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Harness Personal Connections for Purposeful Development

A staggering 1.7 zettabytes — 1.7 billion terabytes — of data were created in 2010. That number is expected to grow to 12,000 zettabytes by 2040, according to futurist, author and speaker David Houle.

As CLOs and learning professionals strive to make learning more personal and meaningful in the era of big data, reconciling the jump in the amount of data out there with the need to make learning individualized and delivered at just the right time and in just the right way remains challenging.

Scouring numerous bits of data to find the perfect nugget to fit an employee’s need is not a good use of time and energy. Social networks offer a viable solution. People have made great strides building social networks and informal connections with colleagues via social technologies, but they need to take this to the next step for it to impact them on the job.

“We are not talking about hanging out on Facebook,” Houle said. “We are talking about social media here in the context of speed of sharing vital information that can be quickly utilized in a collaborative way for creating ideas and results.”

Harnessing those personal connections for purposeful development is what companies expect to happen when they invest in and introduce social technologies to their workforce. “The purposeful use of social media brings a new level of speed, interactivity and immediacy to learning, particularly in medium to large-size enterprises,” Houle said. The key phrase there is purposeful use.

There are many facets to social learning and various tools available to support these segments (Figure 1, page 34). Whether organizations are interested in file sharing, social networking, Web conferencing or mentoring, there are tools and software that can help facilitate it. Yet for meaningful learning to take place, the learning needs to have a purpose. To determine what that purpose is, learning leaders can ask: Will these learning efforts lead to people gathering new information that helps them do their jobs better? Will it help improve customer relations? Will it lead to new ideas and revenue?

“When leveraging a social networking tool, think about ways to set up the resource so people can leverage it with a development purpose or learning objective in mind. Make sure the tool helps people think through their objectives, then has a mechanism to help them get what they need,” said Steven Sitek, director, talent management and organization development at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.

Learning professionals must ensure that they enable learning, guiding people to the right tools for gaining wisdom and sharing knowledge, but allowing them to use the tools in the way that best suits them. This allows individuals to have freedom and some control over their development, but also ensures that a structured process via technology tools is in place so learning is focused and still managed by learning leaders at a macro level.

Personal, Purposeful, Powerful
Research and analyst organization Brandon Hall Group defines social learning as a form of learning in which the learner acquires information, skills and knowledge from interactions with formal and informal members of a set group. The learning is affected by the group environment, and the actual learning becomes greater than the sum of individual learning parts.

Organizations that leverage social learning opportunities appropriately create higher levels of engagement, promote deeper content understanding and develop professionals who understand the context of their learning, said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and advisory services for Brandon Hall Group. “They understand its relationship to wider areas of knowledge and its relationship to their performance expectations as well.”

Using social connections and learning from peers can have great impact on people, which affects how they engage in their work. According to “The Power of Peers,” a 2011 report from the Corporate Leadership Council, only 36 percent of employees are effective at peer mentoring, and only 7 percent of organizations focus engagement initiatives on improving these interactions. When employees are effective at peer mentoring interactions, average engagement capital can improve by 66 percent.

Novartis encourages people to proactively network to share their knowledge and experiences across functions and locations. Sitek said the company has a large distributed workforce and needed to help people make connections. In response, it launched My Learning Network@Open Mentoring, an online resource to facilitate organization-wide connections. These connections are based on individuals’ learning needs, and colleagues voluntarily share their knowledge to help one another.

“We advocate that associates need to actively seek out experiences to support their development plan, and that establishing connections with people who have expertise in areas that support a development plan is beneficial,” Sitek said.

As a result of this vision, people form peer groups to address core needs related to critical business issues via the program. Sitek said engagement survey data has revealed that Novartis’ associates involved in mentoring relationships have higher levels of engagement and more favorable views of the organization.

“Social interactions provide the means by which people connect to share what information they feel has value. If HR doesn’t understand and provide some structure for these interactions, they are missing a real opportunity to add value to organizations in the future,” said Harris of Brandon Hall Group.

By using social learning and media internally, companies not only encourage employees to share what is going on with their work in real time, they also create a way to access key thought leaders and decision makers throughout all areas of the organization.

For instance, Houle said something learned in the field in one part of the country can immediately be shared and therefore utilized within the organization in another location. “Think of social media as both this immediacy of connection and a constant ongoing compilation of useful information being added to an ever-increasing database of enterprise knowledge. This is a major trend that all enterprises need to master and develop.”

Individuals can learn from colleagues despite their location, function, job level and any other barriers that keep people from connecting with one another under normal circumstances. Using technology, the entire enterprise can be active in learning, sharing, and making personal learning connections that impact employees’ work and their companies. Putting people first, rather than the data, is critical, because people are what breathe life and context into static information.

When it comes to social learning, people fall into one of three categories: the crowd, the community or the committed (Figure 2).

The crowd is as vast and wide as a group can be. In an enterprise-wide effort, it would be made up of all employees in an organization. These are all the people a colleague could connect with. That doesn’t mean a person will or even should connect with every person in the crowd, but it means the option is there.

The community consists of people who have a common interest in a development area or who have insight in that area they can share. This group has more in common with one another than they would in the broad, general crowd, but it does not mean everyone in the community is actively taking part in social learning with their colleagues.

The committed are the ones who are actively connected, who are sharing and receiving knowledge and who are personally engaged with colleagues to further learning. This is where personal and purposeful learning takes place, among the group of people who are committed to knowledge sharing with a purpose and who willingly engage with their colleagues.

How to Promote Commitment
For people to make the most of their personal networks for learning and knowledge sharing, they must become part of the committed group, rather than staying on the fringes as part of the crowd or community. Learning leaders can help people make that leap by reminding others to make learning fun. Committed learning is:

• A fluid group of learners and advisers that shifts and grows as needs dictate.

• Unencumbered by roles, functions, age or location.

• A network of five to 15 collaborators who come together to share, learn, inspire and support one another.

People who make up the committed group are not bound by roles in the group, meaning they can shift from learner to adviser or vice versa. As people gain experience and expertise they can bring to their network, they do so willingly and openly. And as people find emerging areas where they could use new insights or fresh perspectives, they access their network with humility and appreciation. These networks keep the human factor at the center of all interactions.

Harris said during the last 100 years, there has been a progression in the learning industry from teaching-centered learning to learner-centered learning, and today there is an emerging model focused on relationships.

“The needs and practices of a more connected, more mobile workforce, driven by today’s social and economic changes, are shifting the way both learners and organizations approach learning,” Harris said. “We are seeing the evolution of a market, where the focus is on the relationships between people, their goals, the content and their current environments.”

Randy Emelo is president and CEO of mentoring company Triple Creek. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.