Social Learning

The Crashing of the Wave

In May of 2009, Google announced their “next big thing” Google Wave. It was touted as the next generation replacement for email. As it became available outside of Google offices and moved into the public realm, there was much speculation as to just what Wave was and how people would use it. Sadly, on August 4, 2010, Google announced that they are pulling the plug on Wave. It just never gained enough users for them to continue to invest in its development.

Wave never moved out of beta and as I posted earlier was not quite ready for prime time. Some of what it enabled users to do though is address very real and growing needs. What most people came to realize is that Wave was not a replacement for email, but rather a powerful collaboration tool. It provided for easy, real-time collaboration on everything from meeting notes to drafting research papers.

Here at Blueline we found it a useful tool for capturing conference call notes, drafting proposals, and quickly bringing someone new into a project or client conversation. The ability to “play back” revisions to a document or set of notes allowed a new team member to not only see the current version of a document, but follow the progression of the thinking that led to it.

The need for better tools for real-time collaboration that Wave tapped is now showing up in other tools such as the new version of Microsoft Office, and web-team tools such as Passing around a document via email is inefficient and lacks the “personal touch” of real-time collaboration.

From a learning perspective, these new tools for remote collaboration open up new avenues for peer learning and mentoring. More and more the future of learning in the workplace seems to be moving from the classroom to learning within the context of the work itself, whether that be through sophisticated Level 4 eSimulations, or just-in-time peer-to-peer learning.

As designers of learning experiences, we need to not only use these tools, but think strategically about them and how they can be leveraged to achieve the learning and business objectives of organizations. While the Google Wave may have crashed, the larger tide of more collaboration and team learning is still coming in.

The Key to Social Media for Learning is Participation

The three components of Learning 2.0 are social, formal and informal. Social learning, through Social Media applications, has, seemingly overnight, become the “holy grail” for learning professionals as more and more organizations go in search of a way to capture knowledge from departing Traditionalists and Boomers. Why the urgency? Simple: In less than 10 years, Generation Y (Millennials) will make up the majority of the workforce.

To date, while intuitive, there is little proof that Social Media is a successful model for learning within the organization. Most current illustrations of the power of Social Media describe improved communication with customers or collaboration among teams. Almost all case examples focus on the use of specific tools. Learning 2.0 through Social Media is not about a particular set of tools. Rather, it’s about implementation and maintenance, which ultimately must be dictated by your company’s culture. While the start-up costs are low, and initial participation and enthusiasm can be high, the fall off rates can be staggering.

The key to social media for learning is participation. Social media models for learning do not function when few produce and many consume. This is for two reasons:

1) Learning is greatly increased when participants engage by producing content rather than just consuming it, and
2) The longevity of a social media platform is often dictated by growing participation rates.

And participation is about cultural fit and perceived value. For many, value comes from being perceived as a valued contributor. For others, incentives are required.

Regardless, one thing is certain, the use of Social Media to promote knowledge capture as Traditionalists and Boomers depart the workforce will only be effective to the extent that these older generations become active producers of content. Since these generations are the least likely to be familiar and comfortable with these new technologies, we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. Many experts believe that the path forward will require the Millennials, who already identify with these new technologies, to draw this content out of the older generations with threads of question and answer.

Intuitively, Social Media as a means for knowledge capture and learning makes sense. Blueline’s approach is to consider all tools and technologies that will help us create engaging and immersive learning experiences for our clients.

At Blueline, we are actively researching thought leaders, and to date have come across one of note: Marcia Conner. She is a fellow of the Society for New Communications Research and the Batten Institute at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Learn more by going to

Cautions to Learning Professionals Implementing Social Media from the Facebook Brouhaha (Part 2)

Since I wrote Part 1 on this topic, the dust up about Facebook’s change to its privacy settings got so loud that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, published an editorial in the Washington Post saying “We missed the mark.” And, last Wednesday, Facebook rolled out a new “simpler” interface to control your privacy settings. While I’m sure many people are pleased that Facebook has responded to users concerns, these new developments do not negate the lessons that we can learn from this situation.

In the first post, I explored the caution on changing the implicit user agreement when implementing social tools, including knowledge management systems. In this post I’ll explore a second caution that arises from Facebook’s phenomenal success that results in them having over 500 million users.

As I mentioned last time, having such success has led to a situation where it is difficult not to be on Facebook. While there was a move on Facebook itself to make May 31st “Quit Facebook Day,” with a goal of getting 200 million users to cancel their Facebook accounts all on that day, quitting Facebook presents a real dilemma. If all of your friends, family and network are using Facebook to share information, organize class reunions, post the latest baby pictures, etc., and you are not on Facebook, you are left out.

So what’s the caution for corporate social learning and knowledge sharing? The more successful your system becomes, the greater the likelihood of creating two classes of corporate citizens — those who are engaged, contributing and valued in the social learning network, and those who are not. In a previous post, I talked about what research is discovering about the power of your network to influence your behavior and success. It is very powerful stuff.

The dynamic of those who are in the good”-old-boys (or girls)” network having access to better opportunities and support is probably as old as human beings. However, when the interactions that build those “good-old” networks are face-to-face, there are multiple ways to contribute and develop standing. At least with current social media technology, those who can most easily contribute and develop credibility and standing in a business setting, are those who are most capable of clear, concise writing. Now that is an ability that’s certainly important to develop in business today, but as an only means of establishing “network-value” it will rather limit or skew the network, meaning some will be left out.

I’m clearly not advocating that we avoid building social learning and sharing tools for our organizations. I’m just raising some cautions that we need to be aware of as we do. Just as with any change or technology, there is the Law of Unintended Consequences. As leaders in implementing these new tools and technologies, I think we have a responsibility to anticipate some of those consequences, and think about how to mitigate them.

Cautions to Learning Professionals Implementing Social Media from the Facebook Brouhaha (Part 1)

If you’re not a frequent user of Facebook or plugged into the stream of technology buzz, you may not even know there is a Facebook Brouhaha. Though recently, even mainstream media has picked up the story. I think the situation bears watching because it can be instructive for building and deploying your own social learning or knowledge management systems.

So, just what is the fuss all about? The long and short of it is that, Facebook has, over the past several months, been changing the way it makes the information you post on Facebook available to others. When Facebook started out, one of the things that separated it from MySpace and other internet-sharing sites was that anything you shared on Facebook was private and could only be seen by people you had agreed to let view your information as a “Friend.” This created an environment where many people felt comfortable posting pictures, videos, and updates about themselves and their family.

Now that Facebook has over 500 million users, it is looking to expand how it uses that information you share. Now from a business perspective, Facebook is looking for ways to generate more revenue from your content. It also is making it the default setting that everything you post is now public, unless you dig through the privacy settings and manually make things private. Just how convoluted is this process to protect your information? Well, all recently published a post on the 10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know. That’s right TEN settings you have to manually review and adjust to keep control over who sees your content!

These changes have created quite a stir (or brouhaha) among the technorati, some going so far as to start online campaigns to get people to cancel their Facebook accounts. (This, by-the-way, is not an easy feat to accomplish and even if you cancel they keep an archive of the content you have shared.) Two senators have even called for Senate investigations into Facebook’s privacy practices. And four enterprising young New York University students have raised over $100,000 for their plan to build an open-source Facebook replacement.

Now the problem with these calls to cancel your Facebook account, or switch to another platform, is those 500 million or so Facebook users. These create a nearly overwhelming pressure to use Facebook. If all of your friends, family and network are using Facebook to stay up-to-date, share the latest baby photos, and organize events, then if you aren’t on Facebook, you are out in the cold. This social network pressure probably will allow Facebook to blissfully continue on with its practice of unilaterally changing its social contract with its users with impunity.

So what are these cautions mentioned in the headline? Well, there are probably a number of them, but as it relates to developing and deploying social learning tools inside organizations there are two that I would like to suggest. I’ll discuss one here and the second in a follow-up post.

Caution 1: Be careful with the social contract that you create with contributors and users of your system. Unlike traditional classroom training programs or even elearning or mobile learning programs, the success (and possible failure) of a social learning or knowledge management system lies in the hands of the users and contributors. In traditional or even cutting edge training programs, the designers and developers carefully craft the content and experience to maximize the likelihood of achieving the course objectives. This means that, while a learner may value and even use the material taught, they don’t develop a sense of ownership for it. The ownership lies with the developers, and possibly a small group of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Contrast this to the social learning environment where the contributors of content have a real sense of ownership.

This ownership of content is where the caution lies in changing your social contract with users. Facebook’s original distinction was “your content belongs to you and you control who you share it with.” Their recent privacy setting changes have stood this implied contract on its head, and that is what has generated such a fire-storm.

The lessons for us in the social learning space?

a) Think carefully about how the system you are developing not only is going to be used today, but also what it might evolve into in the future.

b) Be sure to let your users know up-front how their contributions will be used now and possibly in the future.

c) If you do make a significant use change, give the user some control over how this use change impacts their contributions. (One of Facebook’s big mistakes is that the new “share publicly” setting is the default setting unless you manually go in and change it.)

d) Make opt-in rather than opt-out the norm. For example, after six months you might decide to implement an emailed digest of contributions to groups at the end of each day. If I am a member of eight different groups, I just got eight new emails (that I didn’t specifically ask for) in my inbox. Rather than have this type of thing “just happen” and require actions on the users part to avoid, make it opt-in. Again, give the user/contributor control.

Changes to the user contract is just one of the cautions that this Facebook dustup has brought to mind. In my next post, I’ll explore the ones that Facebook having 500 million users bring to mind.

Choose Wisely

Last week I wrote about the power of the learning visual to engage learners in creating their own story. Now clearly the quality of the art and visual metaphor in a learning visual have a significant impact on the learners and their experience, but how about the visuals you choose in other learning mediums, such as the virtual classroom or social learning portal? What role does the avatar or look you choose play in creating your story?

Well, as it turns out, these visual representations can play a significant role. In their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas A. Christaki and James H. Fowler, discuss research that has been done on the impact your avatar or visual representation has on the interactions you have and the perceptions others develop about you.

In one study they cite, individuals were assigned at random either an “attractive” or “homely” avatar in a virtual world. Those who got an attractive avatar exhibited more self-confidence than individuals assigned a homely avatar. Specifically, they had their avatar stand closer to individuals when interacting, on average 3-feet compared to 6-feet for homely avatars. They also demonstrated a greater willingness to share information and initiate conversations.

In another study, individuals assigned a tall avatar were more confident and assertive. They were consistently able to negotiate for a larger sum of money in a money exchange game when paired with someone who had a short avatar.

Perhaps the most amazing finding of these studies was that there was a carry over of the perceptions created in the virtual world to interactions in real life!

As more training and learning takes place through virtual and social technologies, be sure that when choosing your visual representation – choose wisely!