Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

CAT | Social learning


There’s “stuff” and there’s “conversations about stuff.” And it’s the conversations that are the heart of collaboration.

A few years ago, we were helping a F500 customer develop their Vice President’s Leadership Program. It used an action learning model, and featured a 9-month project where each team would brief the company’s executive committee on their recommendations for new markets.

Collaboration between team members was essential – and the ability to collaborate was in fact one of the desired outcomes of the program.

Teams brainstormed on ideas. They divided up research tasks and reported results back to the group. They decided on a new market together. They determined how this would be presented to the executives and once again divided responsibilities for the creation and delivery of the presentation.

However, the team members were distributed across North America! The could only meet face to face three times during the nine months due to travel restrictions, and one of those meetings was to make the presentation.

How did they work together? They used three tools: The telephone for synchronous conversations, WebEx for synchronous meetings, and a robust discussion forum for doing the work. Individual topics within the forum organized their collaboration:

  • A topic for general conversations
  • A topic for maintaining records of meetings
  • One topic for each research area
  • One topic for follow-up ideas and discussions about the market area they finally chose
  • One topic for each section of the report, where drafts were posted, read by others, and comments made

We can characterize this collaboration as consisting of conversations for action around shared content. But the heart of the collaboration was not the documents (the content). Brainstorming, decision making and planning were done via conversation. Documents were the result. In fact, even the preparation of documents was conversational in nature, as drafts would be prepared, discussed, reviewed, and enhanced.

Having run a 100% virtual company for 15 years and launched any number of online business communities of various types, I have come to believe that conversations for action are at the heart of collaboration, not shared documents that anyone can edit and comment on. I’ve also come to believe that synchronous technologies are great for meetings, but fundamentally, meetings are not where the work or collaboration happens. They are bookends that frame the work. The majority of collaboration in distributed teams happens asynchronously, and the right tools need to be available for this. More on these tools in another post.

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electronic-coach-smallSometimes I see “coaches” in higher-end eLearning modules. For instance, there may be some circles with pictures of “coaches” in them. Each coach is there to answer a question. That answer may be text, or a talking head video that allows you to spend two or three minutes listening to what you could have read in 20% of that time.

Using them makes me think of talking to a brain-dead Siri. They are a failed attempt to simulate a live human interaction with another live human being. And honestly, I don’t see the point.

Why are they there? I guess that the answer is that it makes the eLearning more “interactive.”

Interactive. That’s an interesting word. It used to mean people interacting with people. Now it refers to people interacting with computers – or computers interacting with each other, I suppose.

The thing that’s missing with these electronic pseudo-coaches is a human interaction where you ask the coach a question and you receive an adaptive answer to your question. Then you ask another question and what ensues is, well, a dialog.

Enough with the pseudo-coaches. If the question is important enough to post a stock answer, then build it into the eLearning module. There’s no reason you need to have a fake coach answering a pre-programmed question. It’s a parody of a human interaction does not really humanize the situation. All it does is to allow you to market your product in a different way.

Worse, by suggesting that you’ve built coaching into the product, it might appear to the uninitiated that you’ve checked of the coaching checkbox, so nothing further needs to be done, and perpetuates the myth that all training can be done via eLearning modules.

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sponsor-smallIntroducing blended learning to the organization? Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful.

  1. Pick a high value initiative where there is a clear line of sight between a change in capability and a top or bottom line goal; failing that, alignment with a corporate strategic goal.
  2. Start with the executive sponsor. Make sure that she sees the problem, the cost of the problem, and the opportunity.
  3. Ensure, once again, that you did #2 completely and effectively. This is where I see the root cause of a large number of failed blended learning initiatives.
  4. Clearly agree with the executive sponsor on what you need from her for the initiative to succeed. Examples include her letting managers know that she will be personally attending to adoption and success metrics; partnering with peers as required to ensure that SMEs will be available; ensuring that learners will be released for the time required to participate in the program, etc.
  5. Identify (or develop) performance metrics. Partner with sponsors, HR or line managers as needed, but strive to have metrics in place for a level 3 evaluation. The question “how will we know if learners can apply skills on the job” is pretty darned similar to the basic questions that should be asked in performance appraisal, to create partnerships to address this fundamental issue.

Finally, here are a couple architecture-level issues that should be thought through before moving to the design level.

  • Will the program be cohort-based? Cohort-based means that a group of people will go through the blended learning activities together as a group. The important question here is, will it be important to integrate social learning into the design? For example, in such things as leadership instructor-led training, we pretty much always integrate large group discussion and small group activities such as case studies into the design.
  • Will part of the program be real-time?  You can design a cohort-based program that uses discussion forums for a case study, or you can use a classroom environment. For certain objectives like sales call skills and presentation skills, you almost have to have a face-to-face component.
    In either of these cases, the complexity of delivery goes up exponentially. Learners and instructors need to be scheduled, provision made for learners who cannot attend, and managers cry piteously about learners’ absence from work. This then goes back to #2 above – you need to get buy-in from executive sponsors at the least, and line managers as well in optimal situations.
  • Will you incorporate on-the-job coaching and reinforcement into the program? If so, who will identify appropriate assignments (managers?)? Who will provide coaching (managers? coaches? peers?)? Will there be periodic times when learners share what they’ve learned? Again, this may well drive to proficiency much faster, but will add a layer of complexity you must plan for.

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babyinbath-smallThere is a distressing trend to leave social learning out of training – especially when that training is delivered online.

Sometime we pretend to include social learning in eLearning with “ask the coach” buttons. Personally, I find these worse than useless. They take a half dozen softball questions and have a learner-avatar ask the question of a coach-avatar, when they could simply embed the answer in the training itself. That’s not Q&A. A question is a learner asking for a concept they didn’t understand to be explained using different words or examples. A question is a learner asking how a concept applies in their ‘unique’ situation. An answer should be a live human being providing adaptive response to the question.

If we go back to how the best face-to-face training programs are conducted, it’s not 100% lecture. In fact, I’d suggest it isn’t 50% lecture. Social activities include breakouts, Q&As, case studies, and all the “break times” where learners chat with each other about their work.

If we want to provide true instruction rather than simple content presentation – the poorest form of “training” – we must use a blended approach and use synchronous or asynchronous technologies such as web meetings, discussion forums, or even the venerable conference call to allow learners to learn from the instructor and each other.

I don’t know about you, but I used to learn 90% of what I retained from the social activities in training, not the lectures. Let’s not throw out the social baby the bathwater as we move classes to eLearning modules.

Adapted from Speed to Proficiency: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage. (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015 (paperback and Kindle)

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Social learning is the heart

NTLPeople like to learn from people. We’ve been doing it that way for 20,000 years or so, and we’ve sort of gotten used to it. You might even say our brains are wired for it. Paul Zak, in the Harvard Business Review (October 28, 2014) points out that well-constructed narratives can be compelling, memorable, and motivating. However, at a deeper level, his research suggested that in positive social interactions, our brains produce a neurochemical called oxytocin. He says, “oxytocin [produces] a key ‘it’s safe to approach others’ signal in the brain.”

Other research done by the National Training Laboratories and NetG bears this out. The amount of material retained and ready for use is dismal when the learner is passive (lecture, reading) or interacting with the software (CD ROM). The three tallest bars on this chart come from discussions, experiential learning, and teaching others – two of which are clearly social learning, and the third – experiential learning – often is as well.

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Speed to ProficiencyI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Speed to Proficiency: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Learn how to change from providing “so we did it” training to creating learning initiatives that produce capability change. Everything is covered: Aligning initiatives with the business, understanding the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, weaving together training with reinforcement and coaching, integrating informal learning and performance support, and selecting the right learning technologies.


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