Digital thinking for L&D 101: New ways of collaborating

Posted by on 1 March 2017

Digital learning 101 collaborating

Digital technologies have had a profound effect on how we communicate and collaborate with each other. In the first stage of the internet’s existence, email reduced the time it took to communicate and enabled us to do so with virtually anyone, wherever in the world they were. The second stage of online communication gave us powerful new tools for collaborating and working together. Many of these technologies have been around for a long time. But although the technology on which Wikipedia is based goes back to 1993, it wasn’t until 2001, when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger kicked off Wikipedia as a side project, did the full potential of the technologies become apparent. We are now at a stage where Facebook has 1.86 billion users and claims almost half of the traffic on the internet.

All learning is social

Humans are social; in some ways all learning is social. Engaging with social media has become the dominant way we use the internet in our personal life. Using social learning at work is different to the way we use social media in our personal life. In our personal lives we search for knowledge on Google and ask questions in online communities and share progress on Instagram. We need to think differently about employees’ motivation for using social media at work. In our personal lives we connect with friends and family and often make discoveries about what they’re passionate about. In our workplaces not everyone is as passionate and our sense of connection is not always as important – only a small percentage of people actually publish and share, and so the effect is more pronounced.

Work is often more task focused, which means the use of social technologies in the workplace needs to be more focused on activities such as collaborative question and answer forums.

Another aspect of this is that if your employees are not passionate and curious then there are culture changes that you need to address. If you're working in a highly structured and controlling culture merely adding social learning is going be challenging. You’ll need to work on cultural change at the same time.  

Think about digital workplaces, not social learning

A useful frame is not to think about ‘social learning’ but instead ‘social working’ or ‘digital workplaces’. This means putting in place new forms of working together and collaborating. (The term ‘digital workplace’ was once common in intranet design and redesign.)

Working together on a document in Google Docs offers a more collaborative experience than reviewing drafts of Word documents. Virtual meeting tools are a powerful combination of chat, audio and video. A simple tool such as the shared whiteboard in a virtual meeting changes how a brainstorming session can be run. Everyone can add notes to the whiteboard, and what they add is not filtered by the facilitator. If you want to make something really interactive, transform it into a collaborative activity between employees.

Online presence

Online chat is not a new technology, though newer group-based chat tools like Slack have changed the way many businesses work. It’s actually quite simple but the interface is done extremely well and it solves many of the past problems with group chats. We use Slack at Sprout Labs and it’s our most powerful collaboration tool. We have people based in three different cities, and Slack provides us with an open stream of conversation all the time. I almost can't remember the last time I sent an email message to the team. What is great about Slack is that it makes online communication feel intimate and personal.  

A content-free course

In face-to-face training, there are many topics where it's just a matter of the facilitator asking a group the right questions to start off a conversation, and then guiding the participants to explore a topic. In digital learning, there is a similar approach that at Sprout Labs we call a ‘content-free course’. The idea with this approach is that a facilitator hosts an online conversation in a  discussion board or virtual classroom. The process starts with a conversation ‘spark’ that might be a challenging problem, scenario or an engaging question.

The facilitator then does the same thing they would in a face-to-face setting, asking questions, telling stories, supporting people and trying to engage those who aren’t participating. Sometimes one of the obstacles to digital learning is the difficult concepts that need to be discussed and debated. This is where social learning can be powerful.  

Often when organisations get started with social learning can they focus on the platform and the governance and guidelines. For social learning to work it needs to be designed and structured.

Questions and ideas to spark new thinking about collaboration

  1. What would happen if your intranet was managed with a social platform instead of a content management system?

  2. How can collaboration be embedded in day-to-day processes?

  3. How can sharing learning be embedded in day-to-day activities? Could your teams report each week on what they learn? Could each team member do a short update every day about what they learned?

  4. Instead of running a learning program could you run a collaboration program? How could you use these technologies?

  1. Sometimes learning programs offer solutions to a knowledge-sharing problem. How could you use social learning to increase knowledge sharing?

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