Spies, Twitter and gardening: social media meets learning

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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What does social media have to do with learning? Just about everything, argues Chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute, Donald H Taylor.

We’ve all seen fads come and go. I’ve seen more than enough technology fads around learning. E-learning was going to eliminate the classroom (it didn’t). Mobile learning was going to eliminate e-learning (it didn’t). Virtual worlds were going to eliminate everything (they didn’t). All of these technologies have found their niches, and time has moved on. But for the first time in a decade, I reckon that the current hype around social media in learning is justified.

Let’s be realistic for a second. I’m not saying that you can learn to fly a plane using Twitter, or how to handle a nuclear reactor through Facebook. As Lt. Cmdr Paul Pine of the Royal Navy puts it: “When my guys have to fire their guns, I don’t want them to have learnt it using Wikipedia.”

A lesson from US intelligence agencies

You can’t meet compliance training needs through chatter on social media. But you can meet plenty of other. A slew of US intelligence agencies recognised this. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York, the investigating commission recommended a shift in the approach of the agencies from ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share’. This proposal, made in September 2004, has translated into a variety of initiatives. This includes Intellipedia, a wiki to share information between 16 different US intelligence agencies. The tool is cited in Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations (George & Bruce, 2008) as a significant development in making the intelligence agencies able to respond better and faster to new information.

If the US intelligence services – notorious for keeping a tight grip on information – are convinced that sharing information is a good idea, what does it have to do with learning?

Social media facilitates information sharing

The answer is that sharing information is one of the ways in which we learn naturally. It is possibly the most natural way of learning we have. After all, when faced with a problem the instinctive reaction is to ask someone for help. Do they have an answer? Do they know someone else who does? Have they met similar problems before?

For the first time the combination of technology and the internet has made is possible to answer these questions quickly and rapidly among a far wider collection of colleagues than those in our immediate circle. Among the social media tools enabling this are wikis, blogs and social networking sites. Most of them are free; all of them are easy to use.

If this free, easy enhancer of a natural way of learning sounds too good to be true, it is. There may be no initial cost with any of these tools, but there is definitely a cost involved in implementing them properly – mostly in the time it takes. Like a garden, any social network needs to be carefully nurtured. David Armano at Harvard Business blogs takes the gardening metaphor further, suggesting that there are three steps to go through in creating a vibrant social network, whatever its purpose:

  • Seed
  • Feed
  • Weed

How to seed 

Suppose you set up a social networking site where people within your organisation can create a profile, get in touch with experts and voice and answer questions. The worst approach is to build the site and assume that people will turn up. They won’t. Instead, seed the community with a core (say 12 – 30) of positive, well-disposed, active employees who will get involved from the start.

This core will set up not only the right activities – discussions, forums, shared videos, whatever – but will also set up the right culture. A polite, sharing, communicative, no-blame culture where collaboration is welcome. That’s crucial to the success of your network.

Regular feeding 

Feeding your community is something someone then has to do regularly. It could be as little work as a weekly e-mail to the community, prompting replies to questions that have not yet been answered. It could be setting up a series of feeds or other tools to ensure that fresh content and ideas are regularly fed into the community for comment. Whatever you do, just as a lawn cannot flourish without help, neither can a community.

The importance of weeding

Finally, every garden needs a little weeding. That doesn’t mean getting rid of members. However, abusive members, those that use the place to sell or otherwise abuse a code of conduct must be shown the door. Rather, it means tidying up the abandoned discussions, profiles, images and other data that create clutter and prevent people finding the information or people they are looking for. It may also mean creating new search mechanisms to help users get the best from the community.

It’s not only the spooks who have discovered the value of social networking for learning, but in doing so they have taught us all a lesson. If the people who prize their information more highly than anyone else are prepared to share it, and benefit from doing so, shouldn’t we think about doing so, too?

About the author

Donald H Taylor is Chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute. He blogs at www.donaldhtaylor.co.uk.

Anne Sexton

Real evaluation transforms organisations
Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People


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