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The Undeniable Connector

Ben Brooks, vice president and practice leader for human capital performance at risk management giant Marsh, knows colleagues need access to people and information to help them serve their clients. Sometimes this is through traditional training. Most often it’s far more.

Marsh University, which Brooks created with a hefty social media component, enables colleagues to connect to one another to learn. Along the way, they solve problems across continents as easily as if they worked down the hall from one another. The university’s motto, “at Marsh, everyone is a teacher,” makes transparent and accessible the incredibly diverse and deep industry expertise within the organization.

When an employee in Edinburgh shared information about IPO insurance in her blog post, another employee in Johannesburg commented that she was unaware Marsh offered this product, and she had met a prospect that week that could potentially use it. For a week, the two went back and forth on the site, asking one another questions and filling in details. That information is now available for everyone to learn from.

“We have all of the ingredients for success within the walls of our firm, but they are often on hard drives or in the gray matter of our colleagues,” said Brooks. “Marsh University is working to institutionalize that knowledge so it can be better leveraged and so we can recognize our thought leaders and content producers, the teachers everyone wants to learn from.”

The experience at Marsh flies in the face of people with a consuming belief that social business tools are a time-suck, a productivity waster and a general disruption to the excellent training programs their organizations carefully craft.

Those prone to abuse new social tools are likely those who were wasting our time standing in doorways updating us on last night’s dinner conversation or launching endless e-mail assaults. We waste time blaming technology for problematic hires or outdated organizational cultures.

But emerging social technologies can extend, widen and deepen our reach and our inherent desire to connect. They allow us to embrace the needs of changing workplace demographics and allow people of all ages to learn in ways that are comfortable and convenient for them.

In a simpler world, what we needed to know to do our jobs well was reasonably well-defined. It made sense to broadcast information from the top down or even the front of the room. These days, it’s not so easy. We have more data, more stakeholders, more complexities and less time to train. Learning research is quite clear that the more engaged people are, the more effectively they learn. The more questions they ask, the stronger their learning process becomes. Social learning is about making it easier for people to find their questions and their voice.

We are not passive blank slates or empty cups waiting to be filled with wisdom. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Constructing an understanding based on what we find important is a far richer, more productive learning model. We need new ways to make sense of the mountain of information coming in our direction. We need new ways to filter content, save information and pose questions to trusted sources. We need more complete ways to learn.

Many employees have already integrated social technology into their lives. Their ability to connect serves their employers well. While their colleagues squander time in meetings or on long phone calls, they sum up things in quick messages through an updates box that asks, “What are you working on?” Through their networks of online connections, they discover people who can become true friends and valued teachers — people they wouldn’t have found in the enterprise 1.0 world.

Networks of knowledgeable people, working across time and space, can make informed decisions and solve complex problems in ways they didn’t dream of years ago. By bringing together people who share interests, no matter their location, social tools can transform the workplace into an environment where learning is as natural as it is powerful.

New social business tools may even give us time back. We find people with answers faster. We learn directly with those who care about our work, and we can make stronger decisions because we find wider perspectives than we’ve ever had access to before.

Marcia Conner is fellow of the Altimeter Group and co-author of The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media. She can be reached at editor@clomedia.com.