Social Learning: A case for informal collaborative learning in a Millennial-filled, Web 2.0 world

The New Water Cooler

The New Water Cooler

Sage on the stage. “Tell’em what you’re going to teach them, teach them, then tell ’em what you taught ’em.” Ah, the learning paradigms of my 1970’s and 1980’s education through public school. The quote above came directly from my instructor in the Air Force during basic training in 1989. My initial college career in the early 1990’s followed the same pattern. Attend the lecture, furiously scribble notes, read the books back in the dorm room, make flashcards. Memorize, memorize, memorize, then take the exam.

My how things have changed, and that is a very good thing. With the rise of Web 2.0 and social media over the last decade, combined with Millennials (also known as the Net Generation and Digital Natives) entering the workforce, learning via the “digital water cooler” is finally gaining some long-overdue acceptance. Internal corporate wikis have been around for quite some time, but the real shift in paradigm comes from corporations investing in and deploying enterprise social media platforms that support chat and secure FaceBook-like sharing among employees.

Don’t get me wrong, social media in the workplace can become a complete time-suck and plummet productivity if it is used for just “rah-rah-ing,” gossiping, or griping about issues. Granted, rah-rah-ing is great for morale, especially when managers or colleagues bring attention to great work or wins. When it comes to complaining, isn’t it better (for the company) to express workplace opinions, for better or for worse, on an internal system rather than on a public venue where bad news could go viral? Internal social media systems also can provide a release valve for the more hot-headed employees, although issues really should be addressed in a timely fashion before escalating to the point a team member feels the need to vent.

The real ROI from social learning via enterprise social media tools comes from harnessing the collective mindshare of a group when solving a problem or developing an innovation. I have personally found this to be true and especially relevant when colleagues are dispersed around the globe and social media provides a common place for them to collectively brainstorm. At this digital water cooler, someone would post about a problem or issue he was having. Someone else would chime in, “hey, that’s happening to me, too” and an issue could be identified as well as its impact analyzed. Both experienced and newer colleagues would collaborate to produce a work-around, test it in various systems, and deploy it. At the same time, once the issue was identified, it was escalated to the proper group for correction and the short-term solution served to keep business going while a permanent fix was being planned. Despite being separated by yawning geographical distances and large time zone differences, a powerful sense of camaraderie was established from shared problems and collaborative problem-solving. Although it can be challenging to calculate the ROI from social learning, I have observed that employees’ efficiency and effectiveness are increased by the sharing of time-saving tools and the activity of group problem solving to overcome work-stopping issues.

My observations while working for a mid-sized software company that employed enterprise social media are as follows:

  • The technical and administrative groups seemed to leverage social learning via social media most effectively.
  • Social learning included sharing tools, time-saving tricks, quickly answering “where do I find this” queries, and identifying the subject matter experts to whom a questions should be escalated.
  • Colleagues started with relatively informal queries via social media but quickly took the initiative to move problem solving to a more formal level via creating documentation, instructions, and conducting online meetings to further collaborate.
  • There was an astounding lack of ego involved; no one seemed afraid to admit he didn’t know something or to ask for help.

Upon reflection, one thing that strikes me is that I observed all of this egoless, collaborative social learning and initiative-taking by regular, worker-bee type employees. That is to say, I did not observe the employees who were managers or executives collaborating in the same way, i.e. openly seeking each others’ input and assistance. 

recent article by David K Hurst asked “Is management due for a Renaissance?” This impels me to ask, does the US have a culture of siloing of managers which prevents them from benefitting from social learning? Is raising a question or asking for help in a public forum (even if only internal to the company) by a manager a terrible transgression? If you, the reader, are a manager, have you asked for help? From whom did you ask it? Have you ever asked a direct report for help? If not, why not? What (if any) is the perceived threat of management engaging in social learning? I also wonder if the Millennials, who are in the workforce but have not yet spent enough time in it to have become the generation which holds the majority of the managerial and executive positions, will bring open collaboration both within management and across with the lesser ranks as they rise to positions of power?

For an excellent summary of the evolution of workplace social learning via social media, check out David Kellys slideshare presentation, Social Media and Social Learning for Learning Professionals. He also wrote an excellent article on the role of reflection as a learning tool. When comparing the learning paradigm of my youth with today’s creative and collaborative one, I must admit that what I have learned through social learning is more “sticky.” That is to say, I barely remember anything I learned by rote, but by being an active participant in issue identification and problem solving, not only am I embracing the necessary change to solve the problem, but also what I’m learning is added to my professional repertoire. However, one thing does remain the same: long ago I was advised that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Whatever your generation, radio-ager, baby boomer, Generation X, Millennial, or beyond, that truth remains self-evident, and social learning serves as an excellent vehicle for learning via the act of instruction.

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