social-networkThe big question this month is about the value of social media in learning and, once again, it tackles a problem that's being experienced by learning professionals attempting to move beyond being a traditional, classroom focused training function. Tony posts an example of the kind of question he typically comes across. I think that the question highlights two issues which are worth looking at separately.

Social media causes people to slack off ... Really? That old chestnut?

The first issue posed by Tony's questioner is that:

"My coworkers are Baby Boomers and Traditionals. When I mention blogs or any social networking they "poo-poo" me and say our workers should not use those tools because it will make them inefficient and not do their jobs."

This issue crops up again and again in HR discussion boards and, for the life of me, I can't see any logic in it at all. If someone is spending excessive time on social media sites or using social media tools and this is making them inefficient, should it not be picked up as a drop in their performance/output and be dealt with by their manager? Let's imagine that you've got two workers, one of whom uses social media regularly while the other does not. If both are performing at the same level, does the problem lie with the person who can perform to an expected standard while engaging in social media or the person who can only perform to that level working at full pelt, learning nothing new in the process? I'm all for a pragmatic look at the real value of social media but it seems to me that fearing a drop in performance highlights a worrying lack of belief in the competence of managers to manage performance. That's an issue worth tackling ahead of agonising over experimenting with discussion boards to share ideas and experiences! When someone talks nonsense about another topic, they are rightly challenged; social media should be no different.

My colleagues aren't interested

The second issue is more challenging, because there's something other than parroting out a cliche behind it.

"When I have presented the idea of how we can use discussion threads on our environment to discuss topics and make comments outside the classroom, many of my co-workers said it can't be done. They either haven't opened their mind to the idea or really care. In essence, if it is not classroom, they are really not interested in it."

I'm slightly confused by what the co-workers are saying "can't be done". However, this kind of resistance usually comes down to one of four key issues:

  • It's a nightmare to set up. IT departments in mid to large organisations aren't renowned for making it easy for people to set up pilots and experiment with new technologies. Someone needs to be the broker in these situations (IT people often want to be enablers, sometimes they just need a little help). Alternatively, there are ways around the IT department ...
  • The availability heuristic on steroids. The classic "I don't understand/use it, my friends don't understand/use it, therefore no one understands/uses it". This is true of many people, and it's not a generational thing. It's a result of how comfortable with technology you are. Those of us more comfortable with new technologies are more likely to associate on a day to day basis with other people who use social media. The opposite is also true. The growing body of evidence about social media adoption is usually enough to encourage a more accurate perspective but if there's any doubt, anyone who's met anyone under the age of 20 should realise that there's a growing demand for social media as a work tool.
  • Prior bad experience of the 90-9-1 rule. Discussion forums are often a disappointment when used with small, dis-engaged groups. This is because a fair proportion of the forum users tend to have a similar attitude. To be truly successful, a discussion forum needs to have either a critical mass of users or a specific purpose to compel/encourage users to visit it. Educating users on how forums work before introducing them is also an important factor in successful adoption.
  • Fear of losing the 'expert' status. Most classroom practitioners (as opposed to learning professionals) I've met enjoy classroom training because it's a stage they feel comfortable in. Usually, they've spent a number of years building up their expertise. Social media required a new skill set and nobody likes starting from the beginning again. Except, they're usually not. Many of the skills that have held them in good stead when facilitating learning in a workshop, will still be of use to them in an online environment. They will however, have to learn how to apply those skills differently.

Making the case for social media as a learning tool

Social media is already being used as a learning tool. What are the telephone and email if not early social media tools. However, for some reason discussion forums, blogs, wikis and status updates are viewed differently. I don't think answer here is just about communicating the value of social media. I think it's about making a business case for it. Building a case can be done in a number of ways, but here's a few examples I've seen that have been quite effective:

  • Set up a pilot/experiment. Nothing communicates the value of something quite as well as evidence of success. Setting up a pilot should be relatively simple. There are plenty of secure, hosted services from reputable companies that can be used to test out the use of social media as part of an learning initiative. All it needs is an enterprising individual to take up the challenge and just do it.
  • Share examples from similar organisations. Evidence doesn't just have to be internal. There's no organisation that's so unique that you can't find an example of a similar organisation that's had success with social media. Finding someone who'd be willing to talk about their experiences and share their successes can add weight to your proposal.
  • Challenge resistance to social media as you would any other change resistance. Discussion and challenge are part of any good learning and development function. Sometimes you need to coax people to your point of view. Sometimes you need to try and see things from their perspective. And sometimes you need to call out irrational fears for what they are:

But really the most compelling case is the way that social media can help to embed learning more effectively, cut down on the amount of classroom time needed and, ultimately, save both time and money. That's the story that managers will eventually listen to, it just needs to be championed in the right way.