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How to Measure Social Learning

For many learning leaders, social learning is the new toy on the shelf. Many are still tinkering with how its nuances fit with the learning needs of the organization.

Part of determining social learning’s place in corporate America is figuring out how to best derive measurable value from it. How does Facebook — or a site built under a similar model, like many firms have — create measurable return? Can YouTube, or a site like it, really boost the amount of knowledge gained by workers?

Industry insiders who have spent countless working hours studying these questions say the answer is yes. However, there still isn’t much of a consensus or standard as to how social learning can be measured.

At first blush, social learning is easily measured through transactions, according to Kelly Meeker, a community manager with OpenSesame, a provider of online training courses.

By simply keeping track of how many users are actively participating in a social learning community, she said, organizations can begin to draw baseline conclusions about its value.

How many users are posting comments? What topic is getting the most buzz? How many monthly visits is each social learning platform receiving? These are questions Meeker said learning leaders could easily keep track of to gain insight into social learning’s usage.

Others say measuring transactions isn’t enough.

Dan Pontefract, the head of learning and collaboration at Canadian telecommunications firm Telus Corp., said firms should move beyond measuring transactions with learning.

“It is part of the problem, which is there are some people just looking at transactions of hits and so on,” Pontefract said. “And right away, I suggest to people that although anecdotally you can surface the data, you really want to tie social learning to part of the employee’s overall learning and business metrics.”

Telus does keep detailed track of its social learning participation — in 2011, for instance, 16,600 of its employees joined its Buzz micro-blogging tool.

But Pontefract said the company also has created an aggregate model of all its transactional learning data and created a return on learning metric. Social learning is a big part of that measurement, Pontefract said.

In 2011, Pontefract said Telus surpassed its return on learning investment targets by achieving a 69 percent cumulative rating over the four quarters. In 2009, Telus’ wikis and blogs garnered 23,000 pageviews from employees; in 2011, that number grew to 308,676.

For those who prefer to keep social learning measurement simple, matching usage data and correlating it with performance is also an option, said Bill Docherty, vice president of product management at talent development firm SumTotal Systems Inc.

Docherty said a firm could track quarterly sales performance data and measure it against social learning participation volume. If a sales representative’s performance rating has improved over time, and so has his or her participation with social learning, there may be a correlation, Docherty said.

Still, correlation does not mean causation, and learning leaders should consider pairing a correlation metric with more advanced measurement for validation.

Docherty also said learning leaders should use subjective feedback from employees on the effectiveness of social learning channels. “Users are always drawing benefits — they may feel more productive [and] that they’re responding to customers more quickly [because of knowledge gained from social learning],” he said.

Of course, for any of these measurement models to hold water, Docherty said it’s important to have a sufficient sample size to measure. Make sure that a certain social learning tool has been in place for at least six months, maybe even a year, before measurement.

Of course, as with any new tool or technology, measuring social learning will come with its share of roadblocks. Time is just one of them.

“It’s going to take at least six months,” Docherty said. “The biggest challenge companies have [with social learning] is still how to you get adoption? Where do you go on day one?”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.