In this series of three articles, i want to explore social learning from the perspective of the individual and the organisation in today’s workplace and then take a look to the future, to where social may take us. Yesterday we 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. Today i want to explore the challenges for organisations.
An organisation is only as healthy as it’s messaging, it’s ability to communicate ideas and to shape, strengthen and influence it’s reputation in the marketplace. Much of this ability falls to it’s control of messages, it’s ability to define what the brand stands for and to influence how others perceive it by ensuring that messaging is ‘on brand’. In other words, every advert you see, every website, every letter or press release, the scripts used by the call centre handlers and every aspect of every shop or branch, from the colour of the marble floor to the type of door handle used is controlled.
Consistency, compliance and replicability of experience are the hallmarks of today’s global or aspirational business. Go to McDonalds in Peking or Portsmouth and the experience is controlled the same. HSBC is the world’s local bank because the promises they make in Shanghai are as valid as the ones they make in Surbiton.
Within this web of control, social learning sits like a warty toad. It’s not very welcome and nobody wants to kiss it. Historically, organisational learning has been about taking people and bringing them in line with the organisational view of the world, be that product knowledge, how to lead people or how to change a valve without blowing something up. There are many good reasons for this. The skills needed to be safe and successful are often well understood, organisational knowledge built up over time. If you work in an engineering business, nobody particularly wants you to contribute an original idea to how that valve gets changed.
Formal and traditional learning structures are often well suited to the development of of skills and behaviours that help strengthen this organisational view of the world. Social learning can sit comfortably alongside this, but it’s different. It’s less about the training for formal knowledge and more about the development of skills around using knowledge, applying it. Social learning is more collaborative and fluid, looking for emergent truth out of debate and discussion, challenge and exploration. I view it more as a mindset and a tool that can be deployed to support practice and embedding of knowledge.
Social is not about control, it’s about collaboration. For the organisation this can present all sorts of challenges: legal, ethical and around consistency. Take that problem with a valve: firstly, the organisation has a legal obligation to train you to change it safely. They have to discover the best way, then they have to have that way accredited and verified, then they have to train you, let you practice and sign you off as competent. Within this legal framework, there is little space for social learning, which would be more likely to ask why not try this other way?
You could include a space for more experienced engineers to contribute feedback and thoughts, although this can easily breach legal guidelines (if one of them says ‘just hit it with a hammer’).
Ethical challenges emerge especially in global social learning spaces where we need to take into account different cultural norms around gender and sexual equality, the role of the manager and what it means to learn. Some cultures are more comfortable with the free form collaborative approach that tends to typify social whilst others prefer there to be more structure. In some cultures it’s unusual for women to be engineers of managers and there is a risk that debate can start to make people uncomfortable. Do we have a duty to champion liberal values in social learning spaces, or is that simply rude to other cultures? Should we avoid these issues, or does that form a moral cowardice? These are significant organisational challenges that can prevent the utilisation or success of social learning. As we discussed yesterday, building social capital is important for individuals to gain benefit in social learning spaces, but there is a darker side to this too in the form of bullying or, in a lesser form, hustling in these spaces. Some people have strongly developed skills in putting their view across forcefully and the transition into the virtual world of social can reinforce the way they do this. It’s well known that people can tend to say things in emails or texts that they would never say in person. We tend to be less inhibited, giving greater potential for conflict or misunderstanding.
I sometimes think that legal and ethical concerns are more legitimate reasons not to take up social than the other main reason: control. Organisations like to control messaging and often for good reasons as we have seen above. They don’t want people blowing things up and they don’t want debate around whether women can be engineers. It’s all just a distraction. But beyond that, there is a fear that the messages can’t be moderated or controlled.
Lets just think about the range of ways that organisations communicate: websites, brochures, corporate literature, this all tends to be written in advance, heavily edited by legal, compliance, communication teams and MDs. It’s a heavily moderated and controlled message. Social media tend to fall at the other end of the spectrum: forums, Twitter, status updates, these all tend to be relatively unmoderated, more conversational, immediate and disposable. Or rather, we intend for them to be disposable. But things persist in the virtual world, meaning that posts in forums come back to haunt us later. Where so much organisational value and reputation is built upon control of messages, it’s understandable that there is a nervousness about introducing social spaces where messages can be unmoderated.
I guess moderation is the key to all of this: for organisations and the individuals that make them up to debate and decide upon what stance they want to take. What is the organisational tone of voice for engaging in social learning spaces and for moderating them?
This is something that needs to emerge, not that can be totally planned in advance. Because social media are so responsive, so conversational, we can’t codify how we react, but we can agree on a tone of voice. Take my blog, it’s run on principles of collaboration and positive tone of voice. If i can’t think of something positive to say on a subject, i won’t talk about it. I won’t write articles knocking other projects or sites, unless i have something constructive to say about it. Why? Because i find that social media postings that are just negative are depressing. If you don’t feel you can contribute towards building knowledge, sharing learning and understanding and building something better, you have to ask yourself if you should contribute at all. But that’s just my tone of voice. It’s ok to have a different one, but organisations should think what theirs is.
So we need to set out ground rules, maybe in collaboration with learners. For example, we could agree that we won’t discuss engineering solutions, or that debates around gender are off limits. Or, conversely, we may tackle these things head on and say ‘we are a global business operating in countries with different attitudes towards women, lets explore what these are and decide what our stance will be’ (although it would be a brave organisation that tackled that one head on!).
I see the role of the moderator as key for the successful implementation of social learning in organisations. The moderator is the person or team that control risk, but do so in a collaborative way. They also help us to draw the learning out of the debate.
So, for organisations, social learning presents both opportunity and challenge. The case for adopting it is never so clear cut as the risks are both widespread and obvious, but, with correct moderation and a flexible approach to management, social spaces can liberate great thinking and facilitate a real shift in organisational learning. Just because something is risky or hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it: the rewards may be all the greater.
My new book, ‘exploring the world of social learning‘ explores these areas in greater detail, taking a practical view of how to implement a social learning strategy in your organisation.