Transforming Informal Learning into a Competitive Advantage: Using Metrics Is a Smart Way to Formalize Informal and Collaborative Learning Methods without Waste, and Attain the Alignment You Need

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For U.S. businesses, maintaining a competitive edge (or even just staying in business at all) is as complex as the rush of economic news stories bombarding us each day. Faced with keeping up with shorter information and product cycles, businesses require more effective, less traditional ways to stay ahead of this ever-sharpening competition curve.

Today's employees interact, learn, and work in much different ways and styles than in the not-so-distant past. Increasingly mobile and geographically dispersed workforces are becoming the norm, while at the same time, travel budgets keep shrinking and face time for meetings and training sessions is more difficult to plan.


With this scenario as the backdrop, tech-savvy Millennials enter the workplace, while older baby boomers, economically stressed by the recent recession, delay plans for that early retirement holy grail.


If you are responsible for fostering a high-performance culture, addressing skills gaps, retaining top performers, and developing leadership pipelines, the connection between workplace learning and the developments mentioned earlier is becoming increasingly obvious. As overwhelming as it seems, however, there is an emerging trend--the formalizing of informal learning--that can help beleaguered HR and learning leaders to keep pace in a highly competitive market.

While popular social media tools (Facebook, for one) garner most of the attention these days, enterprise social networking and collaboration tools (blogs, wikis, communities of practice, and rich user profiles) are quickly becoming integrated with learning and talent management software suites. In fact, many forward-thinking organizations are already using social networking and collaboration tools to enable learning in an informal capacity. Formal adoption (and investment), however, lag behind while employers struggle with whether and how their organizations can truly benefit from these collaborative tools.

The challenges and hurdles in making that transition are clear: First, a strong business case is crucial, especially for skeptics (Web 2.0 discussions tend to raise questions in this area). Next, and perhaps most importantly, successful employee engagement must happen, but it is far from guaranteed. For these tools to work, employees must use them. Finally, we all know that metrics rule the day, so business impact, or return-on-investment, must be provable and measurable.

The data to support the fact that social networking and Web 2.0 tools are working "inside the firewall" isn't very difficult to find. For example, Aberdeen Group, in a recent research study, found that employers using blogs, wikis, and internal social networks have enjoyed a 26 percent year-over-year improvement in employee engagement.

Other experts have observed that 80 percent of training budgets today are spent on formal learning--instructor-led courses, e-learning, and virtual classrooms. But those same experts believe that 80 percent of what people actually learn is informal--collaborative, on the job, at the water cooler, from a mentor, or from a work group. In other words, the workplace is the perfect place for using these emerging tools.

Social networking

"It is difficult not to notice the recent explosion in both number and notoriety of Web 2.0 technologies and platforms," says David Mallon, a principal analyst with Bersin & Associates, the Oakland, California-based talent management research and consulting firm. "Social networking sites, as they become even more ubiquitous, are fundamentally resetting the expectations for how technology can support and augment person-to-person communication and collaboration."

The question for employers, says Mallon, is whether those tools will be platforms for renewal and transformation. He believes that they will, but as with any tool or technology, the value proposition is not in the tool, but in how it's applied. …


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