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Personal Brand, Professional Brand, and Perceived Bias in Social Media

May 17, 2010

So apprarently, my spirited defense about LMS value and role in the future of our industry has kicked off a lively debate. I’m glad. As I noted to Janet Clarey (@jclarey) a few nights ago on Twitter, I think it’s long overdue.

I will admit that I’m a bit disappointed by the lack of comment by other vendors. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt though as it’s a very tough line to walk when we as vendors or employees of vendors start engaging in these kinds of debates. Do we mention what competitors are doing? Do we call them out by name and praise them for cool stuff? If we do, does that conflict with our responsibilities to our brands and company success? Do we rip them for not being innovative enough and dragging us down into the sea of their discontent? In other words, where does one’s personal brand intersect with the company brand? In my case, where does “dwilkinsnh” end and Learn.com begin (or vice versa).

I’m not sure there are too many other folks in our space that maintain a professional blog and personal brand as I do while I also representing and helping to craft a company brand. I know Tom Stone is out there too, but who else? It’s unchartered waters, and a very tough balancing act.

And I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of this over time. As we see increasing levels of comfort with social media and user-generated content, more and more people will be creating content — whether it’s comments, microblogs, YouTube, or blogs. What happens if a competitor runs an idea generation contest with a big cash prize, and you have a great idea. Can you contribute? I mean, you obviously can’t contribute anything you’ve learned from your own company, but what about ideas you’ve had on your own? Can you separate the two? What would a court say? Leaving aside the legalities, is it ethical to contribute to a competitor’s success if it means betting against your own company? Banks apparently do it all the time, but it seems kind of unsavory right?

With regard to the current debate I seem to have sparked, there lots of things I’d like to say, but don’t, for fear that people will wrongly assume I’m speaking on behalf of Learn.com in this channel. I understand that. There is obviously some amount of overlap between my brand and the company’s, and as I’ve continued to take on roles of increasingly leadership, that overlap is increasing. I sort of picture it as a Ven diagram with two circles, one is my personal brand, one is the company’s brand. If I were the janitor, these would be almost entirely separate. As a district manager, maybe more overlapped. As a VP of Product Marketing, maybe a lot overlapped. And as CEO, they might as well be the same circle.

Which means I’m probably long overdue for a disclaimer: Let me be clear that I am not speaking for Learn.com with regard to this debate. This is not a Learn.com blog; it’s a David Wilkins blog and extends back across three companies. The views up here are my own and the extent to which I reference my employer, it’s in support of my own personal opinion and a reflection of my own personal experience. That also goes for my Twitter account, SlideShare accounts etc… They are all dwilkinsnh, and that’s obviously me and not the company I work for.

Given the above, let me also cover some related matters. A few folks have come pretty close to describing my position as “of course he feels that way, he’s an LMS vendor.” Given my comments above, I can see why, but it’s still disappointing. Intentional or not, in effect it’s a “fruit from the poisonous tree” kind of argument and even in some ways an ad hominen attack (even if unintended), especially when you consider the body of my work. For example, in this blog, I’ve written over 100 posts, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve blogged about LMS. I’ve been speaking, publishing and doing webinars for over 10 years and I think I’ve maybe covered LMS three or four times. Over the last 12 months alone, I presented at over 30 national, regional, and local events, including a Training 2010 keynote where I covered social learning. I’ve also been invited to present at the Web 2.0 consortium and the Conference Board, both of which are invite-only. Over the last six months, I co-created a Social Learning Strategy checklist with Kevin Jones, Social Strategist at NASA, and I created a Social Learning Assessment tool to help newbies better define and articulate their needs based on their culture, business problem, and talent profile.

So in this case, my company brand affiliation, in some people’s eyes, actually undermines my credibility in addressing this topic. Of course, I prefer to believe that it gives me a broader view… ; ) I have to live in the day-to-day reality that our clients live in, and I need to keep up with research by Gartner, Aberdeen, Forrester, and Bersin. So as much as I obviously want to move the industry forward toward a greater reliance on social and informal models, I also need to be acutely aware of how ready our clients and prospects are, what the analysts think, and where all of this is ultimately going. I’m a “strategy meets implementation” kind of guy. It’s great to have big ideas, but if you can’t get them implemented, they are pretty worthless.

As we continue this debate, I hope that we can focus on the merits of the argument and not make assumptions about people’s bias. One could just as easily posit that consultants recommend solutions that lead to more consulting work and analysts recommend solutions according to the vendors that best “educate” them via paid analysis work. This is not the world I want to live in. It’s superficial, and doesn’t reflect the current and growing complexities between personal and company brands. In this new world, it will continue to be critical for all of us to reveal our affiliations and connections, but it’s just as important that we don’t make judgments based solely on these relationships.

Dan Pontefract I think has provided one of the best and most professional responses to date, and I agree with about 90% of his post. I’ll be replying later today. Dick did a great job in his second comment in laying out a broader case. I actually with about 90% of what he says too. The debate here is less about the role of social and informal in the end-game, and more about the role that formal learning and LMS platforms play in getting us there.

I’m sold on social and informal learning as a dominant model in the workplace (and I’ve been doing a lot of the “selling” too… ; ) In my opinion, there has been comparitively little talk of what the end game looks like, the role of LMS and formal in the end game, and how we get from here to there. If we’re going to get serious about a move toward greater organizational support for social and informal learning models, we need to start talking about these issues. Theory and generalities are great, but we also need tactics, strategies, and starting points. We need to actually “do” this stuff somewhere in accordance with existing company rules about privacy, security, data storage and retrieval, compliance, HIPPA, Sarbanes Oxley etc… So for those of you wondering about my bias, that’s my bias – that we stop talking about how great social and informal learning will be in our heads and start figuring out how to actually get it done in real companies with legitimate IT, legal, and compliance challenges. And when we do, it’s my contention that leading LMS solutions will start to look a lot more attractive since they have built-in support for these enterprise-level requirements.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010 1:53 pm

    Good points, Dave, and as you know I respect all you have done. I think one of our points of divergence is in the centrality of the LMS. Let me address something concrete, as you’ve requested in your last paragraph. First of all, as you know, I feel that we need to integrate work and learning in the enterprise. My advice to clients would be to use collaborative work tools for their social and informal learning. If there is a choice between Sharepoint and an LMS, for instance, I would recommend using Sharepoint for informal, social learning. And I am not a fan of Sharepoint. Why? Because work drives all support functions and L&D is a support function. However, I think a “small pieces, loosely joined” approach is better and will be more resilient in dealing with complexity.

    In networked enterprises, controlling social & informal learning with an LMS is like keeping everybody in school instead of doing their jobs.

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 17, 2010 2:33 pm

      I guess the only question I have with regard to that Harold is this: “would you use SharePoint for your document collaboration needs only, or would you also use it for discussions and networking outside of the docs?” If you are collaborating and sharing around docs, why not do the same thing around formal classes, courses, development plans, and documents that are housed in the LMS? Isn’t that part of a small, loosely joined model? And if you are also accessing SharePoint independent of the docs just to discuss and network in general, then aren’t you “going somewhere” outside the work? This is actually “social learning platform” use case. And if so, why not make the LMS the platform provided that the feature sets and functionality are equivalent?

      What I am suggesting is that a) you can make a very strong argument that LMS should have social features for the same reason that Amazon and SharePoint do — they provide formal content around which people want to have conversations and collaboration. For Amazon, it’s books (and now a lot more); for SharePoint, it’s docs; for LMS, it’s courses, classes, development plans, certifications etc… For this reason alone, LMSs need to provide social collaboration technologies. And b) if we aren’t talking about social learning that is “about” something formal, but instead, learning and collaborating for it’s own sake, then these interactions need to happen somewhere. If LMS can provide equivalent tools and shared spaces for those kinds of interactions, why not collaborate there? What’s the difference between “going to” SharePoint, Jive, or the LMS? In all three cases, you would be leaving your “work” and going to the collaboration point. Of course, as you and I would probably both agree, often the collaboration *is* the work, in which case, wherever it happens is where the work is done.

      One final comment — “small and loosely joined” may be the most likely future, but I’d still argue strongly that having a shared profile and activity stream *somewhere* is a desired state for both learners and companies. Consolidated profiles and activity streams are central to reputation management, identification of top performers and high potentials, search, expertise location and a host of other super valuable second order functionalities. If stuff lives all over the place, I despair of enabling any of the above anytime in the next few years. In the absence of a standard for user profiles and activity data, everyone is currently creating separate data models which is going to be a bear to integrate. If it’s *mostly* in a shared platform, this stuff is programming 101.

  2. May 17, 2010 3:03 pm

    A thought-provoking post, Dave, and one I need to get my head around. I’m far from convinced that an LMS has any place at all in future learning. Unis and Colleges can use their admin systems for pay and enrollments with no reference at all to LMSs because LMSs are the awkward add-ons. Students don’t need LMSs, do they? After all, it is another set of protocols and rules to live by and who wants another lot of that? On the other hand, everyone wins if there is some common interface.
    Being just a tad tongue-in-cheek, would a wiki work?

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 17, 2010 3:58 pm

      Gillian,

      First thanks for the kind words about the post. What’s really interesting in this debate are the areas of convergence and divergence. Harold and Jay and Clark all agree that social and informal are the dominant models and should be given more organizational focus, but we disagree about the role of LMS in getting us “there.” You and I agree about the need for a common interface and platform, but we disagree about the role of LMS at all, even absent social and informal learning questions. I wonder sometimes if it’s a question of personal experience. While I know there are challenges with our solution and any LMS, we have mostly happy clients who drive real business results. If someone has a less positive experience or a less sophisticated solution, they may see LMS as not only irrelevant but maybe even detrimental to the longer-term objective. For them, it’s a hindrance. For me, it’s an enabler of a more integrated future.

      As to your question, do students need an LMS? Blackboard all but owns the higher ed space and has pretty good market penetration so I assume the answer is “yes.” And if not an LMS, I suspect that the IT group in the college has recreated LMS functionality since they undoubtedly need to track rooms, teachers, students etc… in physical building as well as web events and even web classrooms. When you are done creating all of this out of pure code, you have the starting point of any modern LMS. (Why anyone would create this from scratch is beyond me given that there are multiple pre-built systems that already do this. Might as well rewrite Outlook while you are at it… ; ) As to who else might need it? Admins, teachers, finance people all benefit from knowing attendance, class sizes, demand, student interest, teacher utilization rates, trends, etc…

      Would a Wiki work? For the collaboration bits, sure. But not to schedule classrooms, teachers, students and resources. Not to track attendance or course asset utilization. Why not marry them together and dedicate Wiki pages for each class? That way the teacher can share formal materials and track them and students can collaborate in a shared space. Why does it need to be an either / or?

  3. May 17, 2010 4:22 pm

    Organizations need to integrate +80% of learning into their work flow. If your definition of an LMS is a platform that integrates work and learning, then we are converging. If it’s a stand-alone platform, removed from work; we diverge.

  4. July 8, 2010 8:10 am

    In my opinion, there has been comparitively little talk of what the end game looks like, the role of LMS and formal in the end game, and how we get from here to there. If we’re going to get serious about a move toward greater organizational support for social and informal learning models, we need to start talking about these issues.

  5. July 19, 2010 12:17 pm

    I think, Ed Hardy Bags, that your point about ‘social and informal’ is why I rather doubt the LMS need survive. That is not the same as saying universities do not need integrated administration systems and resource repositories; of course they do. My concern is that in the formal, traditional model, the university frequently ‘owns’ student work. That can become very messy when students are adults, part-time and (as are many students of all ages) also very active in offline email/Facebook/Twitter etc conversations where they do the bulk of their work before uploading the ‘because I have to, to be assessed’ result into Bb. If the university or college can manage programmes and deliver core/required/library content from one source, then the teaching and facilitation and interaction can happen elsewhere in whatever medium suits the group. In an outcomes-based programme, there should be no need to count number of student ‘contributions’ – even US Title IV does not require that. Separating the teaching environment from the admin+grade book is only going back to a system that worked for centuries. Today’s teaching/facilitation environment has more options than were available in the past but that’s no reason for requiring that it all happens in one space. Moreover, does a university really want to be responsible for requiring students to use their personal accounts in external social media embedded in their systems when they can have no control over a student’s privacy settings and permissions? Universities cannot own what they cannot control. Students need to be responsible for their own learning and their own actions in furthering that learning.

  6. August 4, 2010 8:27 am

    I think Harold and Gillian’s point here is: LMS as a course /curriculum / registration management tool — yes it is needed; LMS as a platform that encompass components mentioned above AND function like forum, facebook, chat, etc….e.t. drive learning through a powerful “system” — a admirable vision but have some really big obstacles.

  7. October 29, 2010 10:15 am

    the blur between personal and business branding has been a issue for a while its why a lot of companies in your contract deny you the ability to have a presence in the same sector as your business.

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