Engaged WorkforceLearning

Learning in a Virtual World

 Web 2.0 is changing the workplace and how companies are training their employees. In the first of a two-part series, the authors discuss how to prepare for it.

 
By Lyn Maize and Caroline Avey
 
Water cooler conversations, instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting in the hallway, or a quick Google search or phone call to the office “expert”—all of these are familiar examples of informal learning, often described as the learning or knowledge-sharing that is not planned or structured; rather they are unconscious and incidental learning that take place through performance-support materials and systems, coaching, communities of practice, and expert directories.
 
Informal learning in the context of enterprise learning and development makes up the 65 to 80 percent of learning thought to take place naturally, on the job, or in the context of work but not during formal training. The challenge for chief learning officers or heads of training typically has been to translate the substantial informal knowledge-gathering that takes place in a business from a series of random events and interpersonal interactions to a much larger corporate audience so that content learned during the course of a project or initiative can be made available to anyone.
 
This sounds great, so why haven’t we tried to corral these informal exchanges sooner? The simple answer is convergence. Globalization, a challenging economic environment, a younger workforce with rising expectations of collaborative, interactive work environments, and the ready availability of enabling technology have all created conditions favorable to workers and workforces breaking out of the traditional ways of doing things, to new ways of finding, sharing, and using knowledge.
 
Tony O’Driscoll of Duke University coins this convergence as the “webolution.” Said O’Driscoll, “We are now at a true inflection point where one of the most powerful sets of transformational technologies of our time is training its sights on the one institution/enterprise function that has heretofore managed to emerge unscathed from the application of technology: Education.”
 
So how do HR and corporate learning leaders leverage this trend? 
 
Creating a Web 2.0 Mindset
As most of us in the corporate world are being asked to do more with less, many companies are eyeing the emerging Internet technologies that make up Web 2.0 to help us make rich exchanges between employees or groups possible without the need for formal structures and development. Gartner, in its “Hype Cycle for the High-Performance Workplace 2008,” noted that convergence in the areas of collaboration, communications, and content continues to have an impact on the high-performance workplace, affecting our work processes and how people work and learn together.
 
Social software is challenging traditional work constructs and the relationship between IT and the business. And yes, learning—formal, informal, and even improvisational—finally can be harnessed to drive real performance improvement and enterprise excellence.

 
What exactly do we mean by Web 2.0 in the corporate HR and learning space? This is often referred to as the “read/write web.” Essentially, it refers to tools that enable social, participatory, collaborative, and media-rich one-to-one or one-to-many experiences. Well-known sites that exemplify Web 2.0 include Wikipedia, YouTube, Second Life, and social media sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
 
“Learning 2.0” is inspired by Web 2.0 and coincidentally offers breakthrough ideas and solutions for meeting the needs of more experienced learners. The secret for corporate learning or HR departments is providing employees opportunities to harness and empower one another, and to learn and share but in ways that meet the needs of the corporate culture. 
 
Not only does this new capability address varying learning styles, interaction, and outcomes, it also offers significant business advantages in cost, time, and the ability to tap broadly dispersed audiences efficiently and effectively. We have seen corporate investment in these capabilities really pay off as companies look for creative ways to share product knowledge among sales teams, or use social software to develop proficiencies among leadership teams by enabling the rapid exchange and sharing of data and “know how” or enhance “training” by enabling knowledge or information to be available as performance support on the job.  
 
Here are some of the most common 2.0 elements of social software that have been adapted within corporate environments specific to groups or common areas of interest:
 

  • Peer-to-peer Networking (sometimes called P2P) is a technique for efficiently sharing files (music, videos, or text) via the Internet or wireless devices.
  • Content Sharing or Tagging technologies allow for automated sharing of digital content (RSS feeds, social bookmarks, shared applications, and workspaces).
  • Podcasts are audio or video recordings distributed through RSS feeds.
  • Blogs and Wikis are systems for collaborative knowledge-sharing and publishing.
  • Collaboration and Social Media applications refer to web sites and tools that allow members to find others by skills, talents, knowledge communities, or special interests such as LinkedIn, Facebook, NING, Meet Up, Google Groups, or corporate applications such as Q2 Learning.
  • Virtual Worlds or 3D, immersive-learning web-based virtual environments can be used to share, collaborate, and simulate real-world interactions in 3D worlds.
  • Web Services and Widgets are software applications and systems that make it easier for different systems to communicate to find and pass information or conduct transactions.

 
Surprisingly, many IT groups are already quite familiar with using widgets and “apps.”   
During cycles of economic turbulence, companies typically move to reduce the scale and scope of their expenditures. Bersin and Associates recently noted that the average number of formal training hours has dropped from 25 hours per learner in 2007 to 17.2 hours in 2008. This is directly linked to the need for corporations to cut back on formal expenditures and staff. The research goes on to explain that many of the online training hours were replaced by coaching, collaborative programs, and other less-costly methods.
 
Coaching and reinforcement programs that gained in popularity during the past 10 years are now incorporated into 30 percent of all training programs (according to Bersin) and are excellent candidates for the varied modalities of Web 2.0 design and delivery, which Bersin said could grow to $420 million by the end of 2009.
 
Overlooking Innovation
As the pressure to deliver sustained, profitable growth increases, the performance of people and retention of key talent become ever more critical. If this talent lacks the necessary skills, capabilities, and knowledge to lead the organization and adapt to changing market conditions and demands, enterprise performance will suffer down the road. It’s often very easy to overlook opportunities for innovation and change in the midst of a challenging business climate, but for savvy learning leaders, this is just the opportunity to lead your team to think out of the box.
 
Recently, ACS, working with a leading vendor in 3D world, had an opportunity to explore and evaluate options for the training of consulting professions from two different companies within a 3D environment. Traditional, face-to-face instructor-led settings were ruled out; these were considered too costly and too disruptive to the participants. Traditional methods also failed to encourage participants to research, explore together, and collaborate. Breaking the workshop into time chunks enabled teams to have a realistic schedule that was not disruptive to their jobs and enabled independent and team work.
 
The idea of a “time span” for learning, instead of a one-time event, was critical to the notion that creating a facilitated, collaborative community would be more in sync with the business instead of disrupting it. While a webcast could have supported some of the requirements, it lacked the sense of “immersion” and engagement of these senior consultants, whom we wanted to build the collaborative communities. The virtual environment met the business requirements and afforded an opportunity for “observation” of team and individual performance. A traditional web-based program was not considered an option, since again, we wanted to create a collaborative community and allow for observation.
 
With both clients’ enthusiastic participation, we embedded 2D links and individual work to create a true blended program; however, the primary delivery medium for participant and facilitator interaction was a virtual world. Forterra Systems was ACS’s virtual world provider for this and the previous trial, and it rose to the challenge of blending access to print, video, and 2.0 and 3D components. Additionally, the teams were asked to prepare a demonstration (role-play) to dramatize some aspect of their research. They were then assigned to breakout rooms to work collaboratively on their assignments, reconvene both virtually and offline, and complete what would ordinarily have been a full-day, on-site training session in about six hours of work, which included the virtual sessions, self-study, and team sessions.
 
This particular case speaks volumes to the value of relying on and collaborating with strategic learning partners not only to explore which modalities are most relevant to your culture and your need but also to leverage their expertise to create engaging, innovative solutions to address critical talent issues. In this case, the issues were time and distance, yet the same types of solutions can be applied to other critical performance enhancement or skills or competency-based achievements.
 
Echoed widely in recent articles in HRO Today and other publications, major organizations do understand the need to explore and implement innovative solutions to help recruit, manage, and improve talent. Accordingly, they are raising the bar on their expectations that their strategic learning outsourcing partners must bring more to the table than just quality delivery of services.
 
Only a strategic learning partner has the depth and breadth of knowledge of an organization, and of other companies’ experiences to offer the type of innovative insight discussed here. Whether we call it transformation, optimization or innovation, the key is that strategic learning partners should help companies think out of the box when turning learning and talent strategies into successful business initiatives. Key drivers include the need to do more with less in this economic environment, the move toward finding more effective and innovative ways to recruit and onboard employees, efforts to increase retention, a renewed focus on higher performance, and leveraging knowledge as an asset.
 
In the second part of the article, we examine other business considerations used to help companies make the case for new and innovative solutions to managing talent. 
 
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.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, Learning

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