platform is not enough – it must be filled with enough interesting content for viewers to return and engage.

 People may come to visit the new social platform once or twice out of curiosity, but they won’t return if there isn’t anything there to engage them. Continued use is crucial to developing a vibrant community. By seeding the platform with great content, it’s much easier for employees to jump in and offer initial comments, which will lead to additional comments and overall interaction.

 It’s also important to start with content that’s both interesting to the audience and that provides business value. Learning professionals can help add this by building off their current base of learning content. This rich business or technical content will help keep the conversation focused on professional growth, rather than off-topic subject matter such as the weekend social scene.

Use social media to address the problem of information overload

The abundance of content can be a challenge to organizations, as it becomes difficult for users to find specific pieces of information among the overwhelming wealth of knowledge. Providing community support for learning through social media can help overcome this problem, with the power of such applications to amplify the most relevant content, highlighting the most useful resources. This in turn drives a higher level of productivity, because employees don’t waste time searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack of information.

There are several ways communities can help bring attention to relevant content. One option is a social platform that allows users to recommend or “like” certain assets. Another is a platform that allows users to post comments on the material contained in books or courses, as this can create a layer of unique business knowledge on top of the trusted knowledge contained in the resource.

Make social media part of your blended learning strategy

Blended learning has emerged over the past several years, with learning leaders developing programs that blend traditional learning experiences with online learning. Social media support for learning has now entered the arena, adding another element to the blended learning paradigm.

Social media can increase employee participation in learning, especially if the programs have a significant element of self-directed learning. Learners are more likely to stay engaged and complete their program of study if they are able to reach out to peers involved in the same program or get help on a particular topic. Face-to-face or virtual-group interaction at key points in the program, such as a kick-off or achievement of a milestone, helps enhance user engagement.

Social media can also enhance the overall organizational learning program by supporting the knowledge transfer and actual behavioral change after the “formal” learning event has ended. Sometimes making the link between learning events that occurred away from the job (in a remote location or outside the flow of work) and the work itself can be difficult. By reinforcing the event, the involvement of peers and others through social media helps ensure the knowledge exchange was successful and applied in the workplace, contributing to improved business outcomes.

Build the equity of experts

One of social media’s greatest values is that it helps to identify internal experts, which in turn increases organizations’ productivity.

Today’s highly specialized workplace often blurs the line between learner and teacher. Coworkers often have untapped knowledge, but they will go overlooked without a social program that allows them to share their insight.

This is especially true in today’s global, virtual organizations where job titles don’t tell the whole story about a person’s range of skills and expertise, and where many workers are operating from remote offices. Social learning platforms can become a virtual water cooler: a place for colleagues to gather and exchange information.

Don’t overlook the importance of discovery

Building on the idea that organizations are a network of experts, the issue quickly shifts to the ability to effectively and efficiently search for these experts. The knowledge that a system captures will be of little value if users can’t find it when a need arises. To help achieve the goal of expert location, a social learning platform must have:

  • A way for experts to self-identify;
  • A way for community members to recognize others for their expertise; and
  • A search function that identifies experts as learning resources.

The first step is a user-created profile that captures interests and skills not evident based on job title. Personal-interest information may help connect workers who would not normally interact, and let them gain from each other’s knowledge base. These profiles will help coworkers identify and recognize expertise, bringing the most knowledgeable members of the organization to the forefront.

The ability to rate experts can also inform search, pushing these individuals to the top of the results, thus helping in future inquiries. Contributions, such as comments, notes, discussions, etc. should be searchable too, so users can recall these valuable nuggets of information as needed.

Make sure your social initiatives have cross-generational appeal

To achieve the maximum benefits of social media support for learning, organizations need to appeal to the entirety of the workforce. Millennials will gravitate to social media, as they grew up with these technologies and experienced them as part of their formal education.

However, social media tools should also appeal to Gen-Xers, Boomers and Traditionalists. This is crucial for capturing tacit knowledge, which is such an important part of the rationale for implementing social learning to begin with. It’s vitally important to create an environment that’s welcoming to the entire enterprise, especially in today’s age-diverse workforce.

Ease of use and “reverse mentoring” are keys to overall adoption. Utilizing Millennials as spokespeople while marketing the program internally can help increase chance for success. Organizations should consider creating a team of internal champions to promote the benefits of the system and act as personal guides to employees who are less comfortable using online social systems.

Capture tacit knowledge (before it walks out the door)

As many baby boomers look towards retirement, social media can help capture the decades of institutional knowledge they currently possess. It can be a strategic tool in documenting tacit knowledge, especially when intertwined with the daily flow of work. This seemingly mundane institutional know-how, such as processes and people unique to the organization, is often the most important information to capture as it is crucial to daily productivity.

Make it simple and secure

Widely used social networking sites have set the bar for ease-of-use and learners will expect a similar intuitive experience from organizational social media technologies used in support of learning. If they mimic the basic elements of already-accepted social systems, social media used for learning will simplify and speed the process of employee engagement.

To help grab the attention of time-strapped learning professionals, social media-supported learning initiatives need to be relevant to employees, provide obvious value and be easy to find. By building a social learning platform on top of existing learning resources, organizations can maximize existing content and behavior to drive adoption.

To ensure organization information isn’t leaking out to the Web, they need to make sure their system has the appropriate safeguards for security and that their employees understand the system is focused on serious business information. Organizations should also consider the privacy of employees participating in the system. Participants should be able to decide what information is included in their profile and whether or not their participation becomes public. Some social media systems are designed to automatically infer expertise based on usage. For example, if a user frequently searched a particular topic, it could show up as an area of expertise, even if the user may not want to be identified with it. It’s important for organizations to allow employees to search the system privately, while still making sure they understand that contributed information becomes the intellectual property of the organization.

Lastly, it’s important for organizations to carefully evaluate who’s providing their social media system. Longevity is important to learning through social media, as platforms increase in value over time as more information is added. To help ensure long-term success, it’s important for organizations to make sure their social system partners have a good track record of customer support and a viable future. The checklist in the Sidebar will help you achieve this success!

Table 1. Tips for using social media to support learning

Building on blended learning, the use of social media to support learning has now entered the formal paradigm with traditional classroom, mentoring/coaching, and online methods. The following tips provide guidance on how to build successful social-media-supported learning programs for your organization:

  • To help grab your employees’ already-stretched attention, social media-supported initiatives need to provide obvious value, be easy to find, and be relevant to employees. You can help drive adoption by building your social learning platform on top of your existing learning and information resources, maximizing existing content and behavior.
  • There are three key elements to keep in mind while planning social media support for a learning program: a technology platform, a vibrant community and great content. Seed the platform with great information from your current base and it will serve as a hook for users to return and engage. Prompting initial comments will lead to additional ones and an overall back-and-forth, achieving continued interaction.
  • Social media can increase employees’ participation in learning, as your employees are more likely to stay engaged and complete their program of study if they are able to reach out to coworkers involved in the same program or get help on a particular topic. Face-to-face or virtual group interaction at key points in the program, such as kick-offs or achievements of a milestone, also helps enhance user engagement.
  • Reinforcing the knowledge transfer and actual behavioral change after “formal” learning events is important. By providing reinforcement after the event, social media helps ensure the knowledge exchange was applied in the workplace, contributing to improved business outcomes.
  • Allow your social learning platform to become a virtual water cooler where colleagues can gather and exchange information. This will be especially beneficial if you work at a company where many employees work from remote or home offices on a global scale.
  • Identifying internal experts and providing functionality for search and discovery are two of social media’s greatest values. Make sure your social platform has the right set of features for capturing information and quickly recalling it at a later time.
  • To help capture tacit knowledge, it’s important to provide social media initiatives with cross-generational appeal. Utilize your company’s Millennials to help market the program internally and train Gen-Xers, Boomers and Traditionalists who may not be as familiar with online social systems.
  • Your users will expect the level of intuitiveness currently available in widely-used social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. People will more easily accept social-media support for your learning program if it can mimic the basic elements and usability of these sites.
  • You can also increase engagement by providing the right user profiles. Profiles should represent your employees’ interests and skills that sit outside their job titles. It’s also important to allow your employees to provide personal details that may help them connect with their coworkers.
  • Learning communities formed and supported by social media can help your organization overcome the issue of information overload by highlighting the most beneficial content. Allow users to recommend or “like” certain assets, as well as comment on the material.
  • It’s important to provide clear regulations to your employees to help ensure organizational information does not leak onto the Web. You should consider publishing a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for participation in workplace forums. 
  • Respect employees’ desire for privacy, as they will feel more comfortable engaging with the system if they are in control of how much of their use is shared. Avoid using social media systems designed to automatically infer and publicize expertise based on usage and/or previous searches.
  • Carefully review the companies you are thinking of partnering with for the social system, keeping longevity and customer support in mind. Longtime use of the social media platform is crucial to learning, as the value increases over time as more and more layers of information are added. It’s important that your system partner can support long-term use.