Today's Water Cooler: Corporate E-Learning Goes High-Tech With Web-Based Social Networking Platforms

In today’s geographically fragmented corporate world, it often isn’t possible for employees to conduct informal knowledge- sharing chats while standing toe to toe. Thankfully, technology is preserving the all-important “social

In today’s geographically fragmented corporate world, it often isn’t possible for employees to conduct informal knowledge- sharing chats while standing toe to toe. Thankfully, technology is preserving the all-important “social networking” component of e-learning.

“Getting employees to be more effective through learning is an integral and important part of doing business today. The challenge is enormous,” says Yogesh Gupta, president and CEO of Fatwire Software. “We’re seeing technology filling in the gaps to bring people and their knowledge together. Back when offices were centralized, people did this in conference rooms or in someone’s office or at the water cooler. Today, those discussions are taking place electronically.”

The convergence of search, streaming and downloadable video, granular content access, Web 2.0 technologies and online community interaction “is placing tremendous pressure on the enterprise to respond,” says Tom Kelly, former vice president of Internet Learning Solutions at Cisco Systems.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING

Jeff Brainard, director of marketing for SocialText Inc., says that we shouldn’t be surprised by the newest technology. “We’ve always been pioneers,” he notes. “We’ve been working together since the dawn of civilization, and it’s not that different today. The tools change, but each tool provides additional benefits, like more structure or more speed.”

Some cost-conscious CEOs might question the actual impact of social networking on the company’s bottom line. But an important component of its definition is “designed to build organizational value,” which places at least as much value on corporate interests as employee interests.

“A lot of people are looking for hard, fast numbers on savings or benefits with these tools,” Brainard continues. “The reality is that we’re seeing business benefits, but some are very subtle. Look at how email reshaped the boundaries between the home office and the work office. Nobody predicted that. What about the social dynamics that are hard to quantify, but are significant game-changers? These technologies promise to change how we do things over the long term.”

Companies that offer a wide variety of social networking tools also stand a pretty good chance to recruit the best employees in the marketplace, according to Bruce Schechter, committee chair of the Intel Alumni Network, which uses a platform called Big Tent to keep in touch with other former co-workers.

“We’ve talked to several longstanding corporate alumni groups,” says Schechter, “and they have strong relationships with the corporations from which they all come, and conversations tend to be oriented around recruiting topics. It makes a lot of sense. There’s something uniquely interesting about what we’re doing. I really generate useful business information out of what I’m getting from the Intel Alumni Network. It’s a whole new realm.”

WHAT ARE THEY?

Corporate social networks are collections of online groups of employees and other corporate constituents who interact through their individual profiles. These portable profiles collect and blend information from among all associated corporate networks. The networks are secure and private, open only to members identified by the enterprise. The connections create knowledge capital that becomes attached to members’ profiles and are visible to other network members.

Actually, the term “social networking” refers to the technology itself — a technology with an infrastructure that supports and gives life to online communications and collaboration. Corporate social network members share knowledge in realtime, in effect creating a living corporate knowledge map.

“With the resource challenges brought on by economic tough times, training professionals are discovering that social networking tools have become the most costeffective means of enabling their organizations to continue providing the training and knowledge transfer that team members require to perform their jobs at the highest levels,” observes Altus Learning Systems CEO Ted Cocheu. According to Brandon Hall Research, social networking applies to five types of technologies:

>> Communication (instant messaging, e-mail, SMS [short message service], etc.)

>> Experience-sharing (blogs, photo albums, shared-link libraries such as del.icio.us, etc.)

>> Discovery of old and new contacts (Classmates.com, online personals such as Match.com, social networking sites such as Facebook, etc.)

>> Relationship management (Orkut, Friendster, etc.)

>> Gaming (online versions of traditional games such as chess and checkers, team-based or free-for-all games, etc.)

Notes SocialText’s Brainard: “The software — we call it ‘social software’— includes a number of technologies: blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and even traditional tools like e-mail and instant messaging that allow people to come together, to form groups and collaborate on projects, and to share knowledge.

“All these tools provide great opportunities for companies to save huge amounts of time and energy. Companies can reduce e-mail by 70 percent with wikis, for instance, and accelerate project times by 30 to 40 percent.”

WHAT CAN THEY DO?

“There’s a big educational component to learning from each other,” observes Fatwire’s Gupta. “We’re seeing tremendous interest from enterprises for using tools like wikis to share knowledge across a team. There may be a lead person who is conducting training or providing guidance, but then the team members themselves start sharing their experiences and knowledge using wikis. The moderator/ instructor can correct misconceptions but, in general, allow the group to learn from itself. Harnessing collective intelligence through the knowledge base and expertise of people is where I see the whole evolution of e-learning.”

Some companies envision social networking as a way to bring down support costs. Others see it as a way to obtain feedback on products. Still others see it as a way to hasten the development of a web of support and sense of belonging among their customers, which they can translate into loyalty. Here, then, are some specific benefits:

>> Build customer relationships. Many manufacturers of consumer goods are getting on the wiki bandwagon by building public knowledge bases on the Internet that their customers can contribute to, thus promoting a type of “selfservice support.”

>> Facilitate recruiting and retention. Social networking is a creative way to keep a workforce well connected and capture and share critical knowledge to foster innovation and avoid potential “brain drain.”When individuals know who to ask and who can help them get their jobs done, productivity, innovation and speed-to-market increase. In the case of an integrated talent management system, corporate social networking will facilitate cross-functional stakeholder buy-in.

>> Increase business opportunities. One service provider lets business people “link up” with others. If a salesperson, for instance, wanted to contact a prospective customer’s CIO, rather than make a cold call, the salesperson could seek a colleague or business associate who has a personal connection to the CIO. This type of networking has been used among sales colleagues since time immemorial, but it hasn’t been available through the Internet until recently.

>> Build community. Research has shown that when it comes to finding opportunities, an individual’s own attributes are less important than his or her relationships and ties with other people. It’s been proven that interaction with others produces about twice as much in the way of education as formal instruction. So the line between learning and interaction is starting to blur a little. What’s the difference between education and communication? Where does collaboration stop and learning begin?

ARE THERE DRAWBACKS?

Social networks can be time intensive, starting from the design stage, through implementation, all the way to administration.

“Most of the groups coming to us are looking for more infrastructure support in a Web platform,” says Donna Novitsky, CEO of Big Tent Design Inc. “They need discussion forums, calendars, the ability to RSVP for an event, rosters, photo-sharing, polls and facilitation of subgroups. For a large group, support could become quite an administrative burden, considering all the workflow. A lot of the groups have 20 to 40 people on leadership teams doing all kinds of different jobs.”

Social networks also might be abused.

“There’s concern that these technologies could be misused — the same fears that companies had with early Internet use,” notes SocialText’s Brainard. “It’s all about how you provide guidance and best practices to help employees use the tools appropriately. It’s managed through corporate policies, but mostly through basic training and guidance.”

Adds Novitsky: “It’s the same temptation you have with e-mail or the Internet. The temptation is always there, but at least it’s a corporate network, so you’re talking to co-workers and facilitating your work camaraderie.”

FACILITATING LEARNING

Yet advantages far outweigh drawbacks.

 “The whole thrust of social networking is being able to maintain ties with people who have similar interests,” concludes Novitsky. “It’s not only hugely valuable to people, but it’s fun. People are always looking for productivity and useful information.”

Adds Fatwire’s Gupta: “Most people want to learn. If you can somehow make the learning experience not boring but fun, not tedious but easy, not complicated but simple — that creates joy in learning. Having tools that make it fun can tremendously motivate employees.”

FOR MORE…

SomeWebsites oriented to corporate social networking, in alphabetical order:

>> www.altuslearning.com

>> www.bigtent.com

>> www.facebook.com

>> www.fatwire.com

>> www.linkedin.com

>> www.selectminds.com

>> www.socialcast.com

>> www.socialtext.com

>> www.thepoint.com

>> www.visiblepath.com

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