Robert Coates

What Can Facebook and Twitter Teach Us About Developing Knowledge Communities?

The social media tools of the tech-savvy have gone mainstream in the last year. CNN and many other news organizations now encourage us to follow them on Twitter for the most up to date and breaking news. And not just follow them, but share news stories as they are happening!

Facebook has gone from a way of connecting with other college students on campus, to an international community that includes not just students but mothers, fathers, and even grandmothers and grandfathers.

These new ways of connecting, communicating and sharing information are now making their way into the corporate world as organizations look for ways to capture, share and manage the knowledge and expertise that exists within them. Social Learning is quickly becoming a new catch phrase in the corridors of HR.

So what can we learn from Facebook and Twitter as we examine how to develop knowledge or learning communities in our companies. I think there are several lessons to keep in mind.

  1. Some people will take to it naturally and some won’t.  Just like any other media, the social media approaches will naturally fit some people’s learning and communicating styles better than others. Some people enjoy the conversations and interactions that social tools encourage, while others find this type of sharing and discourse uncomfortable. Social media tools should not be viewed as the answer for knowledge sharing and information, but be part of an overall strategy that includes a variety of options. These new tools have not replaced the telephone, email and face-to-face contact. They have augmented them. In the same way, they will not replace classroom sessions, online training or reference sources, but provide new ways to enhance them.
  2. Plan for organic growth rather than mandated use. Okay, I will admit it. The first time I checked out Twitter about a year ago, I didn’t get it. Now I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy guy, who enjoys being on the cutting edge of technologies, but I really didn’t care what my friends had for lunch! However, as more people I knew began to use Twitter and use it to share important news, ask questions, and crowd-source needs, I found that it did have a place in my communications toolkit. While both Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially in the last few months, it has not been through a strong marketing push, but rather an organic pull. Friends ask “Are you on Facebook?” and in online discussions “What’s your Twitter handle?” Sure once CNN and Oprah got on-board they took off, but the initial success was built by individuals sharing: “Hey this works for me, check it out.” Successful implementations of knowledge management/sharing communities within organizations will grow the same way. As people start exploring and sharing with their friends, co-workers and network, the value they are getting, and ways they are using the tools, growth will happen. So plan your roll-out strategy to build off of this organic growth.
  3. The greatest power will come in ways you won’t anticipate or expect.  The founders of Twitter had no idea that it would become a means for people to share breaking news during times of crises (like the riots after the Iran elections). It was simply a way to stay in touch with other tech friends – quickly and easily. But as people started using it, they found their own ways to make it valuable.When Facebook opened up to third party developers all types of additional possibilities were created. Now, I don’t really need any more Mafia Wars or Farmville invitations, thank you! But the variety of applications and ways of interacting that are being created means that there can be something for everybody. Again, not what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he started it, but certainly a big part of Facebook‘s appeal for many people. Now if you are a corporate IT person, this probably scares you to death. But the more open and adaptable you make the tool, the more ways people will find to use it to add value to the organization. The more locked down it is, the less it will get used and the less value it will create. Remember the folks who created the Internet never imagined it would become the ubiquitous tool for commerce, communication, and sharing that it is today.
  4. Don’t try to think or plan too far out.  Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace and before that Friendster. Soon there will be something that replaces Facebook. (Some think it could be Google Wave, but that’s for a future post). The technologies are evolving and creative people are developing new ways to connect, share, collaborate and work. And the pace of this evolution is accelerating.Three years is probably a good horizon for planning for any social media/communication tool. To plan beyond that is likely a waste of time and resources. And again, as more people begin to push on the capabilities of whatever you implement, there will be a demand for more, better and faster ways to share, organize and access knowledge.
  5. Finally, make it simple and easy to get started.  One of Twitter’s greatest advantages for growth is similar to one of Google’s, it’s dead simple to use. It’s just a single text box. How intimidating is that? And while Facebook is a bit more involved, the main use that most people start with is simply answering the “What’s on your mind?” question. Of course, there is a lot more you can do with Twitter once you start learning about hash tags, direct messaging, retweets, etc. The same goes for learning about the various features and options available on Facebook. But you don’t need to understand, or even know about those, to get started using them. In fact, go back to point number one, most people learn about these more advanced methods organically. They don’t need a “Here’s how to use Facebook” guide.

There are many platforms or technologies that you can use to implement a learning community or knowledge-sharing infrastructure in your organization. (In fact, we have recently rolled out our own platform Boost!,) Regardless of what platform you choose, following the lessons of Facebook and Twitter can help make your implementation more successful. I’d love to hear what you are doing and what you are learning.

Does Your Training Help People Fail?

A few weeks ago while home from the University of Central Florida where he is studying Electrical Engineering, my son was working to finish up some physics problems before driving back to school. Most of the problems he blew through by looking up the appropriate formula and plugging in information the problem statements provided. One particular problem however, was giving him fits. After struggling with it for about 30 minutes he finally asked old Dad to take a look.

Now it has been way too many years since I took my last physics class. So I turned to Google and quickly located several pages of explanations on how to solve problems similar to his assignment. When he tried following them though, none of them gave the right answer. So much for Dad’s help! Later that evening he texted me to say that he had gotten back to campus safely and had solved the problem.

When home again a few weeks later, I asked him how he figured out the problem. Basically, we were interpreting one of the factors in the problem statement wrong, which led to us putting in the wrong variable. The rest of the story though, was him sharing about the test he had just taken. “Dad,” he exclaimed, “five of the ten questions on the test were related to that same formula and I know I aced them all!” When asked about the other questions, he admitted that he was less than sure about his answers on those and had to look up some of the formulas for those problems.

I think Austin’s experience bears out the conclusions of Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork, of U.C.L.A., from their recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Learners remember better and for far longer when they don’t immediately get the correct answer, in other words — when they fail first.

For years, educators, and by extension some training developers, advocated “errorless learning” (first introduced by Herbert Terrace in 1963) where activities were designed to avoid learners getting an incorrect answer. The fear was that making an error (or practicing a skill incorrectly first) would lead to learning the error or inhibit learning the correct information or skill.

The research by Kornell, et al, reflects what we’ve seen in developing training experiences and simulations based on discovery learning. In our Blueline Blueprints‘, where table teams explore information based on a learning visual, the questions where teams have the most debate and spend the most time exploring possible answers create the most memorable learning. Questions where answers are too easily discovered don’t have nearly the same impact or retention.

We see the same in developing engaging and results-producing simulations (whether classroom or technology based). Post-simulation and follow-up testing often shows that learners retain best the material where they first made a wrong choice or incorrect decision. Of course, for the learning to be effective this must be immediately followed by some type of coaching, feedback and rationale for the correct choice.

Just like in my son’s case, when the learner fails first it often invokes a stronger emotional response to the material. Also, the learner spends more time processing the new information and aligning their original thoughts with this correct information. It seems reasonable that this increased energy, focus and attention would result in better learning and retention. And this is just what the research shows.

Of course, to be effective the experience should not just lead to failure willy-nilly. There are some guidelines to keep in mind when designing activities that provide the opportunity to fail.

1.There should be a reasonable path to the failure — The learner should not feel that they were tricked into failing. The given information or context should provide a reasonable frame for the anticipated incorrect choice or answer. However, the correct choice/answer should not depend on too nuanced a rationale. The response we want to generate once the correct choice/answer is discovered is Ah, “I can see that.”

2.Always provide feedback, coaching, or the correct answer — This should come immediately so that incorrect information is not retained. Part of providing this feedback or coaching is to giving a clear and succinct rationale for the correct choice/answer. In some simulation designs, the learner can call on a coach or mentor within the simulation before making a choice she is unsure of. While this may prevent a “failure,” the engagement, emotional energy and time spent processing the material is similar to what would have happened if the coaching had come after an incorrect decision.

3. Provide multiple opportunities for failure, but don’t overwhelm the learner — Look for critical content areas to make the most challenging. If every decision leads to failure the learner gets frustrated and probably will disengage. The most challenging situations or questions should be spaced throughout the learning experience to maintain high levels of engagement.

4.Ensure there are sufficient successes to maintain learner engagement and motivation — This is the corollary to #3 above. While the failures do seem to better ingrain new material, successes provide a necessary boast in energy and motivation. Typically, in designing a 90 minute Blueline Blueprint activity, that may consist of 20-25 discussion cards, I will look to develop 4-5 cards that I believe will generate significant debate about the “right answer.” These cards focus on the most critical aspects of the content. While the other cards are designed to generate discussion and engagement, they are likely to lead to consensus more quickly, and encourage a “yeah, we got that one” response. This response becomes all the more powerful and engaging precisely because the team has struggled and possibly “failed” previously.

Ultimately, all of our training efforts are directed toward helping people be more successful. And a few well-planned failures along the way may be just what it takes to help them ultimately succeed.