Employee EngagementLearning & Development

Pondering Business Aspects Of a Virtual Learning World

 How can companies leverage economic gains through Web 2.0? In the second part of this article, the authors explain how to get more for less.
By Lyn Maize and Caroline Avey
In the first part of this article that appeared in the May issue of HRO Today, we examined the emerging phenomenon of social networking learning and the use of Web 2.0 technology as an enabler of this. But as exciting as any new technology can be, there must be an economic reason for adopting it, else it risks becoming irrelevant. So let’s take a look at a few of the business considerations to help companies make the case for new and innovative solutions to managing talent. 
For many years, we have held firmly that to create rich, measurable learning interventions (formal or informal), one must follow a clear, step-by-step approach to understanding and defining both the business goals and the organization’s broader talent management needs. The same process applies here, whether introducing new technologies and facilitated strategies for learning or blending the old with the new. Here are a few examples where “out of the box” thinking was deployed and validated by tapping into what we might consider typical challenges or goals of the business. 
Businesses are seeking solutions to do more with less, and so must training. Web 2.0 applications and virtual world environments can be significantly less expensive than video conferencing, e-learning development, or travel to instructor-led events. Although this seems like the proverbial low-hanging fruit, collaborative environments, social networks, and virtual worlds offer us more varied and cost-effective options for learning “point solutions,” reinforcement, and facilitated training events.
Traditionally, we have always asked, “What is the business need, and what is the performance gap?” In a 2.0 world, we ask, “What skill or knowledge could be best learned in a synchronous or collaborative environment versus a more traditional or formal program?” In this approach, the secret is not to become so enamored with the technology but to leverage what we know about adult learners and design accordingly to serve the learning needs of the participant, the business needs of the company, and the performance goals of the program. Recently a global energy company began piloting use of message boards in support of e-learning solutions to increase engagement and discussion of a global audience while scoping/piloting virtual delivery methods. A major telecom company has launched an enterprise-wide podcast network encouraging employees to post point solutions and best practices in the form of videos as a way to share and archive expertise.
Businesses are seeking new and innovative ways to recruit and on-board employees. The classic example here is IBM’s use of Second Life in 2007 to recruit and on-board college graduates into Big Blue. The thinking was beyond simply pointing people to your web site; the company wanted to create an “immersive” IBM experience for future employees and assign interested recruits (before and after employment) virtual mentors to help them understand the culture, processes, and ultimately their roles in a huge and diverse corporation. Cisco, Michelin, and Gibson Guitars all have virtual presence in Second Life.
Not ready to jump into creating a virtual corporation? Many companies are using social networks such as Facebook and MySpace to brand their corporate culture and attract employees. YouTube has also become a very popular way to create brand attraction for new hires. A new kid on the block is Unisfair, which is the leading provider of virtual events, trade shows, and conferences. Recently a global professional services firm used Unisfair to hold college recruiting events. More than 10,000 people from more than 167 countries attended the world job fair. Promoted on Monster.com and Facebook, the event was a huge success.
To manage talent efficiently and effectively, corporations are looking for new ways to develop, engage, and retain their employees. As budgets tighten and the workforce demographic changes, corporations are looking for ways to share knowledge with, engage, and retain their employees. Web 2.0 offers just that. The secret is to focus on how a 2.0 technology might better serve the learning needs of the participant while addressing the business needs of the company. While traditional classroom training is effective, the time away from a job or location can be disruptive to work teams. There is a need to be able to provide training in real time—what they want and when they want it but without unnecessary costs or downtime.
Sharing of All Learnings
A major construction company two years ago implemented a series of communities of practice tied to experts to embed learning into work. Triggered by a need to on-board 1,000 new professionals each year, the communities were part of an integrated knowledge portal, with dedicated experts to moderate and facilitate information exchange in the context of real-work questions, issues, and other documentation. Jim Mitnick, the former chief learning officer and now CEO of Ironwood Learning, noted, “Both structured and unstructured knowledge needs to be shared in real time across any enterprise to enable individuals to access information needed to perform any task. Real collaboration has to happen naturally and without resistance if you want to maintain any competitive advantage in business today.”
The new Web 2.0 learning modalities may provide a solution for providing a distance delivery solution that still connects global learners with both the content and application back on the job. Social networks provide wonderful opportunities to minimize their time and make their contributions more dynamic, through online databases or a wiki of leading practices that is accessible and can be modified and shaped by learners.
One of our clients tells us that the greatest challenge the organization faces is not only the tacit knowledge walking out the door when retirees leave the company, but also just as important the loss of networks and relationships that their experts had developed during a 30-year history. Knowing where to go for help, who has experience with a particular project, who has relationships with customers, and who has contacts in the industry are all important “knowledge”—the rapid development of which these virtual social networks can support.
There is a relentless focus in companies on innovation to drive additional growth, competitive viability, and higher levels of performance. Companies look to professional outsourcing firms to provide innovation—not only with enhanced products, processes, and services, but also with vision and expertise that help organizations develop new strategies to recruit, develop, and retain top talent. As many corporations desire to foster an environment for innovation—this being perceived as a competitive edge—there is no better place to begin than with your people. There is a need for the learning to provide and encourage a culture of innovation.
Creating new tools, platforms, and ways of doing things by definition fosters a culture that accepts, if not rewards, new thinking. Learning strategist Allison Rossett and her colleague Joe Williams noted in their recent article, “Performance Analysis and Web 2.0” that “Web 2.0 sources offer insight into what’s on the minds of the workforce and the public. When something is working well, often it will be shared.” 
Knowledge is an asset; the minds of many are more powerful than the mind of an individual. These Web 2.0 learning modalities provide an opportunity for collaboration and exploration. Recent studies like those from Mitzi Montoya at North Carolina University have shown that creating a collaborative learning environment helps improve on-the-job effectiveness. While traditional classroom training is effective, the time away from a job or location can be disruptive to work teams. There is a need to be able to provide training in real time but without unnecessary costs or downtime. The new Web 2.0 learning modalities may provide a solution for providing a distance delivery solution that still connects learners with both the content and application back on the job.
A New Palette
Based on our own 3D virtual world experiences both externally with clients and through internal trial and exploration, ACS Learning Services believes that a broad palette of Web 2.0 applications provides new and effective learning delivery modalities to enhance the process. Specifically, 3D can be used in a variety of ways to include the following:

  • Discovery learning by clicking on objects with associated information;
  • Reinforcement learning by offering a repository of job aids, tools, etc., again associated with objects in 3D;
  • Collaborative workspaces, such as 3D breakout rooms and informal sites for discussion, encouraging graduate school-style case study and research;
  • Traditional instructor-led learning through a distance delivery method; and
  • Simulated learning by modeling a process or interaction that closely resembles the real world in terms of fidelity and outcomes.

One other 2.0 guideline would be to make sure your 2.0 solution is part of a systemic approach. Simply posting articles to a wiki does not make a learning experience; rather, it’s the related discussions and moderated enhancements to documents that net the rich value for learners. For example, at ACS we have designed and implemented an online community with rich content resources and divergent communication and delivery options to support both a global executive education program and a corporate innovation initiative. Providing a protected environment for senior leadership to post queries and share and access information has done much to capture and share the expertise of the top leadership of our company.
Leveraging the Wisdom of Your Crowd
With up to 70 million new workers entering the workforce by 2012, Web 2.0 is not just about new technology changing the way we work; it’s about a rapid transformation and a fundamental shift in the way workers will communicate, share knowledge, and think about learning.
Just in case you are not off the blocks yet, here is a starter menu for harnessing the wisdom of crowds using Web 2.0 in your organization:

  • Begin with a blog for one target group, with a compelling topic or question.
  • Find a host or “expert” to stir interest and facilitate.
  • Invite a broader, diverse group of people (maybe last year’s class of “high-potential” learners) to participate; tie it to a mandated activity.
  • Post provocative ideas and ask questions.
  • Link to other web sites, communities or sources that have common topics.
  • Have the crowd flesh out the content with pictures, video, and links.
  • Include a rating tool, polls, and assessment surveys to see how the experience expanded or changed learner perspectives.

The minds of many are more powerful than the mind of an individual. These Web 2.0 learning modalities provide an opportunity for collaboration and exploration. Trusted service provider partners can help companies adapt to evolving challenges by providing innovative solutions to help them grow and thrive in these uncertain times. HRO
Lyn Maize is head of market analysis and innovation for ACS Learning Services; Caroline Avey is a senior learning strategist serving ACS clients across the globe.
Advantages of Web 2.0
The Web landscape today enables interactions and innovations not really possible two or more years ago. Ideas and collaboration are the fuel for innovation—and Web 2.0 fosters this by making it easier for people to connect and learn from one another.
Collaboration through Web 2.0 technologies is being applied in new ways to learning—one of these ways is using 3D virtual worlds for business training, offering a personal, engaging, and enjoyable learning medium. A big advantage is it’s learner-centered—the learner becomes center stage and drives his or her learning experience, while the facilitator becomes a mentor/moderator. Since learners drive their experience, their motivation level is higher, requiring them to think differently. In a 3D learning environment, employees are no longer passive learners, but are active and involved in order to succeed.
Content development is also made easier. Because content can be developed in real time, the development team can quickly assess whether or not they are on the right track. This also reduces development time because development teams are receiving feedback and guidance on the product content as it is being developed. This reduces the need for file sharing, version control, etc. It also reduces the number of times teams need to meet to review the product since “real time” evaluation and collaboration provide everyone access simultaneously. Web 2.0 tools are also being used to accelerate the concept-to-model process. Relying on collaboration or the “wisdom of many” in the concepting stage, 3D or 2.0 tools can significantly reduce the time to prototype, allowing organizations to respond more quickly to customer or market demand, a learning gap, or a need in the workforce. 
Whether you are moving into a 3D learning environment or looking to buy social networking software to enhance collaboration, the basics are the same:

  • Develop criteria before you start, specifically, success criteria, measurement strategy, and functional requirements.
  • Identify an administrator/moderator that will own the “care and feeding” of the application and drive usage.
  • Link the initiative to a visible business project.
  • Ensure you have a visible and active executive sponsor.
  • Ensure you have a budget that includes the application and support, communication, training, and change management.


Tags: Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global, Learning

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