Why do so many social learning platforms fail to get user traction? Having conducted a great deal of research into the social learning market, I was intrigued that I didn’t find a single organisation that believes it was having true success with typical social learning tools. So I turned my attention to users to uncover why they don’t use social platforms inside the workplace. Here are some of my findings, feelings and thoughts as to why this is. (After reading this blog I would invite anybody to correct me on this, as I’m really keen to find someone with a success story of peer learning across an organisation.)
What do users want when learning socially?
Social learning is a mode of learning that is driven by the point of need. In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing working environments, point of need has to be addressed there and then – if not, people will distrust the tools they have and seek out alternatives (usually by asking around).
I found that when employees refer to a social learning tool or a learning community they typically want three things:
- Learning that is part of their workflow. Users want to find, learn and apply the information as part of the task in hand.
- Content that is specific and targeted for the task in hand. Questions answered inevitably lead to unanswered questions, so users want all the relevant content to the task rather than the subject.
- Content needs to be in context.
The misinterpretation of social learning
Social learning has been a corporate buzzword for a while now which has resulted in many technology providers jumping on the bandwagon to capitalise on the trend (much like Gamification, which we’ll explore in my blog posts over the coming months).
With such a rapid growth of apps and tools for social learning, I can’t help but feel that technology providers have somewhat gotten the wrong end of the stick when it comes to designing social learning tools and platforms. It seems that most of the tools that I’ve seen sit in two distinct camps:
- Learning Content + Social Media = Social Learning
This model relies on users sharing their experience, likes and ratings of learning in the hope that the next person can easily find the best content. They rely on individuals to share what they have done, and also what they liked, similar to the way ecommerce sites encourage people to buy specific products. However, there still seems to be an absence of peer interaction and relies on a few-to-many relationship.
- Content Curation + Commenting & Collaboration = Social Learning
This model relies on users categorising content into online scrapbooks/streams that other users can read, follow, collaborate and comment on. These types of tools typically require a subject matter expert to guide or curate the dialogue, and often become rapidly outdated when focus is required on ‘business as usual’ activities. In any case, it’s still very much a one-to-many broadcast model.
While both these models aren’t strictly incorrect, as they both have learning content and they’re both social to some degree, I believe they do not answer the most important questions when adopting a social learning strategy. For example: Is the platform open and practical for all employees? In what mode of learning will people use it? Where does the real interaction with peers happen?
In my experience there are four main reasons for why these models just don’t get a great deal of user engagement:
- Driving user interaction by sharing learning content, adding ‘likes’ or curating subject matter doesn’t amplify learning, it just turns up the volume on workplace white noise.
- They all rely on a few-to-many broadcasting and don’t encourage action.
- Content curation is a good way of categorising content into subject area, but subjects are not task focused. When learning is attributed to subjects rather than tasks, the user still has to process the information and put it into context. Video-based sharing goes some way to addressing this, but it often requires users to sit through five- to eight-minute vignettes with no guarantees the user will uncover the content they’re looking for.
- They assume the audience is culturally ready to learn and work out loud.
Don‘t get me wrong, I’m a real advocate for social learning: there’s no denying that making a success of social learning has tangible commercial benefits. Although it’s my opinion that many technology providers have missed the mark on social learning, I also think they have done a great deal of groundwork for us to move closer to a more social workplace.
While Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook still hold the top spots for social media engagement, we have to consider what their mode of use is and can’t expect that their models will directly transpose to learning in the workplace. In theory they should, but the fact is, they don’t.
What makes a successful social application?
The world of social connection and interaction is changing. Social technology is at the centre of many peoples interaction with one another. If we look at any successful social app today, they follow a consistent model: (1) they enable many-to-many connections, and (2) they address the audience’s needs in the moment.
- Uber: I need a cheap taxi and I need it now.
- Tinder/Grinder: I want a relationship (or not) now.
- Meetup: I want to meet with like-minded individuals ASAP.
What interests me most about the model of these apps is how the users put their trust in them based on the fact that it fulfils a defined need. For example, Uber is basically glorified hitchhiking, but it gives the users what they want when they want it, and people are prepared to give it a go. I would bet my last pound that not one of those users would stand on the roadside with their arm out and thumb up to achieve the same goal.
I think this gives us great insight to learn from when adopting a social learning strategy within the workplace.
The power of peer-to-peer learning
If typical social learning tools don’t go all out to encourage employees to learn out loud or engage with one another, where do we go from here?
My observation is that facilitating peer-to-peer learning holds the key to a more social and open working environment.
Here are four reasons why peer to peer learning is more effective:
- By facilitating peer-to-peer interaction using a virtual skills marketplace, people can tap into both information and knowledge that is both relevant and in context to their task in hand.
- By being slightly less public or ‘out loud’, it does not rely on a cultural shift yet still encourages a high level of interaction among peers.
- It blurs the lines between ‘on the job’ and informal learning and is open to all employees without borders or silos.
- It’s sustainable – when users connect with each other and learn new skills, they learn new skills that can be offered to others, creating a cycle of continual employee interaction.
This is more than just theory: our first client that used our app (SynQ:Social) saw 17% of their employees connect with peers to gain new skills within a 2 months of its launch, and it continues to grow by the day.
If you’d like to explore how peer-to-peer learning can unlock your organisation’s social potential, please visit us at www.cognify.co.uk or come to see our app in the technology test drive section at The World of Learning conference.