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User-generated Content and Learning Professionals

February 19, 2009

Are you are a trainer?  Instructional designer?  Director of training or talent development?  If you are, it’s likely that you are a bit freaked out by all this user-generated content stuff.  I’ve talked to dozens of training groups and training directors in the last six months or so, and a surprisingly high number of them are resisting the idea of regular employees creating learning content.  Of course they never say it quite that bluntly.  Instead, the sentiment emerges in objections like these:

  • What about instructional quality?  It won’t be “good” instructional design.  How could it be when they haven’t been trained on how to do this?
  • What about accuracy?  Can regular employees really be expected to share accurate and useful content?
  • What about approvals?  Doesn’t someone need to approve the content?
  • What about appropriateness?  If we let people comment and rate content, they might use inappropriate language or violate company policy.
  • And on and on…

Now before I rip into these arguments, let me say that some amount of this concern is legit.  When the subject of the learning is a highly-regulated topic – OSHA, HIPPA, various HR topics, etc… — you have no choice but to assert some control or face potentially serious legal implications.  In many cases however, these regulatory issues don’t exist at all.  In a separate post, I’m going to suggest a framework to mitigate the risks of user-generated content.  For now, let’s address the other common objections:

What about instructional quality?  It won’t be “good.”  They don’t know how to build good learning.<!—-><!—->

All fair points at some level – we’ve all been in those SME interviews when the SME is so “expert” they can’t even begin to remember what is like to be a newbie and thus have a very difficult time in framing the learning from a novice perspective.  They take too much for granted, get too technical too fast, forget about dependencies and implicit knowledge, etc…  So let’s assume this one is completely legit – let’s assume SME’s and most people in the org are terrible at instructional design, and let’s further assume that cultural trends and business imperatives are still pushing us toward UGC (and they most definitely are), what then should be the role of the instructional designer or experienced trainer?  One option is to hunker down, resist the change, and stand alone at the bridge fending off the barbarian hordes in an effort to maintain the status quo.  Option 2 is to embrace the change and consider how you might even facilitate it or even redefine your role as a result.  As you’ll see in a moment, Option 2 is not only better for the organization, it’s better for you as well.

So just what is the status quo and why should we change?  Today, training folks are fond of saying “We teach a man to fish…”  In other words, we convey skills, competencies, and knowledge so that others can be productive in their day-to-day jobs.  We teach them to be self-sufficient.  The problem with this model is that we are “pipe” or the conduit through which expertise is transmitted and transformed on its passage from experts to the masses.  As much as we might try to deny it, this is a very tactical role – take someone else’s expertise and “translate” it for consumption by others.  The projects we work on might be strategic; the success of the project might be strategic, but the role is tactical.  Worse, even our tactical impact is limited to the number of projects our teams can handle – which is often far fewer than the organization needs us to handle.

I’d like to propose a new approach that’s more in keeping with the direction of social media is taking us.  Call this a “go with the flow” strategy.  Instead of teaching a man to teach, let’s “teach a man to teach.”  In other words, instead of acting as the conduit, let’s empower the rest of the organization to teach, or more broadly, to effectively communicate and share their expertise.  One significant advantage of this approach is that it scales well beyond what we can do individually.  Is this really doable?  Absolutely.  Intel empowered it’s organization to create content through a Wiki and in just over 2 years, generated over 20,000 articles.  Could a training group do this?

Further, enabling the organization to embrace a true learning and peer-to-peer culture through improved communication and expertise sharing provides much more strategic  value to the organization than acting as a conduit.  To truly embrace the Web 2.0 future, enterprises need to address big issues like culture and training — not training on systems and process etc… but training on how to train.  If everyone in the company is empowered to create content and share expertise, how do we ensure that this is done as effectively as possible?  How do we ensure some level of quality to what is produced?  This sounds like a training job to me.  Better still, this effort is a true strategic imperative for the organization.  Who better to drive and own this effort than the training group?

Lastly, power and influence accrues to those who facilitate change whereas change resistors are often considered obstacles and barriers.  Which side would you rather be on?  If this transformation is inevitable, and it is, wouldn’t you rather be the one doing this than the one it is done to?  P&G, Cisco, Ace Hardware have all had tremendous and documented success with user-generated content, peer-to-peer exchanges and Web 2.0.  It’s only a matter of time before these models are adopted across all organizations.  Learning and training groups can be a major facilitator and enabler of this change.  And as a result, they can elevate their status and strategic value within the organization.  Seems like a no brainer to me…

For more on the culture shift required to move to Web 2.0, you can read this editorial I wrote for Talent Management magazine.  In the next post in this series, I’ll address the issue of accuracy…

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