You may think social networks are for teenagers and nerds but, increasingly, they’re being used for informal learning – at least that’s what the enthusiasts claim. Should L&D professionals give a damn?
Facebook, MySpace and Bebo made headlines in 2007 as social networking hit the big time. And, whether you love, loathe or ignore this phenomenon, it could have serious implications for training, especially as regards informal learning. Certainly it’s something that learning and development (L&D) managers should be au fait with.
HR may set the policies governing the use of social networking sites in the workplace, but training managers should stick their oars in too, such is the potential for L&D. Like many others, Nigel Paine, managing director of the international learning and development consultancy nigelpaine.com, believes one of the ways learning will be embedded into organisations in the future will be to embrace informal learning pathways, as well as formal courses and training. He believes social networking is key to this.
“Social networking tools offer both the perfect opportunity to do this and illustrate just what is possible when you network people in self-selecting groups,” says Paine, former head of people development at the BBC. “The trick will be to harness the potential without creating major security and policy issues.”
One of the easiest ways to introduce social networking to an organisation is to set up a private organisational account on an established site such as Facebook.
Donald Clark, a University for Industry board member and e-learning veteran, suggests using it to help with induction training. Speaking at the recent Learning Technologies conference, he said: “Point them to videocasts or podcasts – excite them when they join, don’t bore them. This has the added advantage of introducing social networks and reinforcing the idea that they are a working tool.”
But there is a lot more to social networking than high-profile sites such as YouTube and Facebook. There are business networks such as LinkedIn and Viadeo, and some that have been started by individuals who have recognised a need for an online meeting place to bring people with common aims together.
Justin Kirby, managing director of connected marketing consultancy Digital Media Communications, launched the Viral & Buzz Marketing (vbma) Network last year, and while its primary aim is to enable academics and professionals to network, it also provides valuable informal learning opportunities.
“People upload presentations and articles and share information with each other,” he says. “We currently have more than 400 participants in over 20 countries. Special interest groups like this can build very quickly from the bottom-up.”
Kirby built the network using an off-the-shelf social networking tool called NING. “It was easy to use and took around five minutes to create,” he says.
The vbma network has evolved organically because it meets a need of its members. This is crucial, whether you are building your own social network or creating one within an established network.
“People must be encouraged to self-select themselves around a common goal. There must be an igniting purpose that drives them to get involved, such as a quest or a challenge,” says Dr Brian Sutton, director of learning at Slough-based learning services firm QA-IQ.
“And they must have a mindset prone to co-operation. It would be no good expecting a competitive group, such as City traders, to network like this. People must be co-operative and be prepared to engage with each other.”
Sutton says that for this kind of network learning to really work, you need a third condition in place, which is to bring in people from across different boundaries. “Without doubt this gives you better innovation”, he says.
Once you have established a place for the group to meet online, and have ensured staff have a reason to go there, content is likely to grow organically.
The use of blogs, wikis and podcasts can be encouraged, while Clark suggests encouraging an expert and senior manager to get a “voice on the web”. But while the content is growing, avoid imposing too much structure on the community.
Sutton says learning professionals must change from a mindset that thinks learning is something designed “and inflicted” on people: it can be informal and created by another employee.
Too much control will kill the network, says Paine. “Once it is up and running, someone has to help shape and provide the maximum access to the knowledge generated. This is a key role for the learning professional.”
He adds: “In some ways, the effectiveness of the learning function will be predicated on how well it tackles the social networking issue and creates an environment where ideas are generated and knowledge shared.”