We used to live in two worlds: the workplace, which was a formal and restricted environment, typified by moderated messages and codified behaviours that fitted within defined parameters of 'acceptable', and then the social world, which was unrestricted and expressive, ranging from conversations in the pub to heated debates about politics, religion and which cocktail to order next. These worlds were separate, colliding only at moments of misjudged intra-office relationships and the alcohol-fuelled miscommunication of the office Christmas party.
But no more. The world has changed under us and there is no formal and social divide. We inhabit a grey space of 'social', where people answer office emails from the bath and use Facebook in meetings. That photograph of the holiday in Ibiza will haunt you in your next job interview and the post about how much you hate your boss has just gone global thanks to a misjudged retweet.
But what does social mean for learning? How can we tune into the levels of engagement that we see, how can we enrich for formal learning experience? How can we add a meaningful social layer around our work?
To put it simply, it's an incredible opportunity to engage, in parallel with incredible potential to misjudge things. When we get it right, creating social spaces for learning, and supporting individuals and groups in the right way creates spaces that are challenging and supportive, productive and dynamic. When we get it wrong, we produce wastelands of derelict hyperlinks and gated communities of stultified guidance and rules.
As we look around, there is one thing we can be sure of: that people love social interactions, but that we look for different things in our informal interactions from our formal ones.
Even though the two worlds have collided, we still differentiate how we behave in different contexts. The conversations that we have on Facebook differ from the interactions on LinkedIn or in a learning forum. Whilst our worlds have become more transparent, we have become better at adapting our tone of voice to suit different situations.
At a practical level, organizations need to start taking steps, but small ones. We need to be brave enough to create spaces for experimentation, spaces to make mistakes. Social media is risky, but you have to take risks to move forward. The challenge is not to avoid the risk, it's to understand it and have ways of limiting or mitigating it.
Instead of formulating a social media policy and resorting to typical operational procedures of command and control, we should work with groups to build community guidelines. If the community wants to allow anonymous discussion, surely that just tells us that they want to engage. Any approach to social spaces should be iterative; we are unlikely to get it all right the first time around, so why try? It’s best to start small, celebrate success and grow upon it, alongside the community.
And we need to consider leadership: what is the organizational imperative to adopt social learning? Does it have backing and funding, or do you need to work with the executive team first to build a platform of support.
Increasingly we see the inclusion of social layers around more formal learning. These can be challenging as well as highly effective in stimulating debate and embedding learning. It's not a question of whether we want to control or allow these debates and conversations to take place: the question is whether we want to be involved in the conversation at all.
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Julian Stodd is Director of eLearning for Marton House (a UK subsidiary of GP Strategies Ltd), specialising in the creation of dynamic and effective learning experiences. He created his Learning Blog in 2011 as a place to explore new ideas in learning. The blog is updated daily and has been well-received by a wide audience of learning and development professionals. He has also recently established Julian Stodd's Learning Forum on Linkedin and hosts regular webinars and podcasts around the subjects of electronic, mobile and social learning.Website: www.julianstodd.wordpress.com