On 26 January I will be presenting on — The Power of Social Learning: Building Knowledge, Community, and Trust — hosted by Valamis LXP. Several questions have already been submitted by some of the over 150 participants registered so far and I will not have time to address most of these. Instead, I will try to answer these here — by topic — though they mostly do not directly reflect the content of the presentation. Some of these questions would require much more contextual understanding to give an adequate response and others could make for a month-long consulting assignment.
Connections & Boundaries
Complex work requires strong ties and high levels of trust to enable work teams to function. On the other hand, innovation needs loose ties and a wide network to get diverse points of view. In these loose networks, cooperation (sharing freely without direct reciprocation) is the order of the day, not collaboration (working together toward a common objective).
We cannot focus only on networks and complexity and ignore the rest, however. There is no single answer on how diverse a work team should be, or the right balance between time spent with loose networks and time spent focused on projects. It’s not as simple as tacking on 20% time. Work and learning are in dynamic tension at all times. While some action and coordination in the workplace can be automated with performance support systems, collaboration and cooperation are still intensely human and require continuous learning.
A third space is required — communities of practice — which connect social networks and teams. These communities — internal and external — are safe places between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. A primary role for learning & development staff is to find and support these communities. It’s a community of practice if it changes peoples’ practices.
Getting support for a learning budget in tight times
I have often been asked how to convince organizational leaders of the return on investment (ROI) for workplace learning. However, if executives are asking for the ROI of an initiative, it really means they do not believe in it, and are sending you off to stop bothering them for a while. If they really think something is important for the business, they seldom ask to see any ROI.
If those in leadership positions are to really promote workplace learning — not just compliance courses — they have to believe that it is good for them. In order to truly understand any inherent value, executives have to already be practicing cooperation in knowledge networks and developing emergent practices. For executives to believe in workplace learning and support frameworks like personal knowledge mastery — necessary for the rest of us — they have to see it for themselves first. All of the effort put into preparing business cases for organizational learning initiatives should instead be focused on getting the leadership to adopt new practices. After that, there is no longer any need to sell the idea. Justifying ROI is selling to the wrong part of the executive brain.
Sometimes — if the investment is small enough — nobody cares about ROI, and that is what Trojan Mice are for.
Sustaining virtual communities going forward
These are lessons I learned ten years ago about online communities and they are still valid in my experience. Virtual communities are not a new thing since the pandemic started. Many people have a lot of experience in fostering communities, such as Rachel Happe.
- A loose-knit online learning community can scale to many participants and remain effective.
- Only a small percentage, ±10%, of members, will be active.
- If facilitators can seed good topics and provide feedback, then conversations can flourish.
- If you use a very gentle hand in controlling members/learners, some will become highly participative.
- Design for after any formal training, using social tools that artifacts can be used for reference or performance support.
- Create the role of ‘synthesizer’ from the onset, who will summarize the previous week’s activities.
- Keep the structure loose enough so that it can grow or change according to the needs of the community.
However, there is a dark side to communities as well. They can strengthen bias and help hate groups to not just form but take action. Communities can reinforce prejudice. Large communities can also make hate socially acceptable. Seb Paquet noted that social media enable “ridiculously easy group-forming”. Not all groups are for the good of society. Not all communities are there to promote democracy. We should all be aware of the dark sides of communities.
Models and practices for peer learning groups
I’ve had success in asking senior leadership how often they learn and exchange information using social rather than formal mechanisms. Once they put their own learning experiences into this context, they are often more likely to accept the value of social mechanisms.
A professional learning community, with its redundant connections, repetition of information, and indirect communications, is a much more resilient system than any designed professional development program can be. The bottom line is that learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections. Well-managed professional communities of practice with a good vision and a compass for the future can provide a trusted environment for making these peer connections.
Is there a place for social media in social learning?
Complex work and work in complex environments require faster feedback loops. We need to get data, information, and knowledge quickly, and cannot wait for it to be bounced up and down a chain of command. Social networks, which are comprised of people that we trust in some way, can enable us to connect to someone who may be able to help. However, to do this, we have to already have that connection. Social media allow us to initiate and nurture relationships with many people in different organizations. The quality of our networks becomes critical in enabling us to do complex work. Social learning is the enabler.
Social media help people find and connect with each other, based on some shared interests. With complex work, our challenges are now highly contextual and good or best practices just don’t cut it anymore. We need someone who understands the nature of our problem who can use human reasoning to help us. We have to be connected to that person though. That’s why we need to engage in online social networks, but these are not created overnight. We develop them one conversation and one interaction at a time.
Simply put, they help create networks of multi-way trust to share ideas, advice and feelings between people who care. Social networks have been shown to be the principal way that learning spreads in organizations.
Individual learning in organizations becomes irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Therefore, social networks are the conduit for effective organizational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organization.
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I have been using this concept for years as part of a series of sessions for managers. Powerful!