Social Learning = a trip to the record store

I’m often asked to sit in on calls to explain to business units why social learning is essential to the new learning model that is reshaping the training landscape in large organizations. In most cases, buzz words and methodologies only confuse the listener and many don’t even realize they’re probably using some of the essential building blocks and tools already.

So after struggling to find a good entry point focused on the ideals and tools we have available, I took a step back and thought about how I could connect the listener to the concepts through a tangible activity. Obviously, my mind drifted towards music as it’s the thing I’m most passionate about and something that easily transcends language, culture, and country and more importantly almost everyone alive (well, that would be reading a blog about Learning 2.0) has purchased some form of music, be it a tape, a cd, a record or even an MP3.

I quickly realized that the make up of an organization’s social network aligns closely to the current online music community. In most corporations, learners digest content through some sort of Learning Management System. Users log into the corporate LMS and start to scan through hundreds, if not thousands of offerings. Finding the right offering at the right time is overwhelming. Generic searches help; it’s easy to search on a product name or a course-id if you know it, but what about something more generic like a course on “management” or finding information about a specific piece of functionality in a specific product. Can your search field handle those requests?

I guess this is a perfect spot to start my analogy. Years ago, you only heard songs on the radio or on a video show. More than likely, you caught part of it and had to hope the DJ mentioned the band name and the song name. If not, you listened to the radio an hour later and hoped for the best. Even if you did hear the name of the band, how did you actually know what record the song was on and how did you actually buy the record? Basically, much like the conventional LMS, you only had a single option; the local record store.

If I asked you to walk into a record store tomorrow and find me a record, how would you do it?  You could search alphabetically, but what if the records are separated by genres?  Better yet, what if you are simply looking for a good bluegrass record or a good rock record? The search becomes impossible. The only option, at least in a formal setting is to ask the dreaded expert – in an organization, this is often someone too busy and too important to deal with you, but in a record store, it’s the balding, slightly overweight music obsessive just waiting to ridicule you for your lack of knowledge about some obscure Sun-Ra record – and hope they can help. It falls in line with the dominant predator principle, and we naturally assume that because these experts heard of things first and have established themselves, they are correct and we need to align ourselves accordingly.

The fatal flaw is that the expert knows nothing about you. They don’t know how you learn or why you need the training and if you went into a record store, they certainly wouldn’t know anything about your musical tastes and how those align to their own ideas of good music. Basically, you’d have to interact with these experts one-on-one until a commonality was established or start randomly buying books/records and become your own expert. This is where the benefits of social learning really come into play. There are, and always will be a few bleeding edge people that always seem to know the latest and greatest tool and know with the benefits of blogs, video and micro-blogging the greater population can access the content. It’s no different than the music fans that seem to stumble on bands that are just recording their demos or have only played a few shows.

Thankfully, social media bridges that gap and helps create “first followers.” This concept, one I first heard about from Derek Sivers is essential to the adoption of ideas in any situation. Sivers uses the real life example of a young man dancing at The Gorge in Washington and how the the strength of the crowd is dependent on the people that opt to follow the leader and bridge the gap between the “leader” and the masses. In an organization, innovation is crucial, but acting on innovation is the game changer. Everyone has good ideas that never catch on, but with the appropriate social learning tools and cultural behaviors in place, an good idea can propagate countless networks – people, organizations – with a few simple clicks. Simply determining a training offering is beneficial doesn’t really help the org. The real benefit is knowing that first followers can share that knowledge to their networks.

Today, no one scans the back of LPs or read tape liner notes for recommendations. They follow popular music blogs, read Amazon reviews to get real opinions from “real” people or even more common, they ask their friends.  Over time, trust is established (whether it be from the crowd or through individual positive experiences), networks are defined and when you read a positive review on, lets say herohill.com, or hear about a record from your friend, you can associate the response with years of other reviews and a shared taste. Then, with confidence, you can pass the recommendation on to your network, and those people to can do the same. Simply by leveraging a few tools – blogs, wikis, micro-blogs – we now can rate content, comment on recommendations, share feedback and most importantly, establish a trust within our ever expanding and evolving network that strengthens future recommendations. Hopefully, all off these tools mean less time and money is spent on training, resulting on more effective spends and less money is spent buying records that collect dust on your shelf.

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