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Don KerstingDon Kersting manages learning technologies for a major health care institution in Dallas, Texas. He tells the story of a nurse education manager whom he was trying to convince that the benefits of social learning outweighed its risks. Kersting had just completed a three-month pilot program in which several departments at his organization tested a new collaboration system, and he figured he’d show her a real-life scenario.

During the pilot, a nurse had used the system to share her own idea of how to perform a certain procedure. Kersting says he saw the education manager bristle because she knew of a better way to accomplish the same procedure. That’s a natural reaction, he says. “Our employees just want to take care of people, and understandably, they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing.”

But then Kersting showed her what happened next. “You see an amazing sociological experiment occurring – that people will naturally correct others.” It was almost instantaneous, he says, that other group members posted improved versions of the original procedure – which, though not incorrect or dangerous in any way, hadn’t been a best practice. The nurse who’d shared the original procedure thanked the others for showing her better ways to do it.

“What we’d done,” Kersting says, “was take a procedure that was already in use and improved it not only for that one person but for the 50 other members of that group – and it took a fraction of the time it normally takes to train someone.” A best practice had quickly surfaced. “Would this have occurred as efficiently without social learning? In my mind, the answer is no.”

A pilot program for social learning

“People see the word ‘social’ in social learning and attach their experiences with social media to it”

Kersting’s organization, with a staff of 20,000 employees, provides a full range of in-patient, out-patient, rehabilitation, and emergency medical services. For over a century, it’s been based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and now serves about 1.4 million patients every year. Despite its long history, the organization is forward-looking when it comes to improving patient care and the skills of its staff. As part of his role, Kersting had been tasked with looking at next steps in educational technology. In his research, he’d discovered how social learning had benefited other large companies, and that provided the impetus to spearhead a pilot program at his own organization.

250 employees in five different departments were invited to the pilot, and within three months, they’d shared 600 pieces of content that were consumed 10,000 times. One group that participated – the team that oversaw electronic health records, which can involve dozens of different software platforms – was able to share screen captures to quickly train team members on slight changes in new versions of the software.

Another group included was the team that oversaw the time-clock system. In the past, they’d spent hours answering the same questions over and over on how to use it. During the pilot, they used a cell-phone camera to record and share brief videos of an expert using a dummy clock – not only saving the team hours of answering questions, but also empowering employees to find answers themselves, right when they needed them.

Maneuvering around social barriers

If your organization is thinking about implementing social learning, Kersting sees a number of ways you can learn from his experience. Barriers, he says, can reach all the way from the top of the organization down to the department and individual.

Barrier 1: Organization-wide culture

Many organizations have a culture that doesn’t support social tools or collaborative learning, Kersting says. The idea of learning may be mired in a context of mandatory training – in which, for instance, you have 60 days to complete an e-learning course, and if you don’t, you face disciplinary action. “That style of learning is for legal purposes only – not for the benefit of employees.” The legal team may just be motivated to check off a box that says “We trained everyone on safety” so it can be used as a defense against potential litigation.

If that’s the case at your organization, one way to promote the benefits of social learning is to talk about numbers and ROI. Kersting says that when he showed department leaders exactly how much they’d save over the costs of traditional e-learning and classroom training, they couldn’t disagree. Another benefit, he says, is that employees feel more engaged, since people tend to be happier when they’re connected to a group. “If you get a one or two-percent increase in employee engagement, that can increase retention by an equivalent amount – and in a big company it might be worth millions.”

Barrier 2: Department-specific concerns

“Anticipate what questions they’re going to ask and have answers ready”

Traditional corporate areas will also have their own department-specific concerns, Kersting says. “You’ll need to anticipate what questions they’re going to ask and have answers ready.”

The human resources team might ask how easy it is to add accounts for new employees. They may want to know if employees who are terminated still have access after they leave – and how to ensure that doesn’t happen. Legal, on the other hand, may be concerned about employees posting something inappropriate or incorrect: Will there be an admin that monitors posts, and is there a way to run reports on who has shared what? The IT department might ask whether the platform is secure and if files that employees post are backed up. They may also want to make sure it’s easy for users to log in via single-sign-on and that it’s not a bandwidth hog that hampers the ability of people to do work.

Kersting looked for an advocate within each group before he formally pitched the idea to that group. “I would try to find someone who I’d worked with before – or was very collaborative or a big social media user.” And when he did talk to each group, he tried to communicate that he himself was the one taking responsibility for the risk. “I owned it, and if it failed, it was my problem, and not that department’s problem.”

Barrier 3: Individual perceptions

In the end, people’s own preconceived notions may be the biggest barrier, Kersting says. “People see the word ‘social’ in social learning and attach their experiences with social media to it.” Employees might be biased against social learning simply because their children have had negative experiences on Facebook or Twitter. Managers may perceive an internal collaboration system as a potential source of time-wasting – where employees surf pictures of their co-workers and their weekend activities. Those individual notions can influence decisions at the organizational level or even lead to a company-wide ban on the use of social media.

To combat these perceptions, Kersting highlighted communication technologies in the workforce that have become widely accepted. When the telephone was introduced, Kersting suggests that the fear was that people would sit in their office and call their relatives across the globe for hours – not only losing productivity but racking up a huge phone bill. With email, the possibility loomed of using it to send profanity-laced messages to the entire organization. Employees still have the same ability to use telephones and email to waste time and money, but most do not – because they’ve become familiar with what the standards are. “If we’re comfortable with the phone and email, why wouldn’t we expect to become comfortable with social technology?” During the pilot, Kersting says, “We didn’t have a single negative incident.”

Risk versus reward

The benefits of social learning greatly outweigh its risks, Kersting maintains, as with many other things in life. “My wife and I were taking a road trip, travelling down a two-lane highway at 80 miles an hour. Other cars were coming towards us at the same speed – and the only thing that separated us was those little yellow dashes. I said, is it crazy to think that we’re okay with this?”

Just like governments aren’t going to do away with all roads – and their many advantages – just because accidents might happen, Kersting says organizations need to be okay with an acceptable level of risk if they want to reap the benefits of social learning. “If you could put a dollar figure on the amount of knowledge in your employees’ heads, what would it be? The improvements in savings, productivity, retention, and engagement will far outweigh any negative consequences.”

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