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:
- Facebook. –More than 800 million active users, each with an average of 130 friends. More than 50% of active users log on to Facebook in any given day.
- LinkedIn – 100 million professionals worldwide.(March 2011). Impressively there are 17.8 million members in LinkedIn Groups who post 1.2 million posts and comments per week .
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