Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Social Vs Formal Learning, From a Certain Point of View...

In the Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, there is a classic scene in which Luke Skywalker asks Obi-Wan Kenobi why he told him that Darth Vader killed his father, when in fact Darth Vader was in fact, Luke's father.  Obi-Wan does some verbal tap-dancing to get himself out of what was - in this fan's opinion - a bold-faced lie, ending with a popular Star Wars quote:

"So what I told you is true... from a certain point of view."

I find myself thinking of that quote a lot lately, and how it applies to learning, and the learning profession.  Too often we see things as black and white, when in reality the truth lies somewhere in the gray.  One area I see this 'certain point of view' idea very prevalent is in the current discussions around 'Social Learning'.  There's some great discussions taking place online on this topic that I think all learning professionals would do well to read.  (links shared at the end)

'Social Learning' is a term that needs to be refined.  As I and others much smarter than me have pointed out - Social Learning is not new.  People have been learning socially for ages.  When a group of cavemen stared blankly at a flame and one reached out and touched it, the others quickly learned 'Hey, let's not do that'.  They may not have had language yet, but you can bet that the 'don't stick your hand in the fire' message spread among the tribe pretty quick.  They learned the lesson through their social sharing.

The current discussion about social learning is less about social learning and more about social media - specifically the fact that social media technology has advanced to the point that it now moves at the speed of learning.  People use it to communicate and share in ways that have never been possible before and the possible applications for learning are truly exciting.

And that's where the debates start.

Some proponents of 'social learning' present the 'certain point of view' that what has been done in the past is no longer relevant, and is being replaced by social learning.  Humans tend to resist change, especially when it is conveyed in a 'What you've been doing is wrong' format. Focusing more on social learning and using social media technology in performance improvement programs is a substantial shift for many learning professionals.  When the message of the shift is packaged with a message of formal training's demise, many people naturally resist.

So here's my two cents on the topic... slightly adapted from a comment I left on Clive Shepherd's blog.

Most learning professionals agree that making learning part of the work (instead of removing people from work for learning) is usually more effective. Advancements in social media technology give us opportunities to exist in the workplace that were previously impossible.  The more we can leverage social media as a tool to make learning as part of the work, the less we need to depend on formal training programs.

That's not a statement against formal training. There is and likely always will be a need for it. Every situation is different, and every performance improvement need should be addressed using the most effective tools for that specific situation.

Keep in mind, this is not the first time we're having this discussion.  It's no different than when computer-based learning first became available. We were wondering then too if it would reduce our reliance on classroom-based training methods - and it did.

In any task, you are always best to use the most appropriate tool for the job. Social media tech has advanced to the point that it is now an excellent tool for learning and performance. Does it replace all other types of training, formal or otherwise? No. Do social media tools occupy an increasingly larger piece of the overall pie? Yes, and that subsequently makes the traditional formal training piece of the pie smaller.

And what I'm telling you here is true... from a certain point of view - mine.  Your point of view may be different, and that's OK.  Hopefully as we continue having these discussions, we can find the common ground.

To me that's the main benefit to discussions like this.  Looking at both sides of an argument gives us all a better understanding and helps us meet somewhere in the middle, in the gray.

I definitely recommend further reading and participation in some of the discussions currently taking place regarding social learning's impact on more traditional learning programs.  Here are a few links to get you started:

The e-Learning Debate: Summer 2011 - in this posting, learning professionals vote and debate on the following motion: The house believes that as social learning grows, so the requirement for traditional training departments shrinks.

Clive Shepherd's blog post: Give Cruella a Chance - Clive Shepherd was one of the speakers participating in the e-Learning Debate mentioned above.  In this blog post, he goes into greater detail about why he is against the motion.

Be sure to check out the comments added on both pages, where the outstanding discussions are taking shape.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Social media has NOT changed how people learn forever... not yet anyway.

Last week’s #lrnchat was about social media and how it has changed the world forever.  That’s very true.  However the first question of the chat keeps coming back to me:

Social media has changed how people learn forever.  What else has it changed forever?

It’s the baseline statement that starts the question that I have issue with: Social media has changed how people learn forever.  The truth is, it hasn’t. 

Don’t get me wrong. I WANT that statement to be true.  On a certain level, I need that statement to be true.  But it’s not, at least not as written.

The statement implies that the change has taken place.  It hasn’t.  Sure, there are organizations that are at the forefront.  They are are doing an amazing job of integrating social media into their learning culture, and are blazing a path that other organizations can follow.  Take a look at this video of Dan Pontefract from TELUS, discussing how they use Social Media in their organization.

Based on that video and what I’ve read of the work being done at TELUS, I’m comfortable with the statement Social media has changed how people learn forever… AT TELUS.  Really though… how many organizations have taken their usage of social media to that level?  I suspect the answer is ‘not nearly enough’.

Lack of Mass Acceptance/Implementation

In the context of how people really learn – socially and as part of their work – social media HAS forever changed the world of learning.  The examples shared in the TELUS video as well as others shared in the book The New Social Learning show this to be true. 

The problem comes when you look at the learning and performance industry as a whole.  Let’s assume every organization has a ‘training’ function. How small is the subset of organizations that are actually aware ‘real learning’ takes place outside of classroom and away from an e-learning course?  The subset gets even smaller when you consider how many of the organizations that realize it are actually implementing a strategy that targets this reality.

The organizations that are effectively utilizing social media in their learning culture are blazing a path.  We still have the challenge of getting the majority of organizations to follow the trail.

Perception is Reality

What is the perception of ‘learning’ to our learners?  I find that many people respond to the way they have been conditioned to respond by their life experiences.  Many expect a classroom; they expect lecture; they expect an ‘event’. 

Since all learning professionals are themselves learners, this perception often extends to how the learning function operates.  Too often, training departments continue to do what they’ve always done, simply because “That’s the way it’s always been done here.”

It takes understanding, commitment, and trust for an organization to break away from what they ‘know’ to try something new.  It’s a cultural change, and it won’t just happen on its own.  More often, it starts with learning professionals who are brave enough to hold up their hand and confidently say “There’s a better way”.

It’s not about ‘Starting a Social Learning Program’

If there’s one message I feel is being shouted from the mountain top of late – because people need to hear it – it’s that Social Learning is NOT new.

I was speaking with a colleague recently who asked “How do I get Social Learning started at my company?”  My response, quite honestly, was “You don’t.”

Social learning is already going on at every organization.  You don’t need to ‘start’ it, and you shouldn’t look to ‘control’ it either.  It’s a matter of fostering it, through environment and tools.  It’s also a matter of getting out of the way.

Consider the TELUS video again.  They didn’t create social learning; they introduced tools that enhanced the sharing and made it easier for more people to get involved. 

Answer the Knock at the Door

In order for that original statement to be true, I think you need to add a word: Social media has changed how people CAN learn forever.

The potential is there, as are examples to the benefits enjoyed by those that have harnessed the potential.  As an industry though, most of the benefits of using social media to enhance social learning is just that: potential.

We need to continue to share examples of how best to use these tools for learning, and continue to move towards mass acceptance and implementation.  Only then will the scales tip.  Only then can we say that Social Media has changed the way people learn forever.

The opportunity has arrived.  Now we just need to help each other open the door.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What's a Twitter Chat?

A number of my blog posts are reflections of twitter chats, such as #lrnchat and #realwplearn chat.  As vibrant a community these chats represent, I sometimes forget that the participants in these chats represent a very small percentage of the overall community of Learning and Development Professionals.

At a recent ASTD Chapter meeting, I was reminded of this fact during a conversation I had with a group of peers.  I was asked where I learned about something and I casually replied "We discussed it during a recent #lrnchat".

I received silence and a few puzzled looks in response.  I added "It's a regular Twitter chat for learning professionals".  Another moment of silence passed, broken finally by a peer who asked "What's a twitter chat?"  I could tell by the looks around the table that everyone else had a similar question percolating in their mind.

If you've ever wanted to know how a twitter chat works, or what tools you can use to participate in a Twitter Chat, then this post is geared towards you.  If not, well, you're here, so feel free to read it anyway.


A Twitter Chat is a group chat that takes place using the social networking service, Twitter. Twitter chat topics and structures can vary.  Most do share the following characteristics:
  • Since they use Twitter, discussions consist of comments of up to 140 characters
  • Many chats are held on regularly scheduled dates and times
  • Chats utilize a dedicated hashtag, so that participants can easily locate and participate in the chat
  • Many chats are loosely moderated and have a set starting topic
  • There is no expectation that participants will review and respond to every single post in the discussion, especially in larger chats

There are a number of ways to participate in Twitter chats, and I'll be sharing different tools later in this posting. Let's first walk through the most basic steps for participating in a chat.  If you already have a Twitter account, you can skip ahead to step 2.
1. Create a Twitter account.  A simple walkthrough of how to do that can be found HERE.

2. Search for the hashtag associated with the chat.  This will filter your view so that only tweets with the chat hashtag are shown.
3. Review the listing of tweets; the most recent will be on top. 
4. To check for new chat posts, refresh your screen or click the 'New Posts' link that appears on screen.

5. To contribute to the discussion, enter your comment into the status fields and click update. 
IMPORTANT: you must include the chat hashtag in your comment in order to ensure other participants will be able to see your post.


There are a number of Twitter tools that can make participating in a chat easier.  Here are two of my favorites:


TweetChat is potentially the best tool for participating in a Twitter Chat, as it provides some functionality geared specifically for live chats:
  • TweetChat automatically filters the Tweet stream, showing only the tweets containing the hashtag for the chat.
  • TweetChat automatically refreshes every 5-10 seconds, keeping you up to date.
  • TweetChat automatically adds the chat hashtag to all of your updates, ensuring you do not forget to do so yourself. 
The one downside I find with TweetChat is that it's performance is not consistent.  There are times that the TweetChat feed seems delayed, which is a major barrier in a live chat.  When TweetChat's feed is performing well, I find it to be the best tool for live Twitter Chats.


TweetDeck is a aggregator that enables users to monitor multiple social media feeds at once, include not only Twitter, but Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and more. Users can set up dedicated columns for specific tools, or specific searches within those tools. 

TweetDeck provides some unique features that can make participating in a Twitter chat easier:
  • You can set up a column in TweetDeck that shows only the tweets from the chat
  • You can simultaneously monitor a 'mentions' column that shows who has mentioned or reached out to you directly during the chat
  • You can easily clear out all messages you have already read, an excellent tool for chats you are participating in sporadically.
TweetDecks columns can be a little overwhelming at first, which is why I recommend starting with only a select few and expanding only after you are comfortable with it. Once you are, TweetDeck can be an invaluable tool for someone that participates in multiple social networks.

There are a great number of additional tools that can be used for Twitter chats. I recommend trying a few and finding the one that you are comfortable with. The value of the chats is in the discussions, not the tools. Find a tool that makes it easier for you to participate.


The best way to learn how to participate in a Twitter chat is quite simply to participate in one. Twitter chats are very much like learning to ride a bike.  You can only learn so much by reading or talking to someone about it. To truly learn how, you need to go out and try it.

One word of caution though: for a newcomer to Twitter Chats, the speed at which they move can seem extremely fast. If you try to read every single message, it may feel like trying to drink from a fire hose. That's a normal reaction.  Much like drinking from a hose, you should start by sipping from the stream.  As you grow more accustomed to the flow, you'll be able to drink more and find the best way to quench your thirst for knowledge and community.

There are three regular chats that I recommend for learning professionals

#lrnchat is a twitter chat for learning professionals that focuses on how people learn, what they learn, and what we’re learning as professionals in the field.  The next #lrnchat sessions are scheduled for Thursday July 7th and Thursday August 5th at 11:30am and 8:30pm (EST).

#RealWPLearn is a twitter chat for all business professionals that focuses on how REAL workplace learning happens: through social, informal, and often serendipitous happenings.  The next #RealWPLearn chats are scheduled for Wednesday July13th and Wednesday August 10th at 3:00pm (EST).

#ASTDCchapters is a twitter chat for learning and performance professionals that focuses on the value and community offered by the American Society for Training and Development and it's local chapters. The next #ASTDChapters chats are scheduled for Wednesday July13th and Wednesday August 10th at 8:30pm (EST).

The #ASTDChapters chat tends to move at a slower pace than the other two, so it may serve as a nice entry point for those new to Twitter chats. I will be one of the moderators for the July 13th chat, during which we are exploring "The Value of ASTD Membership". I invite you to join us and share your thoughts or suggestions on what the value of ASTD and it's chapters is and could be.  I will also be able to provide real-time assistance to those new to Twitter chats.

Once you are able to get comfortable using the tools to participate in Twitter chats, i'm sure you'll find them to be extremely valuable  feel free to reach out to me on twitter (@LnDDave) or in the comments section below if you have any questions.

I hope to see you online during an upcoming Twitter chat!