Volume 14: Understanding Social

Sidebar Understandingsocial

As social media platforms are increasingly used for sharing more than photos of children and check-ins at local eateries, L&D professionals look for effective ways to embrace this new option for training while ensuring that the conversations and content are both engaging and appropriate.

What Tools Are Available?

With so many options, companies may feel overwhelmed when first exploring social media for learning and development. And determining whether or not your social media platform will be public or internal to your organization comes with its own challenges and apprehensions. “It’s all about baby steps,” says Dawn Gartin, social mediaologist and product trainer for GXS, the global leader in business to business network integration. “There are fabulous tools out there that are yours for the taking, and the learning and development field is a great place to utilize them, to reach your audience, and share your message.”

Gartin recommends using each social media platform based on what it naturally offers its users. “LinkedIn is definitely for the professional,” she explains. “You should use it as your virtual Rolodex and keep in touch with your past, your present, and your future people you want to connect with. You might use a Facebook group to hold either a closed or open conversation with (training) participants to network and share more information in a different way, instead of email. Twitter is an amazing tool for real-time information.”

Internal options that allow L&D professionals more control over content and conversation are also available, such as SharePoint, Yammer, Chatter (a component of SalesForce), blogs, and wikis. But these platforms are limiting in their ability to integrate with other social media and other technology and often require input and assistance from information technology departments for full functionality.

Challenges We Face

Some organizations are not quite ready to relinquish the control they are accustomed to having with traditional learning and development strategies. Dr. Jane Bozarth, author of Social Media for Trainers, cautions organizations that are leery about using public forums like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. “A lot of organizations are determined to have something internal and private. I don’t disagree with that,” she says, “if you’re doing patent research for a new drug or you’ve got trade secrets and you’re in the stock broker business. But, I don’t know why people can’t talk to each other about challenging customers, stress management, or leadership skills with a broader community.”

Bozarth encourages organizations that are cautious about open platforms to explore internal options like social text, blogs, and wikis. These options are a good solution because they are not as public and would be under the ultimate control of the companies that own the platform. However, they do allow for collaboration and interaction that can be moderated and password protected. “But, when I hear people are trying to build their own version of Facebook, I have really bad news for them,” Bozarth states. “They’re never going to build their own version of Facebook. And the reason people like Facebook is it’s not internal to their companies.”

Candidly, avoiding social media in professional development is much like sticking your head in the sand. “You can’t lock it down,” Gartin says. “So you’ve got to embrace it and find the best for what you need for your company and organization.” Gartin reminds L&D professionals that the conversations are happening on the internet whether the company is engaging in them or not. “People are talking, and if you’re not listening, you’re missing out.”

As with all initiatives, organizations need to be prepared to manage expectations. With the options changing at a rapid pace, Bozarth advises L&D professionals to find the networks with which they have the highest comfort level and avoid being swayed by the latest and greatest. She also states that she is unaware of many people or organizations that are highly active across all of the social media platforms. “I’m willing to explore almost anything,” she says. “I’m willing to download it and set up an account and try it. As long as I can find some other people there, we’re able to judge it with each other and try out different things.” But Bozarth advises organizations to focus on the platform that you can “stick with” and that will effectively relate the message and content you want to share.

As director of training and organizational development with BerylHealth, Rick Palmer shares that, in his experience, this new strategy may not be fully embraced by everyone. He shares that the biggest challenge faced by his company of over 13,000 employees is adoption of the new social media platforms for use during the workday. “We’ve gone from having no social media component as part of our day-to-day work to having something that is used for lots of different things. People are still trying to get the right way to do that, and what’s okay and what’s not okay. If you think about the first time you used Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, you asked yourself ‘Should I post this?’” After only a few months of utilizing social media, Palmer says that BerylHealth is still trying to figure out the answer to that question. But, he’s committed to helping employees learn and grow. “We’re going to make mistakes. People aren’t going to get it. People are going to reject it. But, as long as we stay the course,” Palmer jokes, “I think this internet thing is going to be around for a little bit longer.”

Dr. Bozarth also believes that the community built around the shared information of a training session is more valuable than most trainers understand. “I would suggest that trainers look past things like just training and learning development and start looking into social anthropology and social psychology.” She explains that motivation and what drives people is critically important to consider. “I think community is where trainers are weakest, and that’s not a reflection on them. It’s just not really where we’ve been focused all these years.” In “Research Study: Social Learning Gains Momentum,” social learning analyst with Brandon Hall Group, David Wentworth traces the roots of what we know today as social learning to the earliest points of human history. “From an anthropological standpoint,” he writes, “social and collaborative learning is probably the oldest form of learning. Humans have spent their entire existence learning from one another and working together to achieve goals. It is only in recent history that we have managed to turn learning into more formal, instructor-led events.” Rick Palmer agrees. “I think the idea of social learning has always been around,” he states. “The idea of peer-to-peer learning is really the oldest when you think about teaching people new concepts.”

But the benefits are worth it…

In her professional role as a state government employee, Dr. Bozarth was first driven to pursue social media options because of its accessibility and low to no cost. “I work for state government and will never, ever have a budget to do anything,” Bozarth shares. “I’ve always been really attracted to free or low-cost technologies. It all started with low-cost e-learning back in the early 2000s when I saw a lot of solutions to problems I was having at work with e-learning. And while all of my colleagues were saying, ‘We can’t do e-learning. It’s too expensive,’ I was saying ‘Well, how can we do it without it being so expensive?’ And so the years went by and new technologies emerged, and social media clearly became a new driving force. Most of the tools are easy to use. Most of them are accessible. And if you use the public ones, they’re free. So it seemed to fit with everything else I was doing.”

She was also attracted to social media for learning and development because it allows trainers the often missed opportunity of engagement and discussion beyond the training class. “We have all of these people attend classes for a day or two or six. And they’re engaged with the topic. They’re usually pretty engaged with the instructor,” says Bozarth. “And then the course ends and we send them back to the workplace and hope that it sticks. We hope that a supervisor supports what they learned and we hope that somebody reminds them that they ever went to this [training]. But there’s not a lot in the way of supporting that transfer most of the time.”

Platforms like Facebook allow for the exchange of information to continue. Bozarth suggests creating a group solely for participants in the class, asking them to join the group once the class is complete. “They have a place they can keep having the conversations. They can ask questions. They can get back to work and see how the reality of the workplace is meshing with what they heard in the training because there’s very often a disconnect. They can talk with other participants, but also the instructors can be around to moderate or chime in if they need to. It’s a nice way to build a community around a particular topic.”

For example, in a recent class that Gartin presented in the Philippines, she utilized the participants’ established interest and engagement with Facebook to make her training more robust and interactive. “I thought it would be the perfect way for me to connect with them before the training by building some credibility, building some relationships, and exchanging photos.” So Gartin created a closed group, since the training was internal, and invited the participants to join and share information prior to the training. Once Gartin arrived for the training, she posted questions after each exercise and had the participants post their answers to Facebook. After the training, the group became a repository for the dialog in class to which she and the participants could refer back at any time and, a year later, she still engages with this class. “You can keep the networking going. You can keep the sharing going. It seems much easier to send a tweet or post something on Facebook or LinkedIn,” Gartin states, “versus putting together a whole email.”

But where do you begin? Palmer recommends that L&D professionals interested in starting a social media strategy begin gradually, considering the desired outcome from the onset. “Think about what it is you want to get out of it. What is it that you already have that you can use for it?” he asks. Palmer suggests a good starting point is working with department leaders across the organization to share PowerPoint presentations, videos, and other documents that need to and should be accessible by anybody.

In summary, embracing social media is more about ensuring that learners are provided with the information they need to be successful in an engaging and productive format and less to do with the platform. Being flexible, but intuitively responsive is critical. “It’s not really about the tools. It’s about your commitment to using them, your relationships with your learners, and moving out of an expert presenting information that then hangs in the air,” says Bozarth.

Thanks to our contributors who shared their insight for this article:

  • Dr. Jane Bozarth, author, Social Media for Trainers
  • Dawn Gartin, social mediaologist, product trainer, GXS
  • Rick Palmer, director of training and organizational development, BerylHealth
  • David Wentworth, senior learning analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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