Ultimately if some vendors are to be believed, we can create collaboration spaces using our intranet, and these social networks will become self-sustaining knowledge hubs where the tiresome business of actuallytraining people will be a thing of the past. A like button, star rating system and a discussion forum is all we need. This is where the canyonlike gap appears between the hype of the technology vendors’ pitch and the reality of learning in organizations.
On the surface, social networks appear to work. When Iyad Rahwan conducted research at the University of Oregon in 2013, he found that not only did research subjects in social networks perform better in cognitive reasoning tests but also that the ones who were most connected — i.e., part of larger social networks than their peers — performed best of all. Simply, he gave 100 students a series of analytical reasoning tests. He checked their answers alone and their answers after they discussed the problem in a specially created network. A group of benchmark subjects were tested alone.
After discussing with others, those in networks were more likely to get the answers correct. However, those working alone got slightly better at completing the tests as they gained more experience. Those in social networks got slightly worse. While they were more likely to arrive at the right answer, they became less capable of solving the problem alone.
I re-ran this experiment at a conference in London and found the same results — although my small group could hardly be seen as a robust experiment. However, I was able to check what happened when I first asked a question. Those in the networks tried to work out the correct response for a very short time before turning to the more knowledgeable or capable member of the group to copy their answer.
As Rahwan noted in his research paper, “increased connectivity may eventually make us stupid by making us smarter first.”
The so-called unreflective copying bias is not my only concern with social networks as a route to increased enlightenment. Our online presence has become a kind of extended résumé. By muddling sharing and collaboration with online marketing, we find ourselves helping out primarily to impress. This is an entirely natural bias, yet rarely mentioned. The ideal presented of a collaborative learning space depends on the selfless, purely philanthropic motives of those involved.
When a global company asked me to help establish an online community of practice, I asked why. Those involved wanted to learn from others’ mistakes and to share knowledge from those who had tried and failed so they didn’t try the same things with the same, disappointing results. I then asked how those who might use this platform were remunerated. The client looked puzzled. Eventually, she told me about the performance appraisal system and the bonuses paid to those who had exceeded their annual key performance indicators.
The project was shelved. No amount of philanthropic desire to share learning will succeed when people receive a significant component of theirannual pay in performance-related bonuses. How often will they be publicly willing to outline failures and mistakes when their mortgages depend on expressing consistent hypercapability?
This is not the only reason I urge caution about the quality of the information contributed online. Some is robust, a lot isn’t. We need skilled information seekers to differentiate whether they’re collaborating with colleagues or Googling answers. But internal collaboration might be fraught with difficulty unless it isactively and carefully managed, and the company’s culture supports authentic, evidence-based collaboration.
Learning through social networks is possible and desirable. But those looking for a quick fix will learn that a learning management system with a like button and a platform for the career oriented to polish their profile is not the route to social learning success.