December 2012
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TD Magazine

Amplified and Connected

Monday, December 10, 2012
Amplified and Connected

Social technology pushes us forward, together.

The unexpected has a way of catching our attention. Take these recent developments:

  • McDonald's is educating 750,000 frontline employees about nutrition and calories so they can help customers make healthy choices.
  • An IBM survey of CEOs reveals that many are encouraging more open and collaborative cultures—not to be nice guys but for the strategic value of engaging employees and customers.
  • Some of the largest and fastest-growing uses of the Internet for learning are massive open online courses (MOOC), an innovation not from the military or the corporate world but from higher education.

Why are we seeing these pleasing departures from business as usual? Many cite the struggling world economy, the head-warp that younger generations of employees bring to the workplace, and globalization down to the microlevel of organizations. These change-makers often are invoked—and while they are certainly prime movers of change, they don't explain everything.
The force driving the most radical change in organizations today is knowledge gained and shared through social media, the great amplifier of our time. Businesses can't hide from the expectations of customers and employees (the iPhone 5). Governments can't hide from the expectations of citizens (the Arab Spring). And trainers can't hide from the expectations of learners.

A counterpart to information exchange through social media is the ability to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data about customers, partners, markets, and other quantifiables. Big Data, as it is called, allows companies to respond rapidly and with relevance to their constituents, and leaves them few excuses when they don't.

Nate Silver is a statistical analyst who plumbs the meaning of opinion polls. His new book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don't, is about the explosion of data available in the Internet age, and the challenge of sorting through it all and making thoughtful decisions.

Silver compares the invention of the printing press with the digital age. The printing press reduced the cost of producing books by about 500 percent. When books became widely available, not just to rulers and the wealthy, "You had widespread dissemination of ideas that hadn't circulated in the mainstream before."

Martin Luther's theses, for example, reproduced 250,000 times, and spread ideas that led to the Protestant Reformation. The growth of popular knowledge about nutrition and calories no doubt influenced McDonald's to change its menu and to become a nutrition educator. While the content in these two examples is vastly different, the catalytic effect of widespread knowledge is the same.

CEOs get it

Every two years, IBM polls CEOs around the world about their views on emerging trends. "This year, they identified the overflow of data and information as one of the most important issues influencing their strategic business decisions," says IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. The 2012 IBM CEO Study, Leading Through Connections, identifies and analyzes this trend through the eyes of more than 1,700 CEOs and public sector leaders.

"Their focus is shifting to the power and potential of recent advances in social media and analytics to re-imagine connections among people—whether that's customers, employees, partners, investors, or the world at large," says Rometty. "Many of the highest-performing enterprises are already developing far more open cultures and embracing the most disruptive forms of new innovation."

Above any other external factor—even the economy—the CEOs in the IBM study expect technology to drive the most change in their organizations during the next three to five years. One key change noted in the report is that CEOs are "creating more open and collaborative cultures—encouraging employees to connect and learn from each other. Collaboration is the number-one trait CEOs are seeking in their employees, with 75 percent of CEOs calling it critical."

Why connect?

Organizations want to engage employees because they understand they have to and because they can: Social media makes engagement possible and unavoidable. The Harvard Business Review defines engagement as "representing the energy, effort, and initiative employees bring to their jobs." The Gallup Organization's research finds correlations between employee engagement, performance, productivity, and profitability. Engaged employees have

  • 51 percent lower turnover
  • 27 percent less absenteeism
  • 18 percent more productivity
  • 12 percent higher profitability.

Many organizations now weave employee engagement and learning into their talent management processes from the beginning to end. They create an employment brand to engage people even before they are hired. These organizations maintain a robust pipeline of coached candidates for key roles, develop workforce capability in anticipation of need, and make knowledge sharing part of succession plans. All of these efforts are typically linked by constant communication with employees and frequent opportunities to learn.

Innovation through partnerships

To be more competitive, many organizations are turning to partnerships to do with others what they can't do alone in an increasingly complex world. The IBM CEO Study notes that partnering is "a core innovation strategy for many organizations." The report states that successful partnerships will be deep, integrated relationships. "Partnering organizations will have to share collaborative environments, share data—and share control."

For new examples of innovative partnerships for learning, many look to MOOCs, which are courses assembled from the open web and provided free to anyone with Internet access. They blend content, community, and assessment tools from many open-learning sites into online courses that can serve thousands of students at once.

Two prominent MOOC players, Coursera and edX (each financed by a different group of prestigious U.S. universities), offer online materials broken into manageable chunks, with short video segments, interactive quizzes, and other activities—as well as online forums where students answer one another's questions and grade one another's work.

A typical course, "A Gentle Introduction to Python" (a computer programming language), combines content from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare, instant-feedback exercises and quizzes from Codecademy, and study groups organized by OpenStudy. The course is coordinated through an email list operated by Peer2Peer University.

Because of technological advances—including the improved quality of online learning delivery platforms, the ability to offer a choice of learning paths, and the capacity to analyze a huge number of student experiences to see which approach works best—some believe that MOOCs are an education game-changer, opening higher education to hundreds of millions of people.


Those factors also might make MOOCs suitable for certain kinds of corporate education where the power of the Internet can be leveraged through partnerships to create and deliver learning to a large number of learners faster and less expensively than in the past.

Get in the game

A popular new way to engage learners is gamification, the use of game design techniques to draw people into content and participation in learning. Web-based learning games appeal because they can be played by people around the globe and because their design provides incentives to learn. Leader boards and badges are two ways that games engage and reward learners by recognizing their achievements and making them visible to others.

A 2011 Gartner Research Report predicted that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify them. Gartner also predicted that by 2012, more than 70 percent of global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified learning application.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, use badging too, in the form of likes and endorsements, to drive participation. The number of followers and friends we have on social media sites may have more cachet for some than a job title one day.

To do

The growing use of social media for learning purposes, whether driven by the learning function or by the expectations of employees, customers, and partners, is creating changes in the practice of learning and development. As learning moves out of the classroom, into the cloud, and into the hands of learners, the roles of instructors and designers are shifting.

Here are some tips for staying ahead of the wave.

  • Be adept at converting user and performance data into insights and action for your learning programs.
  • Fear not social media. It won't take away your job; it will enhance it. Facilitated informal learning is already proving to be a better experience than wading alone through masses of crowdsourced content.
  • Take a hint from game developers. They understand how to exploit the new credentials of hits, likes, friends, and endorsements.
  • Collaborate across your organization and beyond. Admit the possibility that the next generation of chief learning officers might be teams instead of individuals.
  • Follow the lead of the CEOs in the IBM study and strategically help your organization connect and learn.

About the Author

Pat Galagan is the former editor-at-large for ATD. She retired in 2019 after a long career as a writer and editor with the association. She has covered all aspects of talent development and interviewed many business leaders and the CEOs of numerous Fortune 500 companies.

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