The opportunities to broaden the reach of the L&D department, and promote participant interaction and shared learning, are now limitless with social media.

We’re working in a wonderful era of easy-to-use, readily available social media technologies ideally suited to learning and instruction. These tools―blogs, wikis, social networking sites, microblog sites, video sites, and more―provide wonderful, new opportunities to invite participation from our learners.

Anecdotal reports from learning and development (L&D) professionals indicate that trainers and instructional designers are enthusiastic about and interested in using new tools and approaches, but just don’t have a good understanding of how to do so. Industry news and technology aficionados offer frequent updates about new social media tools (such as the recently launched Google+) or updates to old ones—often without much in the way of ideas for integrating them into practice.

Advantages are many: Social media allow more participation over a span of time, encourage people to “learn out loud” for the benefit of others, and provide ways to more closely embed learning into work. So what are some strategies for workplace learning practitioners seeking to incorporate these new tools into their training design?

Defining social learning and social media

Social learning is not new, and just using social media tools doesn’t make learning “social.” Also, social learning and social media aren’t the same thing. In fact, social learning isn’t necessarily connected with social media.

Social learning is learning with and from others by moving within one’s culture, workplace, and world. It’s often unconscious and unintentional, and it often looks more like solving a problem or working together to make sense of something. Social learning is how most of us learn most things: through living in our cultures and interacting with others there. It’s how babies learn to talk and how we learn the basic rules of getting along on the playground. It’s all around us every day, from water cooler conversations to asking a co-worker for an opinion.

Social media are the tools that enable social learning to happen on a large scale, and their popularity has gone a long way in bringing increased awareness of and interest in social learning in the workplace. In seeking to be part of this, practitioners can begin by expanding their current practices and finding ways to extend their reach.

It’s important, for instance, to begin practicing what some call social instructional design: incorporating collaborative activities, particularly with new online tools. But it’s also important to start moving past our traditional notion of instruction, particularly as it is delivered in the form of discrete modules or courses. For instance, we know learners talk during breaks, after class, and in between sessions or modules—how can we be part of those conversations? We know that workers often turn to one another for help—how can we listen better to have answers more readily available to them?

Identify the instructional goals

This seems obvious, but a focus on outcomes often gets lost in enthusiasm over new tools and products. “Doing Twitter” isn’t a goal. Do you want learners to explore, listen, share, reflect, interact with the instructor, interact with one another, or some combination of these? Does the material indicate an assignment such as: Read an article or watch a video, and comment on either; brainstorm and arrange ideas into categories; or work together to lay out the flow of a process or project? Or do you want to find new means of continuing classroom conversations or conducting formative or summative assessment activities? These kinds of decisions will affect your choice of tools.

You should identify where performance gaps are. Where are your learners struggling, and how can you help? Most of us likely will agree with Josh Bersin Associates’ David Mallon when he says, “It’s easier for me to find a long-lost high school friend than a document I need at work.” Few of us complain that information is too easy to find, or that communication is too smooth.

What would be of most help to your learners, and most in support of your goals? Do your learners need to explore ideas and information (as with structured web searches), listen (as with RSS feeds or podcasts), share (as with bookmarking tools such as Delicious, or media sharing sites such as YouTube, Slideshare, or Flickr), reflect (as often happens with blogs), or work collaboratively in a dynamic workspace (as with a wiki)? Do your learners need help finding one another to engage in conversations of their choosing (as with social networking tools)?

While many tools will accommodate a number of approaches, try to identify the ones that make sense for your large goals in the long run. It’s also important to consider the real reasons for using social media for learning in the first place; it should in some way extend or enhance the learning experience, or make the learning more accessible to learners. Simply bolting social-media-based activities onto programs because it’s the trendy thing to do won’t serve anyone well.

Other considerations

Apart from matching goals to strategies, there are other considerations that can support your success with “ID 2.0.” Think about what your learners will use, find out what percentage of your workforce comprises Facebook users or Twitterphiles, and determine how many workers have smartphones.

Similarly, what will the organization support? Look into whether employees encounter many problems with websites being blocked. How flexible is your IT department in working with the learning department? Also, check with the marketing department or communications office to find out what is being used elsewhere in the organization and whether you can build on that.

Beyond Twitter and Facebook

Think about how social media tools could help you get into new spaces, such as those between or after formal events, or where conversations are otherwise naturally occurring. What are some ways to help support the new learning as people work to implement it? Some ideas include

  • an online leadership book club to sustain learning beyond the confines of the organization’s structured leadership academy
  • a networking group for graduates of a particular course, which can be a great way to support transfer of new learning from the classroom event
  • a dynamic, evolving frequently-asked-questions webpage for new hires, created by new hires, or a webpage with tips from top sales staff
  • a wiki for group projects
  • a site for “critical incident” discussions related to training topics such as customer service or ethics
  • a microblog-based live chat for all the leaders in your organization, or all leaders in the pharmaceutical industry, or all leaders everywhere
  • a Twitter hashtag assigned to your training sessions so participants can tweet key points and takeaways to those who were unable to attend.

One area ripe for expansion is performance support. L&D is perfectly positioned to use social media tools to deliver job aids and provide real-time mentoring and coaching. Helping to establish and nurture communities for recent course graduates and new hires is an excellent way to build and reinforce ties between learners and learning.

Find ways for learners to support one another and showcase their work. For instance, Google’s Julia Bulkowski recommends that when a stellar salesperson closes a big sale, ask that employee to share her presentation by narrating key points, and objections, responses, and then ask what she considered critical to the sale. Publish this via a sharing tool or company site as a support tool for others.

Watch for opportunities that training and development may be missing. For example, do your workers have an easy way of finding one another? How long would it take someone to, say, find another person in the organization who is fluent in Portuguese? Lead the initiative to establish employee profiles that include skills inventories.

Work with others to establish blogs on topics of particular interest in the company, and recruit ambassadors or experts to help populate these and lead conversations. These can be specific to business, such as sales tactics or new product details, or information of more personal relevance to people such as wellness or work-life balance.

Host a “lifelong learning” blog or Facebook page with updates about L&D activities, as well as links to how-to sites and videos, links to free webinars or podcasts, and overviews of academic programs that might be of interest to staff. In other words, help your learners use social media to learn. Work to invite conversation, comments, and suggestions from your readers or members.

Support learners in generating help for other learners. For example, help them make videos showing successful performance or illustrating common pitfalls for new supervisors. Help them use tools such as Scribd or Slideshare to publish their projects and presentations.

Look for opportunities to help in the workflow. One of my biggest successes was intervening the day a higher-up asked for 15 people to review and return their iterations of the same document. It was a perfect moment to introduce simultaneously shared Google Docs.

New opportunities

New tools allow us to engage with learners, provide opportunities, and work in learning spaces in ways we never could before. We can offer access to experts in real time, keep course graduates in contact as they work to implement their new learning, and, essentially, have more of a place in the learners’ workflow. The opportunities to broaden the reach of the L&D department are now limitless. For instance:

  • Provide real-time access to expertise. Ask the CEO to participate in a social-media-based conversation. Encourage learners to follow experts in the field on Twitter or Google+.
  • Invite an expert or author for an online (Skype or virtual classroom-based) chat; prior to the event invite participants to post their questions using a tool such as Wallwisher.
  • Provide a wiki for learmers to record course notes, providing a searchable, permanent record of their course across time and iterations. All participants then will be able to leave with a virtual course book.
  • Provide a virtual field trip to another office or other location via YouTube.
  • Draw expertise and work together on a work product via a wiki or document-sharing site.
  • Provide real-time updates that go directly into networking or microblog streams.

Move into the workflow

A frequent refrain heard from L&D professionals is “I set up a community and they don’t participate” or “I set up a blog for the training department but hardly anyone visits it.” This is where the real shift is coming.

New awareness of social learning, and new tools to facilitate it, are changing L&D’s role as content-pusher. We need to participate and partner, and help find and support the conversations. Workers are learning from one another all the time, although they may think of it instead as solving a problem.

We are finally uniquely positioned to help move workplace learning from scheduled event to meaningful process.