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Learning 2.0 Improving Workforce Productivity

April 22, 2010

Web 2.0 technologies and social media Web sites have fundamentally altered how people find information, how they locate experts and expertise and how they interact and collaborate. If we think of the Web making all the digital information in the world available, then Web 2.0 is making all the “digital people” in the world available too.

There’s one catch, though. No one ever said the Web 2.0 world was going to be pretty. And, in fact, on the public Internet, it’s often not. Social media on the Internet makes experts more available, but it also provides a forum for people with more opinions than expertise; knowledge as well as misinformation; civil as well as unhelpful discourse. Anyone who follows the blogosphere knows that it’s sometimes not for the faint of heart.

So as learning professionals increasingly try to sell their executive decision makers on the idea of using social media for business reasons—to revolutionize learning programs, performance support systems and collaboration tools—how can they convince them that Web 2.0 is a business solution, and not just the pastime of socially hungry high school students?

The selling point of Web 2.0 is that it transforms the enterprise learning environment—to something I call Learning 2.0—and that it ultimately makes employees more productive because they can find what they need faster, tailored to the performance environment in which they’re working. But some people wonder whether Web 2.0 makes more “good stuff” available, or just “stuff.” Is it more gold, or just more dross that needs sifting?

Fortunately, there are best practices and new tools that can help. Leading companies today are creating secure, sponsored Learning 2.0 environments that not only broaden the scope of who can contribute knowledge—tapping into the “crowd”—but are also using that crowd to sift through and evaluate those contributions. The result is access to knowledge that is not just broader, but deeper as well.

What Learning 2.0 means in a corporate environment
Web 2.0 is really about user-generated content. Social media has transformed the Internet. It once was a place where corporate content providers published information for us to consume. Now it’s an Internet where we, the users, are generating most of the content and most of the value.

In the coming decade, we will see the Web 2.0 trend slowly but inexorably spread through our corporate intranets and radically change how we manage our workforces and how we help them learn.

It is a well-known and accepted fact that 20 percent or less of real learning happens in a formal enterprise learning environment. Learning professionals have known that for years, but struggled with what to do about it. It’s been hard to capture informal learning and coaching experiences on the job and then get those out to everyone in a global working environment. But not anymore. Today, tools and technologies exist that not only capture user-generated content, but also evaluate it, index it and make it available in seconds.

One of the happy side effects of the Learning 2.0 phenomenon is that the kind of experience that Web 2.0 delivers tends to help employees learn better, retain information longer and perform more productively.

For example, we now can more readily deliver learning anywhere and everywhere, via cell phones, iPods and other devices. That means people can learn when it is convenient for them, filling time in taxis and airports that might otherwise go to waste. Learning 2.0 techniques also deliver learning that can be measured in minutes, not hours. People can take just the dose of learning that they need and for which they have the time.

We also know that different people have different learning styles. Some are visual learners, others are auditory ones, and still others learn best through hands-on practice. Learning 2.0 provides something for everyone.

One leading example of these trends comes from Microsoft, which has been using Learning 2.0 techniques to give its sales force better access to the information it needs to sell a rapidly evolving suite of new products.

As the company was getting ready to launch Windows Vista and Office 2007, its biggest product launch in 10 years, Microsoft realized that relying solely on traditional training had three huge drawbacks: It pulled people away from making sales to receive training, it was difficult to keep training up to date with ongoing product development, and there was a steep drop-off in retention if learning is not put to use immediately.

Keys to Nurturing a Successful Learning 2.0 Environment
Tom Hoglund has worked with a number of companies to help them map and implement their Learning 2.0 initiatives. Here are some of the lessons learned from these early adopters:
• Begin tipping the balance from investing most of your learning budget in training (which represents only 20 percent of how people learn) by funding a proof-of-concept project that starts to support on-the-job learning (which represents 80 percent of how people learn).
• Host a workshop with key stakeholders to help them understand how social media can transform their employees’ work environment. If possible, include an industry luminary who can provide some external perspective.
• Create a system in which key executives will nourish Learning 2.0 with their ongoing sponsorship. Choose sponsors whose opinions carry weight within the organization.
• Do not approach Learning 2.0 as a technology project. Technology is necessary but not sufficient.
• Communicate relentlessly. Let the organization know what you are doing and why, and then be sure to tout a few early success stories to build momentum.
• Establish the means to motivate users and experts to contribute content. To implement a successful Learning 2.0 environment, you need to change behaviors and culture. This doesn’t happen without a focused change-management campaign and a small but effective organization to care and feed for your Learning 2.0 capability.

To address these issues, Microsoft created the Microsoft Sales Academy Mobile, which offers short video and audio clips—podcasts—created by Microsoft product experts and sales professionals. Imagine you’re a Microsoft salesperson about to talk to a customer who’s interested in SharePoint. You can search the Sales Academy for a sales demonstration of SharePoint, choose one that is created by one of Microsoft’s top SharePoint experts, watch that expert give a SharePoint sales presentation several times until you are comfortable with how to do it, download the slides that expert used and then easily contact that expert to ask questions via instant message, voice conference or videoconference.

Microsoft has had tremendous success with the Sales Academy, with hundreds of new podcasts created each month, thousands of salespeople accessing the site and a very successful launch of new products. The company estimates that the user- and expert-generated content submitted to the site would have cost them millions of dollars to create in traditional, centralized ways.

Assessing the value of user-generated content
Collaborating in a Learning 2.0 environment certainly sounds promising, but how do we assess the value of user-generated content? Some interesting research was recently conducted by three Canadian university professors who looked into the ability of social media to support the more effective locating of expertise within an organization. The research found that the interactions within social networks, blogs and wikis provide natural cues about the value of contributions that are usually missing from most knowledge-sharing systems. The researchers also contend that the tags and keywords created by employees are then used by search engines can reveal qualities in an expert that are not obvious in a traditional database or directory.

The ability to both contribute and make judgments about contributions is a key to using social media to create a more productive Learning 2.0 environment. My own company, Accenture, for example, uses a crowd-sourcing tool (which we informally call “the grapevine”) to generate ideas. A “seed” request is generated first and sent to everyone on the grapevine network. People contribute their ideas but then also evaluate everyone else’s. In the end, the person who first put the request for ideas into motion receives not just a chaotic mess of feedback, but a set of responses ordered according to what the experts on the network thought were the best ones. The Microsoft Sales Academy also includes that functionality—the ability to locate sales support that other professionals thought was most valuable to them.

Similar capabilities are offered by an innovative learning and collaboration tool at U.K. communications company BT Group. Peter Butler, who leads the overall learning program at BT Group, wanted to create learning tools—and a learning and collaborative environment—built on the principle that most learning happens on the job, not in the classroom. Butler wanted to reap the substantial return that is available to companies from facilitating and accelerating on-the-job learning.

BT Group’s Learning 2.0 tool, called Dare2Share, focuses on sharing best practices across and within the company’s seven major business units. BT personnel submit their best practices and other employees then rate them. Someone starting a new project can browse or search for best practices and sample work products instead of reinventing the wheel. BT can then collect the best practices submitted to create new and better ways of operating.

BT Group’s business case for Learning 2.0 shows a very high rate of return on a relatively small initial investment. The biggest value driver is getting things done right the first time. The company is now also applying Learning 2.0 techniques to its management development program.

Driving business strategy
Properly harnessed and properly sponsored by C-suite executives, Learning 2.0 principles can do more than support individual workforces; they can support the evolution and alignment of business strategy as well. An example of a very strategic use of Learning 2.0 comes from a major U.S. consumer products company (whose name I’m not at liberty to disclose) that has recently been challenged to engage its workforce in a new corporate strategy.

The company’s global HR leader saw an opportunity to bring workforce performance into alignment with business strategy faster using Learning 2.0 techniques. The new approach features a more direct, regular and personal communication of corporate strategy by the CEO to employees. More important, it encourages and empowers employees to participate in the strategy—to ask questions, provide feedback and, through collaborative forums, be part of driving how the strategy could be implemented in their area of the business.

The program is just now building momentum, but with a Learning 2.0 solution the company has a mechanism to ensure that strategic messages have been received, a way to start measuring how many of its employees have engaged with the new strategy and a channel to start building the new skills that will be needed to execute the strategy.

Conclusion: A world full of ideas
Learning 2.0 has both direct and indirect benefits to a company. A collaborative, participatory approach to learning means that an organization can tap into the energy and ideas of its people, anywhere in the world. At the same time, that capability has the potential to indirectly change the culture of the entire company. Being heard is the biggest workforce motivator there is. The new learning environments just coming into force have the chance to transform the productivity of people, and the performance of the organizations they work for.

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