4 reasons why employee social learning will fail at work

Yes, I know that Facebook has 23 million users. Yes, I see people on Facebook everywhere I look – on the trains, at traffic lights and when at work. Personally I spend more time than I should on LinkedIn and Facebook, much to chagrin of my family. Yes I am believer  a believer of social media and social learning. Who  wouldn’t be ? Have a look at some the statistics:

In terms of the social learning flavour, what better example than Wikipedia, where people generously give their time and expertise to build this impressive knowledge base. Check out the discussion forums at www.whirlpool.net.au. I have benefited numerous times from the in depth knowledge shared by that community about IT hardware and software issues (highly recommended that you check the forums before a hardware or software purchase).

An easy assumption to make in light of these success stories is that social learning at work will work. Certainly this is what social learning technology vendors will have you believe from their marketing efforts. Case studies of success of social learning at organisations such as IBM are compelling.

However beyond these few but well publicised success stories, I have struggled to hear about other social learning initiatives have been sustained beyond the initial launch.  I have been involved in setting up social learning for customers and this first-hand experience has led to a healthy scepticism about the predicted success of social learning at work. Four reasons for this healthy scepticism are:

1. The ingredients for successful of social learning go against the grain of traditional organisations.

Working at IBM and Google is very different from working at, let us say a bank or a mining company. People and their intellectual outputs is the lifeline of businesses (technology and professional services). The culture, processes and the reward systems reflect this and tend to be more “employee centric”, open and based on shorter power distance (Geert Hofstede’s model).

Organisatons in more traditional industries tend to less open and more hierarchical. They are characterized by the need to manage risk and the predominance of top down communication. Social learning which is based on more democratic principles struggles to establish itself and grow in this environment. Many social learning initiatives in such organisations begin with a flourish and usually end up being another channel for top down communication with very little participation from the employees.

Another barrier to social learning in organisations is the low tolerance for risk. While social media in general tends to be self-regulating, the possibility of a post being inappropriate is real and too risky for many organisations. Some organisations approve comments before they can be published to remove the risk but it takes way the spontaneity and authenticity of the participation. I hasten to clarify the difference between the approval and moderation. Moderation adds value to the discussion and increases the rate and quality of participation

2. The employment social contract has changed

In world of increasing retrenchments and outsourcing the message sent to employees is “fend for yourself”. Employees have less motivation to contribute to the success to the organisation beyond what is mandatory or what is incentivised. The success of social learning depends on employees taking the time to participate and contribute their insights, knowledge and expertise without any extrinsic rewards. As mentioned people contributing to wikipedia or whirlpool.net.au don’t have any monetary incentives but they are generous with their participation but when it comes to contributing to social learning in the organisation, the state of mind is likely to switch to a “mercenary” or “what is it in for me” mode.

3. Underestimating ingredients for success

Many organisations see the deployment of technology to enable social learning as the “silver bullet” and the “end game”. Some of this misconception is created by technology vendors but mostly it is due to organisations failing to understand that selecting and deploying technology to enable social learning is probably the easiest part of the process.  One thing makes social learning a different beast – it is not mandatory for employees to participate but its success entirely depends on their participation.

Lack of “business purpose” is another common reason for failure. Many social learning initiatives are commenced for the sake of trying “social learning”. The success of social learning depends on the ability of the community and its contribution to provide value add. At its best it acts as a performance support system for employees trying to solve a business problem.

Another grossly underestimated aspect is the effort and skill required to nurture and sustain a community. Initially communities may need a dedicated community manager or a moderator (part time or full time) who provides the necessary energy and structure in the forming stage. This is rarely catered for.

4. Where is the time?

Ok let me ask you a question. In between your growing workload and the need to maintain work life balance do you have time to participate in social learning? Would you rather spend time on Facebook with your social community (friends and family) in an environment you can express yourself with very few rules or would you sacrifice some of that time to participate in social learning at work. For many employees the choice is not very difficult.The acceleration of pace of work compounded by information overload means that employees have very little down time to participate in “non-essential” work  activities and social learning.

In conclusion, social learning is unlike anything organisations have experienced. It is a double edge sword. If you can make it work it produces results like nothing else can by harnessing knowledge and insights of your employees. If you can’t it will die a quick death or may even be counter-productive.

When you commence on the social learning journey, go there with your eyes open and your expectations tempered. Be prepared for that 99% perspiration.

My next post will cover the key ingredients required give social learning a chance to succeed.

4 reasons why employee social learning will fail at work


  1. Good points Jeevan.
    One of the key considerations is that we seem to use the term ‘Social Learning’ as a huge umbrella to cover everything from knowledge management, communities of practice, blended learning to informal Q&As. Social learning has been around since day 1..companies have been using forms of social learning since the dawn of industrialization..what we need to figure out is how to make the best choices re tools, mediums, skills, knowledge and everything else we bring to work..and get that to results in effective learning.

  2. That is right Deb. Social Learning as a term is the current flavour of the month. In many cases it is simple an discussion board added to an online course in the LMS. You are right it has been around – “water cooler talks”.

  3. A very insightful/timely article.

    It would seem correct that the assumption of loss of control is a predominating factor as to why many organizations place restrictive policies over SM use in the workplace. Top down communications in traditionally silo based hierarchies lose to a greater extent their ability to control the dissemination of information across an organization.

    Your article shows just cause for the flattening of these restrictive systems and environments – In response to and agreement with Debra Gallo’s comment about how we must engage energy into decision making about how to utilize these tools for the benefit of SM in Organizations (please see http://www.SMinOrgs.com)

    Social Media’s significance like social stratification along one side or another will continue to grow. In the Learning Organization, it will be successful ( A sociological approach). However, Social Media in an organization that is power focused (anthropological approach) failures will occur – It’s a cultural thing just as you alluded to with Dr. Geerdt’s differential model.

  4. Maybe there has been too much effort to “formalise” social networking and not enough spent with a minimalist approach to start with and letting it grow naturally, nurtured by a keen moderator. It’s all about trust and balance.

    The term “social networking” has been captured by true “social” networking – Facebook and the like. Perhaps a better term in the business context is “on-line business exchange” (or similar). This may help take away the “time-wasting” opinion held by “mature” leaders.

  5. Very inciteful analysis Jeevan

    as a seasoned campaigner in the off-line education world venturing into this 2.0 medium does seem frought with technological, sociological and marketing diversions waiting to catpure the vulnerable.

    Common sense is not so common but nothing like hearing it from those who’ve experienced!


  6. Nice article! I agree with all that you’ve written. I have some additional thoughts…

    A – I think the label “Social Media” is/was a problem as businesses are in business to perform – and these might have been called collaborative tools to enable performance (the end goal – not learning – a means to that end). If various tools, that truly enable (us in “our context”) were made available and we were shown how to use them – and then the organization steps back to let us figure out what we need to address with these tools available – then we might use what makes sense. Not what is proscribed (and worse if the tools/tool-set are part of a “one size fits all” approach across the organizational landscape).

    B – Communities can be organized in matrix fashion – for the “Processes” I support and the “Knowledge/Skill/Competency” areas I represent. Perhaps I would be in the New Product Development community and in the Mechanical Engineering Community (plus others, etc.).

    C – The natural Consequence System in place probably works against me contributing – sharing w/o proper rewards and recognition – perhaps enabling others to get the job/promotion etc. that I aspire to – would keep me from contributing. Routine Recognition from my peers and management might get me off the dime of resistance. Perhaps Gain Sharing with %’s decided by my process peers might stimulate some sharing.


    Guy W. Wallace, CPT
    EPPIC Inc.

  7. Great article Jeevan,

    I’m currently exploring options and looking for sponsors in my organisation. The reactions from senior business managers range from “what are you talking about” to “let’s do it tomorrow if it helps my bottom line”.

    I think these polarised views represent some of the issues faced with SM or business collaboration or whatever we want to call this space. The level of common knowledge about it at stakeholder level is so varied. Vendors trying to differentiate themselves will sell on any number of benefits. Individual experiences with Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin may present entirely different views. IT departments are also implementing “collaboration” tools that don’t look or behave like most social media collaboration platforms.

    So how are executives and sponsors supposed to discern just what it is they are investing in and what they will get in return? What will their business look like with an active social media solution in place? These are fundamental questions that need obvious answers before we see any kind of revlution in the workplace.

    Having said that, I am well and truly on the hunt for those answers as I believe this is a nut worth cracking.

  8. Guy, Thanks for your inputs.

    I agree the label “social media” is an issue. It does however help get the attention of senior leaders in the organisation, who seem to be more excited by the new (but unproven) rather than the old (and proven). I agree with point 2. some of the most successful social communities at work are where it has been used to collaborate on a specific project.

    I do believe that we are naturally inclined to help other (e, top level of Maslows hierarchy of needs), however the current workplace dynamics don’t nurture this, which is why it prospers outside of work e.g open source software.

  9. We are currently using enterprise social sites very effectively. This is because staff have been engaged with their organisation long before access to these sites was provided. The barriers mentioned in this article are the issue – not social networking.

    As our organisation goes through the pain of integrating 4 agencies, Yammer provides our operational staff with a forum to share ideas accross business areas and provides a platform for virtual project teams to meet.
    The DHS Change Network Blog and Transformernet Online provides a platform for the sharing of ideas, articles etc on leading and managing change. I use both to keep in touch with what’s happening in a geographically dispursed organisation and for self-development purposes.

    We also need to keep in mind that many of our new leaders are Y gen and function very effectively in virtual environment and we need to ensure that they are engaged in our organisations.

    An open, accountable and transparent organisation will embraced new technologies to engage with their staff.

  10. […] Impact analysis – We have to be a bit careful in interpreting this prediction. What it is not saying is that social networking will become less popular but the investments in social network technology will  decrease  i.e there is a oversupply of products and vendors in this space which will consolidate. This prediction validates to some extent my own bearish view on the success of employee social networking – “4 reasons why employee social learning will fail at work“. […]

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