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Expanding the Scope and Scale of Learning Through Social Media

March 16, 2009

About a month ago now, I did a webinar on “Social Learning and the Recession.”  It was basically about how learning professionals could either weather the storm of the recession by staying the course or by recognizing that the storm was really part of a larger change that would permanently affect they way they do their jobs.  I argued for the latter scenario and provided some tips on how to rethink the role of training and instructional design to better adapt to these changes.

One of the key things I argued was that in a down economy, organizations inevitably “retrench,” focusing on core activities and streamlining wherever possible.  This often means that training departments are hit, both in terms of budget and staff.  One option in this scenario is to deliver less training – fewer trainers and fewer dollars means less training right?  Of course, given layoffs and the loss of talent that comes with this process, this is exactly what not to do.

At times of stress and loss, it’s even more important to train.  That guy who used to know x, y, and z isn’t here anymore, nor are his connections – the informal network through which he actually got stuff done.  The woman you used to “go to” for the tips and tricks or to find out “this, that and the other thing…”  gone.  During recessionary times, people end up in new roles, responsible for work and processes they’ve never done.  And the training group which would normally step in to help resolved this skill gap?  Cut to the bone, understaffed and reeling from a reduced budget.

The remedy I proposed was simple:  stop thinking of the training group as the only people who can teach others, and instead, expand your “team” to include the whole company, or better yet, the extended enterprise as well like customers, partners, and suppliers.  Rather than always acting as the pipe through which information flows, act like the plumber who designs the layout of the pipes and determines *where* and *how* and *at what rate* the information flows.   To illustrate this, I used these simple diagrams:

Traditional Training Group

Traditional Training Group

Imagine that this is a typical organization.  The center, blue circle is the training group.  The second ring is the rest of the company.  The outer ring represents the “extended enterprise” – customers, suppliers, partners, even the public in some cases.

So what happens in this traditional “walled” organization when the training group has to lay off 50% of it’s staff?  Don’t worry, this isn’t a trick question.  The answer is simple:  they lose 50% of their capacity to create and deliver training to the organization.  Ouch.

Ok, so what happens if you rethink the training department?  What if the whole organization is the training department, and every employee is empowered and expected to share expertise, knowledge, and best practices.  If we go this route, we’re not looking at a 50% reduction in capacity, but a dramatic expansion in capacity and scale.  This scenario might look more like this:

The Company as the Training Group

The Company as the Training Group

In this model, the company *is* the training group, resulting in much greater scale and a broader scope.  The scale part is obvious.  More creators = more scale.

Scope might not be as obvious.  Scope = diversity of perspective, diversity of expertise, diversity of interests, diversity of needs.  Formally delivered training typically addresses a very narrow band of content — compliance, certifications, and other common denominator content.  When you expand the team of developers to include the whole company and you ask them to share their unique expertise, the scope and diversity of content naturally expands to reflect the scope and diversity of the work itself.  This is basically the same idea expressed in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, an idea on which I expanded in a previous post titles the  Socialing Learning and the Long Tail.

Now take this idea one step further.  Imagine that your business is not limited just to employees, but also includes partners, suppliers, customers, resellers, and the public — in other words, your extended enterprise.  Crazy?  I don’t think so.  Increasingly, companies are looking outside traditional company walls for innovation (Cisco, P&G, Dell), support (Ford, Microsoft, and hundreds of others), and best practices and learning (FindLaw, EDR, Cienna).  For more on some of these stories, check out the Emergent and Collaborative case studies I’ve collected elsewhere on this site.  I’ve also expanded on this concept significantly in this post on Running Your Business Like a Community.  For yet another perspective on this, check out this excellent post on Communities of Practice by Harold Jarche.

To provide some real world context of why this might be valuable, consider this story.  A few months ago, I met with the CLO of a large software company.  (I’m not going to say who because the conversation was “off-the-record.”)  One of the problems he mentioned was that they offer so many titles that it’s impossible for his team to be experts on all of them.  Furthermore, in some cases, the most knowledgable experts on a given software title are not internal employees, but external customers.

One of the things were were talking about was the new “Contributor” model in Mzinga Publisher, our content authoring tool.  Through the Contributor role, it’s possible to enable “lay people” to add content to a course that is otherwise managed and designed by instructional design experts.  We also talked about the “Capture-only” version of our software simulation tool, Firefly, which would enable customers to capture best practices as simulations while the instructional design team still owned design and overall instructional quality.  And of course, we talked about our Community platform and our Social Learning Suite, either of which would enable them to develop Communities of Practice around specific software titles.  In either of these platforms, customers could share expertise and best practices with each other (and with the organization).  One interesting angle to all of this is that the company can offer the community as a value-add to their customers without ever telling them that the organization is directly benefitting from the expertise being shared…

So what might this model look like?  I suppose by now, it’s pretty obvious, but here you go:

Extended Enterprise as the Training Group

Extended Enterprise as the Training Group

I think this is the future.  But perhaps more importantly, it also helps us today.  Budgets are getting slashed, trainers are being cut.  As Jay Cross recently noted, what we should be doing is redeploying these resources to other community sorts of roles within the organization.  Unfortunately, many companies are not this forward-thinking and are in “slash and burn” mode.  Learning executives in these sorts of situations need to be thinking hard about how to survive in the short-term while also preparing the company for the future.  Expanding the scope and scale of the “training” team by including the company and it’s extended enterprise in development efforts is one obvious and relatively straightforward way to do this.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2009 7:30 am

    love the diagrams, what program do you use for the people images?

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      March 26, 2009 1:35 pm

      Thanks. I’m embarrassed to admit, it’s just PowerPoint with some good clip art. There is a whole collection of headshots like these on the ClipArt live site, even including other professions. I use them a lot – they scale well, they have a good mix of gender and races, and they already have transparent backgrounds. Makes life easy… ; )

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