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Expert interview - Ryan Tracey on Social Learning

Ryan describes himself as an elearning provocateur, aiming to provoke ideas and new thinking about elearning. He’s currently the Elearning Manager at AMP in Sydney, a Leading Australian Bank. He is also an editorial board member at Elearn Magazine and moderator of the popular Lrnchat, run on Twitter.

So he knows a thing or two about social learning. Look out lurkers - he wants to see you Work out Loud…

What is social learning?

To me, social learning is simply learning from each other. Of course this has been happening since the dawn of the human species, and it may be argued that reading from a book (for example) is an instance of social learning. However I think the spirit of the term evokes a more fluid sense of learning from others in the moment. It’s emergent, serendipitous, and collaborative.

Why is social learning so important?

While social learning has always been important, the enormous popularity of Facebook and Twitter, and the subsequent emergence of Enterprise Social Networks, has pushed the concept to the forefront of our thinking. This combined with economic crises, competitive forces, talent wars etc slowly but surely makes us realise that “People are our most valuable asset” is no longer a platitude; it’s a strategic imperative.

What is the biggest barrier to social learning in the workplace?

In my experience, the 90:9:1 principle bears out. This heuristic maintains that in an online space that empowers users to create and edit content (eg a discussion forum), only 1% of the members will create new content, 9% will edit it, leaving the remaining 90% who consume it. That’s not to say that lurking is devoid of value, but I believe that a healthy social learning environment needs plenty of contribution to the conversation – not just consumption. Depending on the size of your organisation, a critical mass of active participation may be unachievable.

What can L&D professionals do to increase social learning activity?

Firstly we need to remember that what we’re talking about here is cultural. If the culture of the organisation is to avoid sticking your head above the parapet, or to punish mistakes, or to command and control, then you are already at a distinct disadvantage. For social learning to work, everyone needs to adopt a collaborative mindset. Easier said than done.

A couple of years ago I invited a bunch of community managers from around the world to rate the key factors that drive Yammer use in their respective organisations. Among the top drivers cited by my respondents were support and participation from the organisation’s executives. Frankly I didn’t find this surprising; despite all the rhetoric, humans are hierarchical at heart. The activity feed might resemble a ghost town for weeks on end, but as soon as the CEO posts something he gets 47 replies in a heartbeat!

I think another secret is working out loud. This is a concept that folks such as John Stepper, Harold Jarche and Jane Bozarth have been promoting for years, but it wasn’t until I attended a seminar at which the presenter declared point blank that no one is interested in answering hypothetical questions in a discussion forum that I realised that WOL has the potential to break the deadlock.

So I’m encouraging the executives in my organisation to post real work problems to our activity feed and ask for help from the crowd in solving them. This in itself is a challenge, but as they say, we’re on a journey.

What skills do people need for social learning?

I get asked this question all the time and it annoys me! The reason is that I see the lack of technical skills often being used as an excuse for failing to participate. Yet these people happily use Facebook without ever having attended a How To Use Facebook course.

Sure, a new system might take a bit of getting used to, but that’s usually worked out after giving it a go. So the skills that people really need for social learning have less to do with the technology itself, and more to do with relationships (networking, knowledge building, etiquette).

Ultimately though, we need the right mindset. We need to want to learn from one another, and to reciprocate in kind.

What trends do you see in social learning in 2015?

Unfortunately I can’t see us shooting the lights out in 2015. I think many of the organisations that don’t yet have social technologies in place will finally bring them on board, while those that already have them in place will struggle to use them effectively. So the technological aspects will be addressed, but the pedagogical aspects will remain the subject of experimentation, analysis and argument.

keep the conversation going with ryan on Twitter @ryantracey

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