I’ve been reading with interest recent articles and blog posts proclaiming that social practices won’t work in the enterprise. Posts such as ‘You ready to fail at social networking’ and the excellent post from Jeevan Joshi  ‘4 reasons why employee social learning will fail at work‘, have really made me think and reflect on the hype surrounding social business and more specifically the rise of social networks / communities within the work environment.

Whilst I agree with everything in respect of the challenges of adopting social tools, I disagree with the notion that social won’t work in the enterprise. My own experiences, which began in 2008 after attending the Learning Technologies Conference, have shown me that it is HARD work, even painful at times but the journey is a deeply rewarding one. I am not finished on that journey, personally and professionally, I never will be but I believe that it’s possible to bring social behaviours and a cultural change to the workplace.

So what have I learned along the way that I can share with you?

1)      Focus on what the tools will provide you in terms of value

Rather than the tool itself, look to solve a problem or make things easier for people so it answers the WIIFM upfront and people are clear this isn’t a fad or the latest ‘jump on the bandwagon’ activity. Be sincere that this will change the way that you communicate and work together. Don’t just drop social tools in because it’s cool or because you think you should because other people are doing it.

2)      Platform / application selection is important

Yes I know I said focus on the value and not the tools but you can’t bring any sort of platform or system in to the enterprise without it meeting security requirements or satisfying information security policy. I can speak from experience and have learned the hard way. I do appreciate this depends on the nature of your organisation but you must provide an environment where people can share and discuss work without worrying about security or employee data being in a public space. You cannot do this on your own so if you haven’t already engaged with IT, Information Security, HR, Risk, your Intranet teams and anyone else with a vested interest in social tools, pick up the phone tomorrow and have a conversation. You never know these conversations might be happening already and you’re just not part of them yet.

3) Be clear on what you want to achieve

  • Do you want to provide a social space for your people?
  • Are you looking to provide more effective ways for people to work together?
  • Are you looking to improve methods of communication?
  • Do you want to develop a more open culture of sharing?
  • Do you want to easily identify & reward expertise across your business?
  • Is it for better and more efficient knowledge & document management?

Is it all of the above and more? Whatever ‘IT’ is, don’t set out to achieve and deliver social learning. It won’t work, what’s more, if you go out with the “we’re going to deliver social learning” line, I’d re-think your approach entirely.

Social learning is a bi-product of ALL of the above; it isn’t something you can deliver. It’s something that will happen when you create the right conditions and it will happen over time. It won’t be something that is visible or even tangible, I believe it’s a cultural shift that will emerge in ways those traditional approaches to evaluation and measurement won’t come close to. It’s something that is deeper than transactional tasks, it’s what happens at work every day and has helped me put in to context the 70/20/10 framework better than anything else.

4)  Be prepared for setbacks, challenges and old school mentalities

Just because you ‘get it’ and have a social account or two and are tech savvy doesn’t mean that other people will be in the same space. Be prepared, be prepared for setbacks and challenges but more importantly be prepared for people. People, who are set in their ways, people who, no matter how much value you can demonstrate, will push back. People WILL put obstacles in place either physical or mental barriers to the approaches you’re looking to adopt. Do NOT be disheartened and give up, instead understand that you are on a journey and that you need to take everyone on the journey with you, for some the journey will take longer than for others. Peter Senge said it best with the line “People don’t resist change, they resist changing themselves”. How right he was, however people can and do change, just keep demonstrating how much more engaging work can be and stick to what you believe.

5) Role model the right behaviours

This one is debatable in terms of most important, but I believe this is THE most important point of all. Regardless of tools or platforms, setbacks or challenges keep demonstrating the behaviours that you believe make social practices so important that your organisation can’t do without them. If you have tools already in place then use them, demonstrate how and why openness, transparency and trust is key. Demonstrate the power of openly sharing information and knowledge to others, even if it seemingly falls on deaf ears. Make sure you have a community management strategy, even a small presence makes all the difference when getting others to adopt new tools and working practices.

If you don’t have the network tools within work then use Twitter, LinkedIn, Google +, Facebook or any number of sharing tools like Diigo or Del.cio.us to share resources and information with your colleagues. Why not start a Scoop.it Magazine, there is a fantastic article here on curation by @burrough on why L&D need to get on the curation bandwagon . The point is be creative, be brave and invite your colleagues to groups or circles or harass them in to following you and share information that they might find interesting. Look at this as a form of coaching as if people don’t see these behaviours anywhere else then how are they ever going to adopt them and start to role model these behaviours themselves. One of the challenges that you may face is the access to these tools within the workplace therefore it immediately becomes something done ‘outside’ of work and in personal time. This approach therefore may need some positioning but look to discuss what you’re doing and how you’re doing it at every opportunity – even at times if it feels like you are the lone voice and sound like a broken record. Celebrate any successes with your colleagues, breakthroughs will come, usually at a time when you least expect it from people you don’t expect it from.

So in conclusion, next time you read posts that state social will not work in business; appreciate them for what they are. They are useful reminders that help us recognise the challenges and things that we need to overcome first, before we evolve the way we work. I firmly believe that regardless of your business and present culture, social tools WILL work and networks will PREVAIL….you just have to work at them.

Can you share anything that may help others on their journey to the ‘impossible’?


  1. Hi Mike – we need more people like you – to think through the issues and have the fortitude to speak up. Thanks for your thoughtful and heartfelt post.

    I agree that we (L&D professionals) need to encourage and facilitate change and that social networking is an important aspect towards consolidating learning. Yes, it’s not easy for all the reasons you and others mention. It makes me reflect on WHY it’s so hard. Is it “people” and the dynamics of change? Yes it is, but I think we are also our own worse enemy in many respects. For far too long the L&D function has been placed in a subservient space. For me, there are four main reasons to ponder – old thinking structures and organisation design; inability to argue the value of learning; not enough focus on performance; lack of L&D professionalism.

    I’m speaking very generally so don’t offended, but this is OUR fault! We have meekly accepted our place in organisational life as a “cost” to the organisation. We have been conditioned and therefore act in a subservient manner; we say “yes” too often, we don’t argue points of difference and if we do, we try and do it using language that those outside the learning field don’t understand.

    There is no silver bullet available for this, just determination and dedication to make the changes and acceptance that it’s not going to happen overnight. We also need many more Mike’s!

  2. What a great article Mike! You make some very good pointers to what can make social networking ‘work’ in an organisational context. I particularly like your point on social learning being something that can’t be delivered but will happen with the right conditions. This reminds me enormously of Gloria Gery’s comments about learning in the context of performance support – that it is almost a by-product of the performance you are trying to enable. In fact Gloria took it further when she said if performance support tools are helping people achieve or exceed desired performance objectives, does it matter whether learning happens at all? She answered rhetorically that learning will happen anyway if people are improving. It’s like night following day.

    I think learning in the social networking context is exactly that. Whether the goal is to achieve better communication or a social space or better ways of working together, if those things are enabled through a social network, learning will happen – planned or otherwise. And isn’t that a reflection of how we learn socially anyway? When two people are in conversation and one offers something the other didn’t know – learning happens. People become aware of something new. This is what social networks are aiming to achieve in the business context. The dynamics of social interaction in a commercial environment.

    I believe if the road isn’t bumpy then we’re on the wrong road. I’m fully expecting challenges and setbacks as I attempt to do more in this space but then again I’ve been a champion of performance support for over 20 years. What’s a few more scars?

  3. Hi Bob, firstly apologies for the delay is responding, and thank-you for your comments and thoughts.

    I think you raise a number of good points on the reasons why it’s difficult:

    Old thinking structures and organisation design – most organisations use email as the primary method of communication and find it difficult to comprehend how networks can enhance the flow of information and make conversations and idea sharing more open and therefore valuable in terms of knowledge management in the workplace. This is also a challenge to the traditional mindset of 121 or specific group emails (with the dreaded cc) , again closed conversations where as conversations via networks mean they are more open and inclusive – at least you have the opportunity to participate & contribute or just take a look out of interest. For some this is also seen as a threat, I think this is a through a perceived loss of control but I’m going to follow up this post with some thoughts on this. Lastly the organisation design including workflow, communication channels and the ability to find information is also key here – do you design your workflow, processes and employee experience around the tools or design the tools around the workflow etc?

    Inability to argue the value of learning – I’ve been involved in lots of great conversations recently around collaboration tools, networks, communities and social intranets. I have learned not to talk about learning as a primary driver for any of these as no-one else around the table is talking about workplace learning. We know that through adopting these tools learning will take place but it’s not something that will get budget agreed. This is the gradual change that will take place and depends on the maturity of the organisation it will be acknowledged as learning and personal development.

    Not enough focus on performance – I agree here but I think this is largely due to the way in which L&D have been set up as you say in a subservient way, the focus for L&D is on visible solutions and a mentality that almost screams of justifying it’s own existing through demonstrating Management Information on things like man hours trained, courses delivered, workbooks printed – does any of this provide evidence of learning, does any of this provide evidence of improved performance, do any of things we currently provide as demonstrating what L&D do actually matter?

    Lack of L&D professionalism – I am very proud of my team is the sense of we meet every request from our business areas, we work hard and deliver to a high standard and maintain our professionalism at all times however the model we’ve adopted has split the team so we have a a core team of designers and a core team of delivery trainers. In my opinion this has some what devalued the role of being a learning professional so rather it be a lack of professionalism I would say it’s a lack of confidence (to think outside the realms of training – this is what we do) and lack of capability to actually bring about any significant change in approach.

    All part of the evolution of workplace learning & performance, we need to be in it for the long-haul and be the driving force behind these changes either upfront or through more subtle means. If it was easy then it would be no fun 🙂

  4. Thanks for your comment Peter

    I agree with you, we fall in to this trap of deeming everything learning and to be honest as soon as we start talking about learning it is hard for us not to associate this with our experiences of education whether it be school or higher education.

    One of our earlier conversations on another post has stayed with me, you were sharing with me your journey and stated that in order to have a more effective impact on knowledge flow & management within the organisation you had to move away from learning. I found this very interesting and have been thinking about this quite a lot since that conversation. In fact it’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t talk about learning as a primary driver for any of the tools discussed in the post.

    Further evidence that the mindset from within L&D needs to change but more importantly the perception of what L&D does and is capable of from outside the dept needs to change quickly or we’ll become a novelty dept used only for the ‘fluffy’ stuff like inductions and presentation skills workshops

Comments are closed.