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Social tools: the next informal learning resource

Contributor:  Jeff Cattel
Posted:  07/08/2013  12:00:00 AM EDT  | 

Rate this Article: (4.8 Stars | 6 Votes)

Social media has become commonplace in everyday life. You live tweet the TV show you're watching, Instagram photos from your morning run and fill endless hours trolling your Facebook newsfeed. These social tools work seamlessly into most people's personal lives. Companies today understand how to use social tools externally when interacting with customers. TV ads for companies like Starbucks and Nike invite viewers to like the company's Facebook page and follow its Twitter account. These same companies, however, are just beginning to realize the potential of using social media to augment workplace activities, such as learning and training.

Part of the resistance stems from a company's concern that social media wades into questionable areas of security and privacy. Then, there's the presumption that social tools are merely a distraction in the workplace. A survey of nearly 10,000 information workers published by Microsoft research in May, however, found that 46 percent of workers believe social tools increased their productivity at work.

This slow introduction of social tools follows the general history of the business world being cautious and sometimes sheepish when it comes to adopting new and emerging technologies in the workplace, said Bill Rosenthal, CEO of Logical Operations, a business that specializes in employee training. Business leaders had the same concerns with the introduction of email two decades ago and, even more recently, the advent of smart phones.

"Five years ago, many executives saw the iPhone as a toy," Rosenthal said. "Now, most of these same executives can't imagine doing work without a smart phone."

A New Collaboration Platform

Rather than distract workers, social media can function as a form of informal learning, said Andy Petroski, director of learning technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

"Most workers view training as an event, but learning is not just something that happens in one location at one time," Petroski said. "Social tools present a way to extend and optimize training events."

Social tools designed for use in the workplace, such as Yammer and SharePoint, offer users the ability to create social profiles. These profiles can be used to make connections with an organization.

"In a workplace, it often happens that you don't know what people are doing down the hall aside from their job title and major projects they've worked on," Petroski said. "Social profiles act like mini-resumes where people can seek out co-workers to learn specific skills from."

Tools like Yammer and SharePoint also offer forums where workers can cast a wide net when asking questions. Additionally, executives can use social tools to better communicate decisions from the top. CEOs and managers can blog about the decisions they make and offer workers the opportunity to comment.

Social Tools in a Business Setting

The use of social tools in the workplace can also be a way to attract and retain Millennials, who don't just see social media use in the workplace as a privilege, but rather an expectation, said Rosenthal. Just because Millennials know how to use social tools in their personal lives, however, doesn't mean they'll know how to use them effectively in a business setting.

"Social tools in the workplace are not intended to share photos or conduct idle chat," said Alan Levy, CEO of social broadcasting platforms CinchCast and BlogTalkRadio. "There is a learning curve in order to use these tools effectively. We're in the early stages of enterprise social collaboration and how to best leverage the available tools."

When TiER1 Performance Solutions first implemented Yammer last year, the company created Yammer Wars, a Star Wars-themed YouTube video that explained how the social tool fit into the company's culture, mission, values and beliefs. The two-minute long video includes the scrolling text signature to George Lucas's series of science fiction films and includes a plot line that pits the "Yammerers," the early adopters, against the "Rebels," the people who resist the implementation of new social tools.

"With the fun video, people were much more likely to jump on board and start using the platform," said Kerry Headley, managing director of learning solutions at TiER1. "We followed up with our long-term and short-term plans for using Yammer and employees quickly started using the platform for sharing ideas and posting documents."

TiER1's small workforce made adoption of Yammer easier, Headley said. For bigger companies, Headley recommends implementing new social tools in a pilot program in a specific department and then scaling to a larger portion or the entire company.

Jeff Cattel Contributor:   Jeff Cattel

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