Social Networking: A Force for Development? in Today's Economy, Organizations Are Searching Fur Ways to Do More with Less. Combined with the Rapid Pace of Change and Complexity in Organizations, There Is an Increased Need for Just-in-Time Learning Solutions That Cannot Wait for the Discipline and Rigor Required by Traditional Instructional Design

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Social networking can address this issue and support the need for learner involvement by narrowing the gap between learning and application.

A learning solution

Social networking, the broad term that encompasses wikis, blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other tools, is ideal for facilitating interactions between people who cannot easily meet in person, whether due to geographic distance or difficulty identifying needed skills, resources, or other information. With just a few clicks, technology facilitates such connections.

With its unique abilities to connect people and provide real-time interaction, social networking offers exciting potential for learning solutions. Cost pressures and the availability of a multitude of social networking tools are other compelling factors. Further, with the presence of four generations in the workplace today, technological solutions that address different learning styles deserve consideration.

Social networking can promote decentralized decision making and collaboration. And the relationships and connections formed can help build engagement. Additionally, finding ways to improve the implementation of new skills on the job is an issue that the training profession has long wrestled with--training and development professionals acknowledge that most learning takes place not in the classroom, but as work is accomplished.

Social networking success in the workplace

IBM serves as a great example of how to successfully implement corporate social networking to address applied learning. Ted Hoff, vice president of the center for learning and development at IBM, points out that the organization's business focus and size have facilitated this adoption.

"IBM is used to [using] collaborative approaches, and being a technology company, we have a proclivity to use these tools, as well as a technical comfort level," Hoff says. "Moreover, as the most global company in the world--we operate in 170 countries and two-thirds of our workers are outside of the United States--we need to learn from each other. We find that the learning is reciprocal and doesn't flow in one direction; we learn a great deal from our emerging markets as much as they learn from us."

Hoff emphasizes the benefits that IBM has realized from these tools. "Discussions are focused around serving clients; for example, individuals will search for one another based on whether you have experience in a particular industry or with a particular client, such as helping a healthcare system navigate reimbursement. You will find IBM employees asking, 'send me the proposal; what kind of business did you get from this; and what did you learn?' It becomes a peer review system, and we hold one another accountable for providing useful information."

Organizations known for using corporate social networking effectively are often in consulting, technology, or other knowledge-based professions. Sun Microsystems and Ernst & Young are also part of this growing list.

Social networking tools may also be used to help the learning function. Matthew Valencius, manager of sales learning design and development at IBM, explains, "Within learning we have EXCaliber, our patent-pending Web 2.0 service. It provides an easy way to surface experts on a webpage while allowing those experts to manage their instant messaging availability. We have this on more than 100 intranet sites, and it enables our site visitors to quickly get answers to questions, such as how to enroll in a particular course or how to best engage with some content--similar to how good online retailers provide their chat functionality.

"We also use EXCaliber to add vibrancy to our pages by displaying pictures of the last people to visit them. This creates a sense that a page is popular--much like you can see people in a physical conference room--and provides an opportunity for visitors to expand their personal networks by showing who is interested in the same content. …