The evolution of the e-learning species is nothing if not rapid - the latest leap is to include social networks in e-learning platforms.
You would have to be living on the moon not to have been aware of the increasing popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace over the past two years. Alongside these, professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, Xing and Viadeo have also appeared.
We are also seeing the rise of internal social networks, which potentially have more value for training managers looking to harness the power of social media and other Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and blogs.
Surge in Web 2.0 spending
In its Global Enterprise Web 2.0 Market Forecast: 2007 to 2013, Forrester Research reports that organisations' spending on Web 2.0 technologies will "surge" over the next five years, growing 43% each year to reach $4.6bn (£2.9bn) globally by 2013. It will be used to connect with customers and help employees collaborate.
Software is emerging that allows users to integrate such networking abilities with their talent and performance management systems. Earlier this year, people management software and service provider Jobpartners launched ActiveNetworker, a corporate social networking tool aimed at promoting employee communication and information sharing.
More recently, Cornerstone OnDemand launched Cornerstone Connect, a social networking platform that integrates with its talent management software and services. More providers will likely follow suit, with industry analyst Josh Bersin, of Bersin & Associates, describing corporate social networks as the 'next frontier' in talent management software.
There is nothing new about using technology to help employees share knowledge. The crucial difference, says Julie Norquist-Roy, vice-president, marketing, at Cornerstone OnDemand, is that where previously this activity took place in a "confused and disorganised" way, it can now be built into talent systems and infrastructures.
She adds: "There is a compelling business case to do this now. We're seeing a lot of changes in the workplace with globalisation, merger and acquisition activity and more people working remotely.
"These represent challenges for companies and they are looking at different ways to enable employees to collaborate and share knowledge. Linking these tools to your talent management strategy and learning programmes will help to boost employee efficiency."
Cornerstone Connect has Web 2.0 features such as blogs, wikis, discussion boards, podcasts and RSS feeds along with communities of practice and knowledge management. A typical use of Connect for learning could be to set up a community following a course so learners could continue discussions and share information.
"It is often after the classroom that people open up and you get to the real kernels of knowledge," says Norquist-Roy, adding that she sees the tool playing a major part in more informal or 'social' learning. "It will give access to the tacit knowledge within organisations – the knowledge that isn't usually tapped."
Both Norquist-Roy and Patrice Barbedette, founder of Jobpartners, believe their products will also be used to improve internal mobility as employees can post user profiles that enable them to be more visible across the company.
While Cornerstone and Jobpartners are leading the way in talent management software, when it comes to offering social networking facilities, there are also specialist providers. These include Telligent with its Community Server Evolution product, used for internal collaboration and knowledge management, and rSitez's Enterprise Web 2.0, which among other things, allows trainers to post how-to videos and pieces of audio.
Ken Vernon, vice-president of marketing at Telligent, says its approach is to help enterprises use Web 2.0 tools. "These tools enhance and empower collaboration, knowledge share and knowledge capture," he says. "Many organisations use these internal communities to quickly bring new employees into the culture of the company."
It might not be learning as we traditionally view it, but there can be no doubt that internal social networks are increasingly part of the learning and development landscape and, as such, training managers must ensure they are involved in any enterprise-wide plans to implement such software.
Case study: SFR
French mobile phone company SFR implemented ActiveNetworker from Jobpartners to support its new social network. My SFR comprises a company blog, a central space for discussion, and the ability to build profiles that allow employees to share information on career progress, learning and development and aspirations. They can also join groups of interest.
"The average age at SFR is 36 – the younger generation is very demanding in terms of salary, career development and the use of technology at work," says Stéphane Roussel, SFR's HR director.
"To foster the loyalty of Generation Y, you need to provide them with the same kind of technology that they are using in their personal lives."
ActiveNetworker has been well received and SFR is averaging 80,000 visits per week from the 10,000 employees that are using it.