How can social learning help talent management?

Written by
Changeboard Team

17 Nov 2014

17 Nov 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Revolutionising coaching & mentoring

When developing a learning and development strategy, the focus tends to fall on formal interventions such as classroom training and e-learning. Indeed, training and development guru Jay Cross estimates that organisations spend around 80% of their learning budgets on formal training programmes. Yet it's estimated that 80% of what individuals actually learn comes from informal learning - from exchanges that occur as part of a coaching or mentoring programme, to purely informal conversations around the water cooler. 

As many HR managers are being asked to do more with less, they are re-examining the contribution of informal learning - and how they can harness that vital exchange of knowledge. More specifically, it has become clear that mentoring and coaching can be revolutionised through the new generation of social learning tools. 

What is social learning?

Social learning is the deployment of social networking and Web 2.0 collaboration tools - such as blogs, wikis, threaded discussion boards and internal social networks - to 'formalise' informal learning. Some organisations have already embraced the use of public social networking tools such as Linkedin, Facebook and instant messaging (IM). Others have banned access, fearing reduced productivity or security risks to the corporate network. The latter type of organisation will need to be persuaded as to the business case of using social learning tools (see below), but equally it's unlikely that the first type of organisation will be able to leverage publicly available services effectively for personal or organisational development - particularly peer mentoring or coaching.

Why is informal learning successful?

Social learning tools offer a number of benefits compared with offline coaching and peer-mentoring. Many organisations need to maintain or improve performance with the same or even fewer people, making it increasingly difficult to timetable non-mission-critical L&D activities. Therefore, it's advantageous if employees can benefit from coaching or mentoring at their desks. In addition, the rise of e-learning has empowered learners to take greater control of when, where and how they develop their skills and knowledge. 

Social learning tools extend that capability to informal learning. Access to coaching or mentoring whenever employees need assistance - rather than at a pre-determined time - can help them to learn what they need, when they need it, which is proven to help aid learning retention. Moreover, they can help to spread the responsibility for coaching and mentoring; rather than a one-on-one communication, a team of mentors could be nominated for specific employees or subject areas - if one is not online to respond to a request for help at a particular time, an alternative contact may be available.

The changing nature of conversations

Social learning also fits with changing patterns in communication; we have become more likely to text, email or IM rather than use the phone or meet in person. It caters to the needs of our around-the-clock business culture, particularly within global organisations. A classic failure of traditional coaching or mentoring was that it was all too easy for meetings to be postponed or cancelled due to pressure of work. For example, a high-flying graduate employee whose mentor is a senior executive might find the latter is constantly travelling. Taking that role online, the mentor can use social learning tools from any geographical location or time zone to provide the guidance and support that will help the organisation maximise its investment in this high-potential employee. 

As importantly, the employer may be able to track the frequency and content of these conversations, making it easier to identify specific training needs and assess the progress of coaching and mentoring programmes.  In addition, it may be possible to extract the information to make it available to a wider workforce in an online, searchable format in a given community, extending the benefit of that coaching session from the individual to the many.

Implementing a social networking business plan

More organisations are embracing social networking and collaboration tools for the enterprise, including in support of their talent management initiatives. But at a time when organisations are looking to streamline costs while delivering more value, how can they build a business case, measure the business impact and achieve success with social software?  

  • Identify and motivate champions: Start with early adopters and target groups where collaboration tools can help them to be more successful in their roles. Regular contribution from a small number of champions can dramatically increase adoption and positively impact the initiative’s success. A person responsible for sales enablement is a natural champion for a sales community, for instance.
  • Define the purpose: Have a clearly defined purpose for implementing collaboration technology will make it easier to get senior leadership, IT, managers and employees to support and champion the initiative. The example of mentoring for a group of high potential employees is a good one.
  • Take a practical approach: Look to supplement existing processes in ways that make sense for the company, the employees and its culture. A common use case is supplementing a formal blended learning program for new managers or new recruits with an online community.
  • Establish metrics: Identify what you hope to achieve up front and determine a way to measure this will help to get executive buy-in and drive adoption. Usage and participation metrics are common metrics tracked initially; while impact on employee engagement and performance are more sophisticated - and less direct - metrics.
  • Start small: Instead of proposing something large, splashy and expensive, take a slow build approach. Identify quick wins that support the organisation’s goals - and require less of an investment. Expanding an LMS deployment with specific, targeted communities illustrates this approach.
  • Address the risk: Corporate social networks tend to police themselves, with users sticking to contextually relevant discussions and calling out inappropriate behaviour. Create a lightweight governance model and prepare for worst case scenarios in advance to avoid surprises down the road.  

Integration is essential

There will be a temptation to regard social learning as separate from the mainstream learning programme, but the best results are generated by adopting an integrated approach, both from a planning and a system perspective. It's key to avoid creating yet another silo. Mentoring and coaching must be included as part of the overall talent management strategy to specifically address the employee’s development needs in a way that reinforces the formal learning programme, fills in gaps identified during the performance management process or supplements leadership development as part of a succession planning initiative. 

Similarly, if social learning tools that facilitate the provision of online mentoring or coaching are integrated into a holistic talent management suite, it becomes easier to track and record activity which can then be logged automatically against relevant targets in the employee’s (or indeed the mentor’s or coach’s) personal development and performance profile. An integrated approach also helps to assure consistency, quality and accuracy. Most important, when thoughtfully integrated into learning, performance and talent management strategies, the use of social learning tools to drive peer mentoring and coaching can make a significant and positive contribution to personal development and organisational performance.