Serving up social media snippets for employee learning is the best idea since sliced cheesecake. So says Jeff Stepler, vice president of organizational engagement at the Cheesecake Factory Inc., a restaurant chain based in Calabasas Hills, California. Stepler and his training team rely less on textbooks and classrooms and more on a viral approach to deliver employee learning. Interactive content is provided directly to employees in 160 restaurants nationwide, via a customized portal. Known as Video Café—think YouTube with a corporate twist—the portal lets employees create, upload and share video clips on job-related topics, including customer greetings and food preparation. Usually no more than two or three minutes long, the videos enable restaurant employees to access information as they need it. Watching chefs prepare menu items, or colleagues role-play the server-customer relationship, makes the learning more enduring and dynamic, Stepler says. Some of the videos have proven to be so compelling that they are being embedded into established training programs. "That's helping us reduce the cost of content development and to increase the relevance and authenticity of the learning," Stepler says. Employees who contribute video content are recognized in the credits of the training material. Having knowledgeable employees appears to be paying off for Cheesecake Factory, which posted $418.8 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2011, up 3.3 percent year over year. Video Café signifies how companies, especially those with a widely dispersed workforce, are beginning to use social tools to connect their people. Corporate bias against social software is fading, thanks to the rising popularity of consumer-oriented portals such as Facebook and YouTube. Eighty percent of organizations plan to increase their use of social media for learning during the next three years, according to "The Rise of Social Media: Enhancing Collaboration and Productivity Across Generations." The joint study of nearly 3,800 global businesses was produced last year by the American Society for Training & Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia, and the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity Inc. Organizations may not have yet formalized plans to use social learning tools, but "that doesn't mean employees aren't using them to learn," says Kristen Fyfe, a spokeswoman for the ASTD. "The question may be: How rapidly will companies connect social tools to employees' learning preferences?" Adoption of social tools also is driven by the "surge of the millennial generation into the workforce," which grew up with social tools and expects to use them in their work, Fyfe says. In another study, consulting firm Towers Watson & Co. says 60 percent of companies use social networking technologies to promote collaboration and idea-sharing, and nearly as many (58 percent) use it to foster team-building. The 2009-10 study culled responses from 328 companies that collectively employ 5 million people, in regions including Australia, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. "The story is no longer that companies are using social media. The story now is that they are using social media to add impact and value," says Adam Wootton, a senior consultant with Towers Watson, based in its New York City headquarters. In fact, companies are finding broad uses for technologies that enable employees to quickly swap ideas and information. In January, Troy, Michigan-based Kelly Services Inc. rolled out social networking software, known as Chatter, to its 8,000-person workforce. Similar in look and feel to Facebook, Chatter is a product from San Francisco-based software provider Salesforce.com. Collaboration between far-flung Kelly Services employees began almost immediately, says chief information officer Joe Drouin, whose information technology department piloted Chatter before a companywide rollout. "It's enabling conversations that would never have taken place before." One early example: a software developer in Germany posted a note on Chatter about a timekeeping application he had helped customize for a Kelly client. That prompted an inquiry from a fellow Kelly software developer in Portugal, who was working on a similar product for another client. Suddenly, developers across geographic boundaries and time zones were connecting to spontaneously collaborate, Drouin says. Aside from the rapid-fire exchange of ideas, he says social networks will foster a more closely knit group of employees. "Previously, the people who are collaborating on projects only knew each other as names on an organizational chart." Similarly, Ada, Michigan-based Amway Corp. is gravitating to more employee-driven learning, lessening its emphasis on traditional formats. The move was prompted in part by the recession, which kept training budgets flat. At the same time, however, the company needed to beef up the selling and marketing skills of its 17,000 global employees, says Jon Brickner, an Amway performance consultant. "Twice as much learning activity occurs between peers than through traditional methods. For us to be a really nimble organization, learning needs to be driven by the learners themselves," Brickner says. That in turn is changing the jobs of Amway's training professionals. Rather than pushing out new courses, learning staffers now play more of an advisory role by coordinating resources and facilitating learning opportunities. The result is that employees "pull learning in as they need it," often through informal networks. In line with the peer-to-peer approach, Amway is sorting its most knowledgeable employees into searchable "expert directories," accessible to all employees, Brickner says. Microsoft Corp.'s collaboration platform known as SharePoint is "our global standard for sharing information" among employees in most of the 80 countries and territories in which Amway transacts business, Brickner says. Meanwhile, gaming technologies represent the next frontier in social learning, says Towers Watson's Wootton. "They're engaging and people like them." It is a realization that's already dawned on Stepler's learning team at Cheesecake Factory. One plan involves using software modeled on Sky Burger—a popular consumer-gaming application available on Apple Inc.'s iPhone—to help its restaurant employees "build the perfect hamburger." Workforce Management Online, June 2011 -- Register Now!