New research suggests its true potential is yet to come says Kevin Young of SkillSoft.
A year or so ago, having a policy on social networking usually amounted to regulating the use of Facebook during office hours. Now such an approach looks positively naïve. So what has changed?
First, time is proving that social networking is more than a craze or fad. The now familiar names; Twitter, Bebo, Linked in and so on, may in the future be replaced by others yet to be conceived, but the idea of communicating and sharing in this way looks here to stay.
Facebook, although only six years old, is the world’s most popular social site and grew by 105% last year. And, if you think that expansion is fast – Twitter grew by a phenomenal 900% in 2009.
The next change has come about because the world of business now recognises that this gateway into the real world of their customers is actually a valuable gift. For example, they can use it as a direct route to their customers; a free of charge billboard where their brand and its values can be reinforced without the expense of advertising.
Now an increasing number of businesses are identifying a third aspect of social networking that could be highly useful for them – the sharing dimension. It seems that suddenly social networking has become a lot less social – and far more of a business tool.
SkillSoft recently conducted a survey among a sample of 3,000 learning professionals at Europe’s leading learning technology conference. A decisive 91% believed that social networking principles can be even more useful in a professional environment than a personal one.
The survey also showed that just under half (49%) of respondents’ employers are already using social media for professional reasons, with Twitter, Facebook and bespoke internal systems all attracting a similar share of popularity. Of these, 31% are using them for marketing, PR or brand awareness goals. And interestingly, a substantial third are already using social media to share information internally and a quarter are using it as a means of networking with customers.
This is reflected in global trends – it’s estimated that 75% of Fortune 1000 companies in the US will launch social networking campaigns over the next year.
But it is the concept of using social networking tools for sharing information and collaborative learning that is of real interest to the HR and training community.
In other areas of our lives we are becoming accustomed to using the internet – particularly blog and discussion sites – to learn about what we don’t know, using the expertise of others (when we feel we can trust it) to add to our own knowledge. Anybody who had chosen to look something up on Wikipedia rather than looking at their dusty old copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, is tapping into this collective resource.
In the US, more than 80 million adults use social media for health-related issues, creating or using content on health blogs, message boards, chat rooms, health communities and patient testimonials. In fact, the internet surpassed physicians as the most popular health resource for the first time in 2009.
Inevitably, the UK is following suit. The Guardian recently reported how social networking is helping deliver services to reach young people otherwise completely disconnected from the mainstream. In particular, they cite a scheme initiated by the organisation Digital Public which is working with NHS Direct and Bebo to help reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies.
But how does this translate to the corporate world? It’s an accepted truth in the training community that around 70% of workplace learning is informal and ‘just-in-time’. This means that employees are researching information as and when they need it, searching the web, looking at journals and, importantly, consulting their colleagues’ experiences and knowledge.
No wonder everyone is so worried about the ageing workforce and the loss of all that experience as older employees retire. Consequently, some firms are already creating their own online Wikis or collaborative websites to record the hard-earned knowledge of their old-timers.
But, in reality, a more structured approach is much more effective – and what better way than an e-learning programme as a vehicle to deliver this? By introducing a collaborative module as part of an organisation’s learning resources, it is possible to extend the value of trusted, expert information by surrounding it with the more tailored and specific knowledge of its employees.
Standalone social networking applications may have their place, but a more business-focused model – such as SkillSoft’s new InGenius – can build on existing e-learning content to foster serious contributions to an organisation’s collective knowledge base.
Building a social networking style user community within an organisation connects employees in a forum where they can talk and support one another, solve problems and share ideas.
Perhaps we are seeing the birth of a new culture which is counter to our old models of inter-organisational competition? This may be projecting the concept of sharing too far – but after all, business is only mirroring what many employees are already doing in their personal lives.
It’s an exciting idea. In SkillSoft’s survey, a mighty 83% agreed that collaborative online communication, such as that achieved through social networking principles, has the power to create unprecedented knowledge bases that can empower individuals, entire industries and even society as a whole.
Whatever the cynics may say – it seems that far from being last year’s news, the power of social networking is only just being unleashed.