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Social Learning Fear Factor
Monday, March 3, 2014

”Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It might make us uncomfortable, but the reality is that social learning isn’t really new. What is the “shiny new object” are the tools that help enable learning to happen without boundaries. So, why is this important? What role should L&D practitioners have in it? 

When thinking through the design of training programs, learning and development (L&D) teams should not overlook the power of the community, but embrace it. Organizations should try to achieve specific aspects of community when designing programs:

  • a community that depends on each other to accomplish work and support customers
  • a community that isn’t afraid to speak up and say, “I don’t know this, but who can help?”
  • a community of learners who guide their own needs as you support them, not the other way around
  • a community that learns from peers through technology
  • a community that that L&D should not fear.

L&D professionals embracing these aspects of social learning and community into their programs and designs have the opportunity to help change their workforce for the better.

The first step in moving past the fear of social learning is to remember why you took a role in learning and development.  The vast majority of L&D professionals do what we do because we want to help.  We want to help people learn better and more efficient ways of working and help them grow and develop professionally and personally.  Adding social options into our learning toolbox gives us the capabilities to do all of those things with more agility, speed, and productivity.

But why are there so many in L&D opposed to using social tools? When we talked with L&D professionals resisting adding social into learning and their professional lives, it boils down to one word: control.

There is a need for control that stems from well-intended motives. When you start to dig a little deeper, you’ll find there are two distinct sides to the control factor, with fear lying in the middle.  Fear is the uncertainty and lack of control when it comes to social.

Helping others vs. controlling information

Remember, you are in this profession to help others.  It’s not about you, it’s about the learners. Controlling the information someone else needs in order to learn is not of value; knowing how to help someone get to the information they need to learn is valuable.

Indeed, a valuable and highly regarded L&D professional doesn’t have all of the answers and doesn’t control access to information. Instead, they know how to connect the right people with the right resources. A community of networked employees using a social platform in the learning toolbox makes the job of connecting easier and faster than ever before. This tool provides a connection to the network and access to information from every single employee in the organization.

Providing open access to information across the organization helps to alleviate the bottleneck that has become the L&D function. We do ourselves a disservice if we think that the purpose of L&D is to control all the learning happening in an organization.

A social platform working with the community of experts makes it easier to support subject matter experts in creating and developing learning. If you are afraid to let a SME take on this task, think about the role that you as a learning professional could play. Within a community on a social platforms , L&D pros can encourage, participate in, and monitor conversations while pointing people in the right direction from anywhere at any time.

With the L&D mindset, you will be able to bring in your expertise and knowledge if you know others are working on similar initiatives. As you help to deliver learning “moments” faster through the community having unlimited access, you’re helping to develop SME’s into trainers.

Keep in mind that learner’s don’t necessarily care where they get the information they need to do their jobs. They care that they get the right information they need to do their jobs in the most effective way at the time they need it.  L&D teams that resist this shift of control will find their organizations viewing them as a necessary expense instead of a valuable strategic part of the organization.

Knowledge is power vs. the power of the network

For years we have been told that knowledge is power. But today, the acquisition of knowledge is easily accessible by almost everyone on any subject with an Internet connection. The application of knowledge and the context in which we add value to our customers is what makes us unique.

When you add a community through a social platform into your learning toolbox, it helps to extract and make available knowledge held by individuals within the organization highlighting their expertise and best practices.  The power and strength of any organization comes from individuals within the organization sharing what they know with the community at large.  There truly is power in numbers.

A social learning platform is new and evolving network of people building a community. These pockets of people and network already exist somehow within your organization. Tapping into that networked community and bringing it to our organizations, we have to understand the needs and desires from the learners.

Three avenues of fear


The trainer. Some trainers have a fear of being open and participants of a social platform. In one organization, we asked how being part of a community was different than standing up in front of a room facilitating the conversation. On the surface, they felt in control of the classroom environment. They could stomp-out chatter.

A trainer in front of the room becomes the expert and builds trust with the learners through the class. So, how can we replicate that online?  Within the use of social tools, you can encourage these conversations to happen throughout the day to facilitate learning beyond the static content or presentations.

The learner. George Washington is quoted to have said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Washington’s quote illustrates why people are “fearful” to use social tools; the doubt and fear of looking like a fool. Learners might say to themselves, “I don’t want to look like I don’t know the answer, so I just won’t ask.”

A few months ago, we hosted training for non-for-profit marketing team focusing on how to speak up and be heard rather than keeping secrets. The team consisted of experts in their field with many novices to social tools and had a desire to learn more specifically about Twitter and how it could help their community. As we dug into their story, we asked questions like: What were they proud of within their organization? What events were happening? Why the community should care?

The ideas, stories, and information that they shared were honest, caring, colorful, and perfect content for the team to start sharing on social media. We had the team write down these answers on post it notes. Then we started with the basics like writing a bio and updating your profile, hashtags, following experts and other not-for-profits, and participating in tweet chats.

We used the motto: “If you won’t say it about your organization, don’t tweet it.” The post it notes became actual things the group could use to tweet about. When we broke it down and used a method these learners were comfortable with they could overcome their fear of tweeting easier. Months later, the team is still tweeting and learning more by expanding their reach on social networks thru their community. Allowing the learners to try without fear, helps provide an easier transition. Practice before you leap.

The message. We (Yammer) designed a global training program. It included e-learning, community participation, webinars, and even face-to-face meetings. Well, that’s where the issue rose.

We were in Japan facilitating the workshop and the participants were nodding their heads agreeing with us as if they understood. When we analyzed the audience prior to the trip, we were told that English was not a problem for these participants. However, as we later found out, a brave trainee said that she was having a hard time understanding what we were saying.  The message had been distorted.

The next day we took a course of action, instead of having fear that we had lost a whole day of training “message.” My colleagues started to “Live-Yam,” which is when someone is talking while someone else is posting key points to Yammer within the group used for training. Within the tool, you can translate the user interface, as well as any message that’s not in your local language.

Because our participants had the ability to translate each message, they were easily able to share and respond in Japanese to the trainers who posted in English. They could ask questions in their native tongue that could be answered in Yammer and searchable for the next group of workshop trainees.

From a social aspect beyond social media, we learned from one of the participants that it wasn’t working, so we used our social tools to help use still convey the message. With tools to help us convey the message in the language that literally the group could understand, we were able to get the key points across.

Now, a few months after the training sessions, the group still posts in Japanese, and they get replies from trainees around the world in Spanish, Portuguese, and English.

Moving forward

So, how do you get started to identify areas of fear? Below is a checklist of our recommendations to navigate these three areas.

The trainer can:

  • Start conversations within the community about learning, training, and education in general.  Some conversation starter ideas include: Is mandatory training positive or negative?  How can we add “fun” to our virtual/e-learning courses?  Would anyone like to volunteer to pilot our ABC Course?
  • Post your own thoughts of what you are working on, and with whom.
  • Communicate about the actual training events –leading up to, during, and after.
  • Understand the tools and try them out for yourself. Trying to tie a tool to a project might work, or use experiments for different tools. This is helpful as you consider your audience for the training needs.

The learner can:

  • Encourage learners to share about their experience with the learning events.
  • Connect and engage company experts to follow on your social platform internally, or externally find industry experts to follow. For example, as you read online articles and blogs, note the authors twitter name.  You can then follow them.  Also, learn about Tweet Chats or YamJams and join in. A great one as an example to begin with is #LRNCHAT.

The message can:

  • Deliver knowledge by use # hashtags to create topics that you and others can search/follow around the topic you are communicating.

Finally, ask to see your organization’s social media guidelines. If they don’t have them, ask to be involved with the decisions around them. A good best practice is that that you are responsible for your behavior and that if you wouldn’t speak it don’t tweet it. We should be involved with the social strategy within the organization sharing the knowledge that we have of learning and development to our leaders and employees. Don’ be fearful, jump in!

About the Author

Allison Michels is the Director of Customer Engagement Programs for Yammer at Microsoft. She delivers education and community programs to customers and engages in the people side of change. She focuses on training and coaching the C-suite. Prior to joining Yammer, Allison was an IT training analyst at First Solar. Allison holds a BA degree in business administration from the University of Toledo and an ME degree in technology and leadership from The George Washington University.

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