How to Replace Top-Down Training with Collaborative Learning (3)

Third post in a series. In case you missed it, here are the first and second.

Technological infrastructure for social learning

Work and learning are converging, and as this change happens, the infrastructure of the old corporate learning must go – things like traditional one-size-fit-all in-person training seminars. In its place enters social and informal learning hubs like on-demand content, live online discussions, wikis and forums, and searchable content archives. The great news is that social and informal learning don’t require new systems because learning can take place on the same “platform” as the existing social network, if a company already has one.

The primary thing to bear in mind, says MIT’s Andy McAfee (McAfee), is INATT. That’s short for a phrase that kept coming up in conversation when he was writing Enterprise 2.0. It’s short for “It’s Not About The Technology.” People come first.

But you can’t do without the technology either. Social networks are the ideal platform for the new corporate learning, so let’s briefly examine how they support corporate learning.

Social computing

Early personal computing was based on corporate computing. Conventions like ASCII, programming languages, Internet protocol, and encryption were developed for corporate mainframe computers and only later adopted for personal computers. That situation has flip-flopped. Innovations in applications and user-interface design are born on the consumer side and migrate to the enterprise.

Forbes named the world’s most innovative company. Where did that innovation come from? says cloud-based Customer Relationship Management application borrowed heavily from Amazon.’s social network application was inspired by Facebook.’s Chatter began its life as in-house Twitter. As the web turns social, has changed its mission to “leading the shift to the Social Enterprise,” and that’s where it’s proving its forward-thinking nature.

So how do you find the right social platform to enhance your corporate training program? When an organization is improving its workscape, looking at consumer applications is a good way to think about what’s required in the corporate space. Ask net-savvy younger workers how they would like to learn new skills, and they bring up the features they enjoy outside of work:

  • A personal profile so I can share information with my connections
  • A personalized experience and recommendations, like Amazon
  • Connections to friends and colleagues, like Facebook and LinkedIn
  • Activity streams, like Twitter, so I know what’s going on and what people are talking about
  • Face-to-face interaction and desktop sharing through video conferencing
  • Multiple access options, like a bank that offers access by ATM, the Web, phone, or human tellers
  • A diverse learning library, made up of videos, FAQs and links to relevant information
  • Single sign-on access, like using my LinkedIn profile to access other programs
  • Choosing and subscribing to streams of information I’m interested in
  • Provide a single, simple, all-in-one interface, like that provided by Google
  • Make it easy to share photos and video, as on Flickr and YouTube
  • Leverage “the wisdom of crowds,” by allowing me to pose a question to my connections
  • Enable users to rate content that they liked the most or found the most helpful

Minimum viable workscape

What we’re talking about is a social work hub where every employee and external partner can come to collaborate, share information, get information and provide updates and ask questions. When it comes time to build your new collaborative and social learning center, some of those consumer applications are simple to replicate in-house. Others are not. You probably can’t afford, and definitely don’t need, to create your own Facebook or Google behind your firewall. There are lots of applications you can implement at reasonable cost. Be skeptical if your collaborative infrastructure doesn’t include these minimal functions:

Profiles – so each employee can personally connect to the network. Profile should contain photo, position, location, email address, expertise (tagged so it’s searchable). Nice-to-haves include how to reach you (noting whether you’re online now), reporting chain (boss, boss’s boss, etc.), link to your blog and bookmarks, people in your network, links to documents you frequently share, members of your network.

Workspaces – to break up the organization’s activity into relevant, digestible feeds for each individual and feeds. Workspaces are networks within the organization that are created by employees to gather a team or group in a specific area. For example, new hires that are brought on at the same time, may create a workspace where they can ask each other questions and share information that they find out.

Activity stream – for monitoring the organization pulse in real time, sharing what you’re doing, being referred to useful information, asking for help, accelerating the flow of news and information, and keeping up with change. Activity streams should be available for the company at large and for workspaces.

Wikis or notes – for writing collaboratively, eliminating multiple versions of documents, sharing information with a relevant group, eliminating unnecessary email, and sharing responsibility for updates and error correction.

Integrated virtual meetings – to make it easy to meet online, because there needs to be room in your learning program for group discussion and application. Minimum feature set: shared screen, text chat, video conferencing streams.

Mobile access – Half of America’s workforce works away from the office at least sometimes. Smart phones are surpassing PCs for connecting to networks for access and participation. People post more Tweets via phone than via computers. Google designs its apps for mobile before porting them to PCs. What does all of this mean? Your new social workscape needs to be mobile so people can collaborate from anywhere.

Putting a learning platform in place

When it’s time to put a learning platform in place, it’s a good idea to make a company wide commitment to your new philosophy on learning. Here’s an example from a company I recently worked with:

  • We are open and transparent
  • We narrate our work. Need to share.
  • We offer live and on-demand training content as a part of continuous learning
  • We value conversation as a learning vehicle
  • We make our work accessible to others
  • We are a vanguard of change within the company
  • Our bottom line is business success
  • We know learning is work; work is learning
  • We are a learning organization
  • We value time for self-development and reflection
  • We recognize that reflection is a key to learning

Changing behavior requires continual reinforcement, so be ready to tackle the concern and resistance that some people may have toward becoming a more collaborative organization.

A great way to embrace your new collaborative nature while helping people adapt to it, is to host all-hands virtual meetings to share your process toward becoming a collaborative organization. Make your employees a part of the evolution; keep them in the loop.

Learning Networks

Networks are not only the environment of learning; they’re also the place where problems are solved, discoveries are made, and new knowledge is created.

This way of looking at learning platforms builds on
the work of Harold Jarche and the Internet Time Alliance.

Workers are members of multiple, interconnected networks.

Everyone has personal face-to-face networks: the friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances we talk with. Most people have electronic personal networks, too: Facebook, discussions groups, and a variety of followers and followed comrades. We rely on our networks to help us learn what’s going on in our worlds. The collaborative organization may replicate those personal connections through social work platforms with customizable workspaces. Each workspace is for a group of connected people – teams, departments, project contributors, and so on.

Communities are networks of people who share common interests and identify themselves as cohorts. A community may be a group of professionals (e.g. chefs or chip designers) or people with shared passions (e.g. model railroaders and cyclists) or co-workers from different work teams (e.g. the United Way Committee or neighborhood watch). Communities share knowledge (“Here’s a great recipe for crayfish with foie gras”), help one another (“There’s an opening for a sous-chef at the Fish Trap in Key West”), validate best practices (“Use coddled eggs in Caesar salad to avoid salmonella”), and develop apprentices into professionals (“My salad chef is ready to become a pastry chef”). Communities can exist internally (the United Way Committee) or externally (the chefs). Innovation in Silicon Valley is enhanced when competitors share trade secrets because allegiance to their professional community (“We’re chip designers”) is strong than to their employer (“I work for AMD.”)

Many companies enable workers to establish a personal node in the company’s social platform. This is where your individual profile enables people to find you, know what your good at, and share things you may be interested in. Many workers narrate their work on individual blogs. Transparency builds trust.

Most information work is carried out by project teams. When team members are unable to meet in the same physical space, they rely on networks to collaborate on getting projects done. Team members who work together, learn together. In time, team members develop strong social ties, trust emerges, and they co-create new knowledge and innovation. Experience is the best teacher and work teams are where it happens.

Project Teams have a job to do; communities come together to cooperate and share for the good of the group. Project teams inevitably need to acquire knowledge from outside their small circle. Their individual members are often members of several communities, which they tap for knowledge and guidance. A smart organization supports its internal teams and encourages its people to take part in external teams.

Many progressive companies have set up social work platforms that connect all employees to an activity feed that lists activities and pointers from all over the company. Social workspaces are the ultimate silo busters, enabling everyone to be on the same page, accelerating the organization’s cycle time, and letting “the company know what the company knows.”

A Note About Internet Access

Many companies signal their lack of trust in their employees by denying them access to the greatest assembly of knowledge in the history of humanity, the Internet. To be consistent, they should probably take away their telephones (They might make long distance calls to China!) and pencils (They might waste time playing tic-tac-toe). Bad apples are going to do bad things with or without the Internet, but by hoarding access to the web, you’re not only punishing your good apples, but also hindering their ability to learn.

For many people today, working without the net is equivalent to working blindfolded. When companies deny access to the net, employees route around them with smartphones and tablets that bypass corporate IT. The price of criminalizing access to the net is lower morale, the message that it’s okay to break rules (wink, wink), and to give up on hiring the best and the brightest (who will work somewhere they are trusted to act like responsible citizens). Companies should encourage workers to connect to the outside world, for that’s where the customers are.

The Internet is an essential library of information for today’s workforce. David Weinberger points out that the web has changed the nature of knowledge itself. Knowledge that was once limited to what you could print on a page is now connected to all manner of evidence, counter-claims, elaboration, and interpretations.

The basic idea is that the properties of knowledge that we’ve taken for granted at least in the West for, oh, 2,500 years are not actually properties of knowledge. They’re properties of knowledge when its medium is paper. And when you remove the paper and put things online, it takes on the properties of its new medium—of the Internet. Importantly, knowledge in a network includes differences and disagreements in a way that traditional knowledge is uncomfortable with. Everything is unsettled, everything is argued about, and very few things are ever totally resolved on the Net.

There’s a word for companies that deny workers access to the riches of the Internet. That word is stupid.


The next post in this series will address readiness for and benefits of collaborative learning.

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