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Arm Talent Development for Social Learning Success

We are all avid users of social media—most of us aren’t more than a click, tap, or swipe away from the information we need to accomplish the task at hand. From user-contributed YouTube videos and content on Wikipedia, to quick insights on Twitter and visual inspiration on Pinterest, to moments captured on Snapchat and Instagram, information and learning opportunities are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Why wouldn’t an employee expect the same I-need-it-now-and-I-know-where-to-find-it social capabilities at work? 

Recognizing that learning fueled by social media presents many opportunities for talent development, as well as questions and challenges for employers, ATD and i4cp partnered on Social Learning: Developing Talent Through Connection, Contribution, and Collaboration. The goal: To examine how talent development functions are leveraging social learning and employee-contributed content in the world’s workplaces. 

The research kicked off in mid-2016 with a survey of talent development leaders. Those not using social media for organizational learning were filtered out, leaving 390 participants qualified to respond to queries specific to their use of social media in talent development. Interviews with talent development leaders from top companies supplemented the survey findings. 

Two-thirds of respondents represented organizations with workforces of 1,000 or more; global or multinational firms were also represented by 62 percent of those surveyed. Nearly all respondents worked in talent development leadership positions in their organizations.

Key Findings

  • Employing social media to drive learning is linked to better performance. Most survey participants using social media (68 percent) tout it as a facilitator of self-directed learning. However, using social media to accomplish learning, as done by 58 percent of respondents, is linked to higher market and talent development performance.

  • High-performance companies use social media to encourage more extensive collaboration. Sixty-three percent of market-leading organizations cited greater employee collaboration as a key focus of their social media usage. More than 70 percent noted social media’s ability to deliver current information to learners more quickly.

  • Leveraging social media to create user-generated content is a high-performance practice. Even among market-leading companies, only about one in five report that social media is used to create content. But limited use, combined with strong correlations to market and talent development performance, makes content creation a distinguishing next practice.

  • Most companies (71 percent) encourage employees to share content, but market-leading firms actually track user-generated content and reward workers who share content regularly. While neither practice was widely used (only 17 percent of organizations overall) both activities were strongly linked to effective social learning, indicating that this is a next practice for talent development functions.
  • Including social media capabilities in competency models is a next-practice content-creation strategy. Only 18 percent of respondents add abilities in social media use to their competency models as a way to encourage employees to contribute social learning content. Significant correlations to market performance, learning effectiveness, and social learning effectiveness make it a strong choice for talent development.

  • For talent development functions, enabling and curating are high-performance practices. Both activities are strongly linked to market and learning performance; and in market-leading companies, talent development functions curate content at a rate three times that of lower-performing firms.
  • Despite obvious benefits, only a small percentage of talent development leaders believe social learning is highly effective. However, most say it is effective to some degree. While 91 percent said their use of social learning was effective to at least some degree, only 14 percent said they were highly effective at leveraging social media for learning, leaving talent development functions plenty of room for improvement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Many talent development functions are using social media for employee learning and building vibrant communities of collaborative colleagues across the enterprise and sometimes beyond. Yet the leaders who participated in the study acknowledge that they still have much to achieve when it comes to tapping the full potential of social learning. 

To support implementation of social learning and to strengthen existing methods of using social media to drive collaboration and development, organizations should consider the following practices. 

  • Recognize that culture is one of the most critical and foundational factors in effective use of social media for learning. Whether exploring the idea of social learning or searching for strategies to improve results of existing social learning efforts, begin with an honest audit of your organization’s culture.
  • Understand that change management will be a make-or-break component when transitioning to social learning, and plan for it. Getting people to understand the role they play in their own learning and development involves a big change.

  • Focus on high-performance uses of social media. Adapt market-leading companies’ practices to support your organization’s needs and priorities.
  • Begin building your organization’s social learning capabilities early in the employment cycle. Talent development functions in high-performance companies add social media capabilities and experience to job descriptions, screening and hiring conversations, and competency models.
  • Drive user-generated content by empowering leaders and those seen by their colleagues as experts in their fields to make high-quality contributions. Along with tracking content employees post and rewarding those who consistently contribute helpful resources, high-performance companies provide and regularly update formal policies that govern social media use.
  • Arm your talent development function for social learning success. Talent development professionals need to be conversant not only in the social media platforms and tools organizations use, but also in talent development–specific concerns.

For a deeper dive into the data, check out Social Learning: Developing Talent Through Connection, Contribution, and Collaboration.

About the Author
Maria Ho is the manager of ATD research services. She serves as ATD's senior research program strategist and designer and provides oversight and direction for all of ATD's internal and external, industry specific, and market research services. Prior to joining ATD, Maria was a public policy researcher, data analyst, and writer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.
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