Social media as a tool for workplace learning

Ongoing staff learning and development (L&D) is essential for the company that wishes to succeed in the highly competitive and unforgiving economic environment of today. The use of social media for corporate L&D is gaining ground, and we need to know how these tools affect the dynamics of the workplace. Some current case studies are presented in session BUS39: The Influence of Social Media on Learning Culture and Community, one of fourteen Business EDUCA sessions.


Change management consultant Nic Laycock has seen how strong resistance to using social media for workplace L&D can be. For five years, he has been undertaking a long-term consulting project with a large utility company in South Africa where staff at all levels — from technicians to managers — need continual training. The company has over 40 000 employees, a workforce expected to double within the next ten years. The experienced workers are ageing, and the fast pace of technological advancement essential to the company’s survival means that “upskilling” for all workers is now needed. Many companies have been slow to achieve this through e-learning programmes. Laycock says, “In my work, I show organisations that their traditional focus on formal training is actually stopping them accessing and leveraging learning where it really counts – at the workplace and between people.” In this particular case study, the size of the organisation and its geography dictate a dynamic L&D model since the utility company’s workers are spread nationwide. Traditional face to face methods of teaching are costly, cumbersome and inadequate in an age where social media are the prime communication channels.


Simon Birt

It is a concept that Simon Birt, a senior manager and the Social Learning Lead at Trivantis, describes as a “learnscape”: a “total learning environment within an organisation”. It includes the best of the new developments in social learning along with the tried and tested use of e-learning with classroom or web-based training. It is new because it expands organisational learning from the training department into organisation-wide learning, “breaking down the silos and barriers to learning that exist in most organisations,” Birt says. His OEB presentation is based on case histories at IBM and Trivantis where social networks were recently used successfully to encourage collaboration in creating content. He says, “Members of the team felt that they had contributed more, and they felt that this project increased their value to the organisation.” The culture shift within the organisation was instant. These case studies deal with what Peter Drucker defined in 1959 as “knowledge workers”; nowadays probably the majority of workers in industrialised countries. Birt praises the power of mobile learning, shared development and collaborative content development: “The new development environment is showing us that collaboration delivers faster production, lower costs and a better participatory experience for the end user.” He says that social learning is evolving at a rapid rate and predicts, “Those organisations that deploy environments to take advantage of these learnscapes will be better performers in the future.”


Nic Laycock

With an eye on the future of the utility company, Laycock has introduced this same collaborative approach through social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube and particularly Yammer as a forum for workers to communicate and learn. Of the young employees entering the workforce, Laycock says, “Young people are resistant to sitting in classrooms. They do not want to study ‘just in case’. They want to know how to get to information ‘just in time’, 24/7 and from any location. They want to use the media with which they have grown up – the social media.” These are innovations that management were slow to allow. Laycock explains, “Telling the senior leaders of a company who gained their skills and expertise by traditional out of date methods that they must change was bound to be difficult. The hierarchy, corporate control, IT security, knowledge guardians, traditional instructors and many stakeholders all had reasons why the change should not happen. It was always going to be difficult, but the process has been very difficult to get underway.”


Five years on, how have these social media innovations impacted the workplace? What Laycock has managed to do is to challenge people into abandoning the old paradigms of what makes for effective workplace L&D. The integration of social media opens up a channel of communication less defined by hierarchical considerations. Real gains have also been made in the use of Open Educational Resources in the utility company—a project under development with several universities. Laycock explains, “New methods of assurance of competence are being put together using high tech simulation techniques. We’ve moved from resistance and hostility to a cautious excitement.”


Nic Laycock, Simon Birt and Mary Myers will present their papers at Business EDUCA Session BUS39: The Influence of Social Media on Learning Culture and Community, which takes place on Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 16:30 – 17:30.

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