Networked learning — namely, the use of social media in the workplace — has taken on a kind of religious fervor among learning practitioners during the past couple years. And not without good reason: It often creates more powerful and enduring learning experiences; it helps people establish and leverage social connections to accelerate the distribution and sharing of experiences, content and guidance; and it allows learners to be more productive, learn faster and work smarter.
At this time, however, the enthusiasm for networked learning isn’t necessarily shared by everyone. This creates a gap between believers and nonbelievers — or, perhaps more accurately, between believers and those who still need some convincing.
On one side of the fence are those who have witnessed the transformative power of networked learning — its ability to enable faster and better knowledge sharing and more effective decision making and problem solving, as well as a substantial reduction in error rates and learning costs. On the other side of the fence are those looking for a clear business case and return on investment (ROI) — some assurance that it definitively impacts the business.
Is a formal ROI necessary? Let’s face it: No learning organization has an unlimited budget. Networked learning initiatives are competing for the same scarce resources. So being able to articulate and measure the value of networked learning serves at least three purposes:
1. It establishes a sharp focus on the most important value targets.
2. It provides more credibility and respect for networked learning initiatives.
3. It creates a baseline of results and the means to determine how to improve the networked learning solution over time.
The key to determining the business value of networked learning, however, is a more expansive view of the kinds of outcomes delivered. Traditional training analyses, such as Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation, were designed to assess solutions that are delivered in a linear manner. Since networked or collaborative learning solutions are informal, integrated with the workflow and driven by the learners, these traditional assessments will not work.
Instead, one has to look at higher and broader areas of value, and there are three key ones: financial, individual performance and group performance.
First-Level Outcomes: Cost Savings
Networked learning can reduce development and delivery costs, as well as streamline processes.
“Learning experiences that are intended for the external marketplace require a tremendous upfront investment. Social or networked learning, if it’s using existing social media, doesn’t have that big expense upfront,” said Karie Willyerd, chief learning officer of Sun Microsystems. “In fact, one could well argue that the cost of doing a difficult return on investment analysis may be equal to the cost of just putting the social networking platform in place.”
Collaborative learning also produces additional efficiencies that translate into direct savings.
For example, consider the case of U.K.-based telecommunications company BT. Peter Butler, the head of learning for BT Group, was working to validate some key assumptions about learning investments. BT had been spending about $160 million a year developing and delivering formal training. However, research found these learning events to be often ineffective and, according to employees, excessively rigid, generic and too far removed from the realities of their work environment.
Further analysis of BT’s existing learning environment found the following:
- Field engineers were not provided with enough opportunities to learn and develop during downtime.
- Team leaders were inadvertently conducting redundant safety briefings.
- Salespeople wasted days trying to find answers, best practices and experts.
- Line managers repeatedly answered the same questions.
- People spent too much time and money traveling to and from classroom training.
When taking into account lost productivity, excess expense and redundant activities, it was conservatively estimated that a networked learning solution could save the company at least $13 million per year. To date, BT is about 30 percent ahead of the original business case estimate.
At Sun Microsystems, Willyerd has engaged in a study of the cost benefits delivered by the company’s social learning system, known as SLX (Social Learning Exchange). Some of the research questions include:
- Does the investment allow for a greater diversity of content at the same or lower cost than before?
- Does the investment allow for reaching more unique users at the same or lower cost than before?
- Does the investment allow for more efficient use of subject-matter experts and content developers at the same or lower cost than before?
- Does the investment illustrate cost efficiencies by reducing time for development or time for delivery?
Second-Level Outcomes: Improved Performance
Collaborative learning helps individual employees perform more effectively by learning from mistakes, gaining faster access to high-quality content and sharing knowledge.
Specific areas to analyze include:
- The use of online networks for advice and support in a way that improves employee performance.
- Reductions in total errors made and instances of people repeating mistakes.
- Ability to find needed experts and relevant content in less time.
- Contributions of high-quality work samples and distinctive opinions and ideas to improve knowledge, skills and capabilities.
- The ability of the learning network to respond faster and more appropriately to individual needs that are typically unmet by formal training programs.
At the heart of the employee performance value proposition is the improved ability to locate relevant expertise within an organization. One research study by three Canadian researchers — Dorit Nevo, Izak Benbasat and Yair Wand — found that:
- Activities and interactions that occur in blogs, wikis and social networks naturally provide the cues that are missing from current expert locator systems.
- A search engine that mines internal blogs on which workers post updates and field queries about their work will help searchers judge for themselves who is an expert in a given field.
- Wiki sites, because they involve collaborative work, will suggest not only how much each contributor knows, but also how eager they are to share that knowledge and how well they work with others.
- Tags and keywords, which are posted by employees and serve as flags for search engines, can reveal qualities in an expert that may be excluded by a database or directory.
These second-level outcomes can be seen in BT’s networked learning program, which is called Dare2Share. The program does not replace the company’s existing learning programs, but rather augments them with informal learning opportunities and with social, collaborative capabilities.
From a technology platform perspective, the approach is equivalent to an enterprisewide YouTube system with a strong social dimension. Dare2Share leverages Microsoft Sharepoint to enable employees to create, find and view learning segments, such as podcasts, documents and links, as well as discuss and debate the content being created.
All employees have the opportunity within the learning environment to establish a presence or social profile that reflects their expertise and interests. They can then create and share their knowledge and experience — and even search for peer insights via user-generated tags and topics. People and their content are linked through team sites, instant messaging, blogs and discussion threads. During the sharing process, material is also rated by peers according to quality and applicability.
Third-Level Outcomes: Better Group Performance
Social learning expert Jay Cross has said that a traditional ROI analysis of networked learning “actually misses the really exciting stuff.”
Indeed, the improved performance of groups via social learning is a level of value that traditional training really only touches. After all, the e-learning environment primarily involves interaction between an individual learner and a machine, while the primary interaction in classroom training still emphasizes the superiority of the instructor over the student. Networked learning by its very nature relies on equal collaboration and human dialogue.
That means that networked learning has the potential to deliver much higher-impact business values, such as:
- The formation of learning communities and a learning culture that translates into a more nimble enterprise and a more engaged workforce.
- Faster and better decision making by reaching consensus within a network with more assurance of complete deliberation.
- Increased likelihood of breakthrough innovations by tapping into the “crowd” of knowledge and expertise within an organization.
- Improved alignment of teams with business strategies.
- Faster and more effective communications and collaboration for improved end-to-end performance.
“You need to look higher when assessing the value of networked learning,” said Clark Quinn, head of learning strategy consultancy Quinnovation. “For example: faster resolution of more business issues — how fast you’re addressing a question or problem via customer support, how many profitable new products and services you’re producing. Those are the real metrics of how effective your collective intelligence capabilities are.”
Clinching the Deal
Still worried that your C-suite won’t be convinced of the value of networked learning? Here are some additional steps you can take:
1. Offer a workshop with internal or external presenters. A half-day session presenting the basics of networked learning and some convincing case studies can be an important door opener, especially if you have the opportunity to bring in an industry luminary who can represent a broader perspective. In fact, it’s almost better to buttress the theory with cases from outside your company’s industry. Let the executive participants see the value of networked learning, making them feel as if they are discovering for themselves what these kinds of solutions can do.
2. Conduct a pilot study. Identify one group, community or business need that you believe would demonstrate the higher-level business benefits of networked learning. Harold Jarche, a partner at Internet Time Alliance, thinks such pilots can be essential to convincing skeptical executives.
“Anecdotal evidence from other companies is valuable, but much more important is giving an executive or sponsor the chance to see the value in his or her specific business environment,” he said. “Until the data points make sense for them in their context, they’re not going to be convinced.”
Who should constitute the pilot group? Jeanne Meister, co-author of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today, said: “Our research found that networked learning pilots are more effective when focused on a group or community that has a direct impact on important business results. For example, companies have a high interest in piloting social learning implementations to enhance the communities of new hires and alumni, as well as diversity and inclusion affinity groups.”
3. Begin with the business value in mind. Work with an executive team to specify the kinds of business outcomes executives are looking for. Tailor the discussion to those outcomes and make a proposal for a networked learning solution that you are willing to bet will move those dials in a positive way.
Bear in mind one important lesson from BT’s Dare2Share program: Networked learning can and perhaps should be positioned as something that augments, not replaces, the kinds of learning experiences with which executive teams are more familiar. Harnessing the religious fervor of networked learning proponents can be a good thing, but don’t scare anyone off. Like any good missionary, speak the language of those you’re trying to convert. Keep the destination in mind and realize there will be many possible paths to get there.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery