In this series of three articles, we first explored the experience of the individual, looking at how social capital is increasingly important: the ability to survive and thrive in online spaces and how this differs from the past. Next we looked at the challenges for the organisation, around legal and ethical issues, as well as the role of the moderator. Today i want to look to the future, to indulge in some wild speculation around where social learning may take us going forward.
The ways that we learn are changing. We used to learn things and keep them in our heads for later: today, it’s more important to know how to find things out and to know how to synthesise that knowledge into meaningful and transformative action. Your ability to get things done at speed, to collaborate, to produce quality work and to provide both challenge and support to others are probably more important than simply knowing things.
This means that the skills required for success today are different from those skills that were required yesterday. We have to adapt. The methodology that we use for designing and delivering learning needs to adapt too. Today, learning is more spread out: whilst there is still a need for formal training programmes, we increasingly surround those experiences with semi formal and informal layers.
As we move further away from the core, formal, learning space, the layers become more conversational, more fluid. Truth is something that emerges rather than being presented as fact. It’s healthy to have this range: core learning in a curriculum and progressive layers of debate that surround it. For example, theory and demonstration may sit within the formal space, but ways to implement the learning in the business day to day may be built within the semi formal space that surrounds it. This will happen through discussion, debate, challenge and the drawing together of disparate ideas.
Moving into the future, i think that the types of community in which this discussion and debate take place will become more of a feature of our work, more likely to be the first place we turn to for support and help. Instead of being limited to getting support from managers or HR departments, we will see the natural place to turn to be with our community. And we are unlikely to have one community that serves all our needs, but rather a range of specialist ones: a leadership community to turn to for challenges around running our team, a sales community to help us develop sales strategy and a gardening community for helping us grow better peas. These communities will be typified by engaged individuals and sharing of knowledge, debate and discussion that will happen at speed.
In some communities we will see a more formal element, maybe through the moderation and drawing together of knowledge to provide a legacy from debate. Other communities will remain informal, sociable as well as social learning spaces. Initially we will see that communities will spring up around distinct topics, but i think it’s likely that, over time, the communities will become more permanent, being bought to bear around specific challenges, rather than being linked to one specific project. To be truly functional, a community needs differentiation of roles, and for this to happen takes time. In more transient communities, we tend to get stuck at the forming stage, with everyone jostling for position.
Having more permanent groups that apply their muscle to specific problems will be one way to avoid this. There is a flip side though, in that roles are likely to be more fluid: leadership, subject matter expertise and challenge are likely to come from different quarters for different subjects. The formal structures that typify formal environments are less likely to persist in agile online learning spaces.
This does highlight what may be perceived as more of a challenge though: the disenfranchised learner. As your social capital becomes more important, those who lack it will miss out. Whilst some people take to social learning like fish to water, others will be left behind. Unless we spend time and effort in engaging with these learners and addressing their very real concerns, we may simply make learning the preserve of the capable and engaged majority, but lose sight of the silent minority. There are many reasons why some people won’t engage online, many of them good ones. Often the reason is that there is no perceived value, it’s just seen as people wasting time or venting frustration. This is often a feature of emergent communities.
We need to move beyond the initial venting of steam and into productive discussion, which can come down to the role of the moderator. Another reason people won’t engage is if they don’t get the etiquette. This is apparent with a channel like Twitter: if you don’t understand hashtags and tagging, if you don’t get the semi stylised format of the communication, it’s daunting to engage with it.
In longer term approaches to the adoption of social learning within the organisational strategy, we should be able to address this through targeted programmes designed to engage with all learners. This does mean having a clear view of how people will be rewarded for participation, after all, what gets measured gets done. Are we measuring quality or quantity of discussion? Are we looking at the roles that people take, rewarding people who offer support or challenge, or are we going to leave the community to it’s own devices and simply view it as an additional, but informal activity?
A mature organisational view will be one that is fluid, able to utilise social learning in different ways in different contexts, just as the mature learners will engage in different spaces to different levels at different times. Indeed, with social learning there is a good argument for making all communities transient, or at least only semi permanent. It’s true that many forum spaces become stale or stagnant over time, so a good clear out never hurts, although it’s nice to combine that with the ability to build a legacy. I feel that a good role for the moderator is to draw out the stories and present them back to the group in terms of narrative documents, kind of informal white papers that summarise group learning if you like.
Social learning is here to stay: the old days of abstract formal learning and then being pitched back into the fray are gone. Whilst it’s not clear what the future will hold, we know for sure that the technology is mature, but that it will take more than just technology to make a difference. Social learning skills will be crucial, and our ability to nurture and develop these key.
These and other issues are explored in my new book, ‘exploring the world of social learning‘ , taking a practical view of how to implement a social learning strategy in your organisation.