Making the case for social media

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.

  • Tony Ratcliffe

    Your post addresses social media in learning. This is an area I am starting to research, and I am going to be supportive. However, I am going to play the role of the manager who needs to be convinced by your arguments. (For the record, I am not the Tony referred to in the post.)

    First, you refer to “slacking off.” You refer to two workers performing at the same level, one using social media sites and one not. I don’t see this related to training, so I’m wondering what the excessive use of social media actually is. Are you suggesting that the employee should be able to play on the web if productivity is acceptable? Perhaps the worker could perform more if not on the sites. Or, is the use of the social media related to work and/or learning? If so, tell me more about what is occurring.

    We then get to the issue of colleagues not being interested. If we truly want to see social media in the workplace, for work or learning purposes, what specific technologies would engage them? I’m going to throw in a personal example here. My mother uses a computer regularly, most notably for work with a not for profit association. My dad uses a slower computer primarily for email relating to work from home. I don’t think he has expressed an interest in knowing or using more. When I recently visited, I set my mother up with a webcam and Skype, and she immediately connected with her sister in the UK. He saw this and decided he needs a new computer and the technology. He is 75. Could this have engaged him more in learning that takes place by having him connected from his home office?

    Finally, you address social media as a learning tool, but I’m not sure how you intend to use it. Yes, successful cases can be presented, but let us in on some ideas. How could social media possibly be used in workplace learning? Of course, that was the manager’s question, not mine with an interest in e-learning research! I’m seeing that the arguments for the use of social media actually involve informal learning at work. The questions that I then pose is how the informal learning is actually occurring with social media, how is the learning being captured, and what does this mean for the individual and the organization?

    If I might add my thoughts, this might include providing evidence of learning by the employee for the purposes of career advancement, for prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) in an academic program, or for professional development qualification requirements (such as continuing education credits are required by professional bodies). Let’s not forget, though, that employees may just be intrinsically motivated by their new learning opportunities. For the employer, I wonder if it translates to employee satisfaction, higher retention, and other measures that could justify the change in approach. For sure, let’s find ways to pilot study and report on the effects.

  • Owen Ferguson

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your thoughts. The subject of social media in learning and performance is a massive topic and I’ve not intended to cover all aspects in this blog post, just the two areas that I found interesting about the question that Tony Karrer received. That said, you raise some interesting additional questions.

    My point about the fear of employees slacking off at the slightest hint of social media is that managers should notice if this happens. If there’s a genuine fear that introducing social media into the organisation will result in ‘slacking off’ then there’s a problem with managers. What kind of manager wouldn’t notice if their team wasn’t performing at the level they should be? When L&D departments say they believe that introducing social media will result in slacking off, what they’re really saying is that they don’t have enough skilled managers or decent employee engagement.

    I’m a strong proponent of social media and I believe that a great deal of learning can occur through an expanded knowledge/social/business network. If an employee is using social media to fritter away time rather than learn and grow, it suggests that there’s a promlem with the level of engagement. That’s what should be dealt with rather than a knee-jerk banning of facebook/twitter/blogs etc.

    The specifics of which technology would be most engaging really depend on the organisation, the level of technical competence of its workforce and their familiarity with social media. That’s why I think experimentation and piloting can so effective (although you need to have a critical mass of employees involved otherwise it defeats the purpose).

    As for some ideas? Managers are best persuaded by evidence of real life initiatives. That’s why I recommend running a pilot/experiment and getting examples from other organisatons. There’s plenty out there – our case studies give some examples, there’s BT’s Dare2Share initiative, BUPA have trialled and implemented social bookmarking, Westminster Council’s use of dicussion forums, the US Army’s Company Command site … the list is practically endless.

    There’s no single method for dealing with all managers in all organisations who have doubts about social media. The discussion needs to be based on what’s relevant to that organisation, its workforce and its industry. One thing should be consistent though, they key to making progress isn’t to focus on learning, it’s all about improved performance. Informal learning plays its part, but, as a manager myself, I’m pretty focussed on how that learning can help us improve performance.

  • Tony Karrer

    Great post. Going to take me a while to get through all of it. The case studies you just mentioned are good as well. Like to find lots of write ups of those.

  • Jane Bozarth

    Your ideas are right on target. To your point about people “slacking off” I have found this a useful analogy: If an employee is abusing time on the telephone, do we take out all the telephones in the building? (And PS: Do managers really believe the employee who wants to slack off won’t find another way to do it? This is a management problem, not a “social media” one.)

  • Dr. Mike Lacy

    There are numerous tools that can be used to assist and enhance the learning process including technology that is used in social networking; although I am not sure what learning takes place with the posting of “ I am ranking the leaves”. As we know adult learning theory suggests that adults only acquire knowledge or learn if there is a need for or an interest in the topic. My concern is not with the learning, as I suggested learning can be accomplished by the application of numerous methodologies, what about the use of the knowledge.
    Is the purpose of training & development just the acquisition of knowledge or is it the application of that knowledge designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the business operation. Research suggested that we spend more than 52 billion dollars a year on corporate training; however, within six months less than 10% of that knowledge is being used. This is the challenge not the methodology that is used to implement the learning.
    Dr. Lacy