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How to Respond to Social Learning Critics

social learning
One of the largest roadblocks for organizations struggling to get started is having the courage to face those who think what you’re doing is dangerous or dumb. Maybe they have heard a story of someone doing something that scares them. Perhaps it’s the unknown itself. In chapter four we uncover just about anything that could go wrong and address how to turn that around. Here are the most common stumbling blocks talent development execs hear about social learning and ways you can address them.

Critique 1: Using social media at work is a waste of time and productivity.

Socializing can seem frivolous to people who haven’t connected it with the benefits of building relationships, accessing information from untapped corners of the organization, or feeling connected to co-workers so work seems like less of a chore. Even in the most progressive organizations we talk with, at least one or two people said they didn’t want their staff to waste time on platforms like this. “They should be doing their work, not be on online or reading social media streams.” 

An extremely security conscious organization, very worried people would use social tools to waste time, invited a consultant in to speak to their senior leadership team. These leaders were anxious to learn how other organizations were addressing social media concerns. It soon became obvious they were not interested in allowing these tools into their halls, so much as they were in learning how they could provide services to those in other organizations in order to mitigate what they perceived as inordinate risks stemming from the use of such tools.

Critique 2: People will say inappropriate things.

If someone puts inappropriate content on the office door, you don’t remove the door. If someone makes a tasteless joke over the telephone, you don’t take away the phone. Social tools are often held to higher standards than traditional business tools because they are new, and bad stories circulate—go viral—quickly. Rather than blame collaborative systems, educate people how to use them effectively for work. Social tools are the future of collaboration and learning at work, so the more you prepare people for how to use the tools respectfully, and how to apply good social practices, the better.

Critique 3: People will post incorrect information.

Details of wide-ranging inaccuracy have always spread between co-workers and the market you serve. Information (both true, and not true) about your organization seeps out when people talk in restaurants over lunch or speak on a mobile phone while waiting in line at the post office. When you provide venues where people can share peer-to-peer and be accountable, the best information rises to the top because many people have rated it as useful. Different voices can weigh in and correct what’s wrong. If anything, organizations have more stories about how people rectify misnomers quickly, rather than how people make statements that are untrue. When questions and answers take place in public, people are more apt to correct misrepresented facts, old data, and rumors or speculation and, realizing their responses will be widely seen, work toward accuracy (or at least what they perceive it to be).

Critique 4: Senior leaders won’t embrace social media for communications.

We often hear this critique as a reason not to pursue social approaches. This year it’s very possible executives (and perhaps people at different levels throughout the organization) won’t see value or understand how using social tools can actually create more time in their overburdened lives. For many, those objections will fall away as, over time, working in these ways becomes the norm across society.  


People may prefer to ease into working socially. Status updates work their way in because an enterprise tool that can be implemented for free gets added to the intranet. Employees may be encouraged to comment on company blogs or to blog on their own. Perhaps an employee directory goes online and then someone creates a wiki to take notes at meetings. In some organizations, many adopt it, some even sponsor it; it needn’t be universally supported to be effective. This is what embracing social media and the new social learning looks like. It’s a process of adapting and adopting. Begin where you are and build where it suits your culture and environment. Learn as you go. 

Critique 5: Social learning will distract from the changes we need to make in our business.

Inevitably, every organization needs to change how it works in some fundamental way. That’s the nature of progress. The trouble is, many change efforts fail in large part because the people being asked to change aren’t included in the process. Social systems give people a view into the organization and what their colleagues are doing, which can bring them into the heart of the change itself.

Critique 6: Social practices can’t be governed.

Rather than start with a large, heavy-handed policy condemning the use of social media, put in place simple rules stating when people should use which tool to communicate, create, or share specific types of information. Make it easier for people to clas­sify information they create. Specify which data and content are appropriate for what use—especially use within the company. Also, the fact that people can see what others share provides a reason to self-monitor and for people to monitor each other. See the Appendix for examples of governance policies.

Critique 7: Social practices can’t be measured.

People who say there is “no way to measure this social stuff,” are often really saying it seems too tacit and ephemeral. However, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to measure and analyze newly surfaced value in their organizations, which derives from people working in social ways. Understanding and using this analysis to make smart decisions requires focusing on what you aim to accomplish and the many factors that led to where you’ve arrived. There’s a fundamental disconnect—perhaps several—between new social and collaborative practices, and the leaders who are interested in measuring their value. 

Most social platforms used within enterprises include some analytics capabilities. At minimum, they can tell you how many people logged in (initiative), how many people came back, presumably because they found value (persistence), how the network expanded (connection), and how technology use changed; for example, if there were fewer documents sent across email (transition). You can analyze what people are searching for and map what they find. You can analyze not only where people go with their social tools, but also how they get there, how long they stay, and what they do when they are there. Although this does not verify the transfer of knowledge or skills, it is a pretty good indication. 

Good measures look at functional outcomes rather than simply asking, “Did they learn?” or “Were they social?” There is little value to the organiza­tion if people don’t apply what they take in. The best measures go the next step and connect the use of new skills and knowledge with how it affects numerous measures, including the bottom line. There are now approaches to measure the network, the ripples of impact, the engagement, and even the goodness of an organization based on how people are interacting, collaborating, and working together. 

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from The New Social Learning, 2nd Edition. This newly revised and updated edition dispels organizational myths and fears about social media. By sharing the success stories of socially engaged companies and people, the authors persuasively make the case for using social media to encourage knowledge transfer and real-time learning in a connected and engaging way.

About the Author

Marcia Conner is a former corporate execu­tive who now dedicates her time to reinventing a vibrant and healthy global ecosystem. Described as a “blank page systems architect,” she works closely with risk-taking leaders, impact entrepreneurs, and unreasonable thinkers, ready to use their superpow­ers for good. 

Marcia is a SupporTED Mentor, contributes to Fast Company and Wired, is an activist with Change Agents Worldwide, and a fellow at the Darden School of Business. She is advisor to the Way to Wellville and MMinddLabs. She is also the author of Learn More Now; coauthor of Creating a Learning Culture: Strat­egy, Technology, and Practice; contributor to Changing The World of Work: One Human at a Time, and speaks across the globe on outcompeting current structures through system innovation and ingenuity.

About the Author
Tony Bingham is the president and CEO of the Association for Talent Development, formerly ASTD, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. Tony works with a staff of 130, a Board of Directors, and a worldwide network of volunteers to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace. 

Tony believes in creating a culture of engaged, high-performing teams that deliver extraordinary results. Deeply passionate about change, technology, and the impact of talent development, his focus is on adding value to ATD members and the global community of talent development professionals. He believes that aligning talent development efforts to business strategy, while utilizing the power of social and mobile technology for learning, is a key differentiator in business today.  
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