Web 2.0 is the greatest invention ever. Just ask anyone under age 40 in your workplace what they would do if internet was ever taken out of their lives. All the information you need for work or leisure are now easily accessible with a few clicks of the mouse. Is it any wonder then that more learning and development professionals are looking at using social media networks to deliver their training programmes?
It is, after all, only a natural progression for companies to incorporate web 2.0 technologies in their development programmes if they want to appeal to their multigenerational workforce’s learning preferences. So are you on the social network bandwagon yet? Or do you think it’s a trend that would fade away?
Hopping on the social media train
Well, Agilent Technologies thinks it’s here to stay. As early as two years ago, the global measurement solution provider introduced Wiki as a collaborative learning software to its workforce across the world. Its intention? Enhance group learning within its corporate environment. And it is not alone. Other prominent Wiki users include Adobe Systems, Intel, Microsoft and Nokia. For the uninitiated, a Wiki site is essentially a database that users can easily create, browse, share and search for information.
Christopher Goh, Agilent’s director of global learning and leadership development, believes leveraging on such social networks allows his company to “facilitate collaborative learning and knowledge sharing” amongst its employees, especially the younger generation. “This medium augurs well with Gen Y learners who are tech-savvy and used to collaborating with each other in a networked environment.”
With that thought in mind, it is hardly a surprise that OCBC Bank has been offering virtual classroom training to its employees for almost three months now. Started in July this year to support its fast-paced learning environment, Cassandra Cheng, head of learning and development for the bank’s group human resources, has been receiving encouraging responses. Not only are the classes always full, there is a long waiting list of employees hoping to take up virtual lessons in bank risk management, asset conversion cycle and introduction to treasury products. It gets even better. OCBC employees can now attend personal and career development courses online if they so desire.
The advantages of e-learning are evident for Cheng, given that internet technology such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has become “an integral part of our daily lives”. Without the traditional confines of a physical classroom, her colleagues in various locations can now acquire relevant training from the comfort of their offices. Neither do they need to raise their hands before speaking in class. Any questions for the trainer or conversations with other participants are now easily conducted via instant messaging.
But it doesn’t mean Gen X and baby boomers are neglected. Goh does ensure that Agilent’s development programmes are designed according to their learning styles and needs. “In this regard, most of our learning solutions are ‘blended’ to ensure we meet the learning preferences of the various generations,” he says. His blended learning solutions are extensive with a combination of e-learning, classroom training, dialogue with leaders, mentoring, action-learning team projects, peer networking, 360-degree feedback, simulations and virtual web conferences.
Decoding the learning structure
Wiki is used as a support group learning platform in one of Agilent’s core leadership programmes after participants completed the initial traditional classroom training. A Wiki site would be set up to allow participants work in teams to resolve their common leadership challenges, which had been discussed in the classroom. According to Goh, the participants will then work together over the web for 10 weeks after the training.
During this period, programme facilitators will initiate meaningful discussion threads or generate insights while employees who are part of the learning group will post questions, comments or share experiences with other groups within the Wiki. Goh says this practice helps participants “transfer and apply what they have learned” during the classroom training to the workplace. At the end of the allocated timeline, participants will submit their key lessons, results and even recommended action plans which will resolve their leadership challenges via a web conference.
The learning environment might be virtual but the sharing of knowledge over this sustained period of time inadvertently bonds the leaders together. As you can imagine, teamwork and communication levels are better than ever as they underwent through the same training together. Even better is the fact that Wiki is a permanent “repository of knowledge” for the company. “This way, programme participants can always return to the Wiki to leverage on these resources to support their ongoing performance and development efforts,” says Goh.
This means the company’s learning structure has shifted from a singular delivery channel – a trainer coaching a group of learners – to a group of learners actively engaged in learning together from each other. Wiki has become “a one-stop centre” for Agilent, says Goh, and it’s especially gratifying for him when participants share with others how the programme has helped them achieve their goals.
The virtual reality
But obviously, not everyone takes virtual learning like a duck to water right away. Even Cheng admits as much that OCBC employees are much more used to attending training in an actual classroom. In order to gain their receptiveness for this new mode of learning, she encouraged managers to give participants, who may be glued to their desks, “dedicated” time for the virtual classroom training.
There is another major challenge for Cheng though. That is training her existing line trainers to adapt their curriculum. She says, “The trainers have to adjust their training styles to fully utilise the tools available in the virtual classroom to keep the audience engaged.”
So far, Cheng is seeing more and more employees picking up virtual learning with enthusiasm, once they see how readily available it is. “It is natural that people are hesitant initially about new technology but once they see the benefits, they are very keen to adapt and leverage it.”
Training has definitely become “more interactive and interesting” for Lim Keat Cheong, operations manager for OCBC Bank’s Bangkok branch. He likes how his working relationships with overseas colleagues have become “more personable” even without having to step out of his office. “I could put the names to the faces of colleagues from the headquarters or other countries whom I have corresponded with but have never met before.” No doubt, the excitement for learning via Web 2.0 tools will continue to spread for OCBC.
But there are a few criteria to watch out for if you want everyone to embrace the use of social media as a learning channel wholeheartedly. “Select a tool which is not too complicated to use,” says Goh. “Education and communication are key.” When Wiki was new to Agilent’s learners, Goh would allocate some time for a briefing before the end of the training session to communicate its benefits and orientate his learners on using the social network. It’s vital to allow participants to get in touch with internal trainers easily as well if a company wants to increase its employees’ adoption rate of new technology.
Drawing up the guidelines
What of the possible abuse that might arise from using social networks within the learning environment? There are, of course, some companies that might be on tenterhooks in allowing social networking collaboration tools run unchecked in their virtual workplace. Although a recent survey of 400 companies by Deloitte, Beeline Labs and the Society for New Communications Research says otherwise. It found that 94% of companies polled plan to maintain or increase their investment in enterprise social media tools such as blogs, wikis and microblogging tools.
Perhaps having a rules and regulation policy or monitoring the users’ online activities would help since social networks such as Wiki are hosted on external servers and outside the company’s firewalls. Yet Agilent doesn’t have a formal policy on social networks. What it offers instead is advice to participants “to not post any confidential or sensitive information in the Wiki”. It does, however, have a global programme manager and facilitators moderating the use of the Wiki site, including the discussion forums and content which are posted.
Just like any other HR initiatives, it’s important for L&D professionals to calculate the possible return of investment from using social networks as a learning tool. After all, an HR programme is only as valuable as the costs and time it could save for the company. How else to convince senior leaders to take social networks seriously, and not a fad? “We view the use of Wiki as an enabler which could lead to the accomplishment of the learner’s business challenge or results,” says Goh. To that end, participants in Agilent’s development programmes would share the business results they have achieved after undergoing the entire duration of the blended learning programme.
The list of social media networks companies can use internally is endless. Other than your usual suspects like Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, software makers such as IBM, MindTouch, Jive Software, Socialtext and Socialcast have all created similar tools for the workplace.
While Agilent has yet explored the rest of the social networks, it did use Second Life, a free 3D virtual world where users can socialise and connect with each other, once for one of its global high potential programmes. The virtual project, however, only came about when the global financial crisis last year prevented its high potentials from meeting up face-to-face to showcase their collaboration effort and results. It was unfortunate timing, says Goh, but it was a great opportunity for Agilent to explore the potential value of organising virtual project fairs.
Neither is OCBC letting new social communication technology pass them by. Cheng is very much keen on tapping into more web 2.0 media tools to reach out to her employees based in different geographies. As a start, the bank recently piloted the “sharing of learning video clips, articles and ideas within a selected pool of employees via the web”.
While MasterCard isn’t using any social networks for development programmes at the moment, its L&D team is exploring the use of some social networks to help find its internal experts and connecting them to “newbies”. Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of global talent management and development for MasterCard’s global human resources, hopes to give these potential mentors and mentees a networking platform that would allow that wealth of knowledge to be passed on. “So we’ll have a rich depository brain trust here.”
Bunge Asia, on the other hand, is not joining the social network bandwagon just yet. At least not in the next three to five years, predicts the global agribusiness and food company’s L&D director Benson Sim. “Generally, we have been a bit more conservative because of the nature of work we do,” he says. “We are still concentrating on growing the business.” Opportunities for virtual learning programmes may have been limited but Sim sees Bunge at the very start of the generational shift in the learning process. He believes the imminent influx of younger generations in the workplace will soon “compel” the company to change its learning and development programmes.
But developing talent is never about using the latest curriculum from vendors or jumping into a social network because that’s what your competitors are doing. Posting video broadcasts on YouTube might be a great promotional tool on a personal level but would it work for an organisation, questions Sim. “The best intervention is the one that works because you want to connect with people with a very clear view of how it relates back to your main intentions,” he says. “It’s constantly looking for the right solution for the right problem at the right time.”
Bit of a truism there, Sim acknowledges, as most learning and development professionals are aware of this learning mantra. It’s up to them to decide if using social media networks as part of a learning platform are suitable for their organisations. “It depends on what business you’re in, what stage of the business you’re in, the availability of the talent you have and the learning interventions available to you,” says Sim.
Perhaps just like how there will always be a need for traditional classroom training, social media tools are here to stay, at least for the near future. After all, learning is social, says Goh, and the opportunity to collaborate will only enhance one’s learning experience and knowledge, and that can only benefit the company in the long run.