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Managing Social Learning Initiatives: Top-Down or Grassroots?

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 28 December 2009, 7:45 PM

Recently I spoke with Corinne Cort,  who served as the director of global learning for a leading-edge telecommunications company. She shared with me the following social learning example.

The wireless manufacturer was growing rapidly. As a result, they were hiring software and hardware engineers at an incredible pace. The organization’s formal learning programs could hardly keep up with the rapid development of technology. New engineers typically had two questions:

  • Who within the organization was the expert on topic X or Y?
  • What information do these experts know which might answer my question?

In the old days, these questions would be answered by a formal Knowledge Management system and application. This top-down approach was tried in the 1990s, but it often failed spectacularly because few people invested the time necessary to actually create resource information. In many cases the Knowledge Management system sat empty because people saw it as a detriment to getting “actual work” done. There was an organizational misalignment between the goals of the organization and the goals of the individual.

Now, let’s return to the example of the telecommunications company. Engineers, working in different parts of the company, recognized learning gaps within the organization. They didn’t look for an executive champion to launch a Knowledge Management system. Instead, these engineers went open-source and created wikis around the knowledge gaps.

Wiki pages are simple to set-up and create content (as evidenced by wikipedia). Soon, wiki pages were appearing in various departments throughout the entire organization. These wiki pages represented a bottom-up social learning solution designed by engineers for their peers.

However, these wiki pages also presented a number of challenges:

  • Dispersed: There was no central repository for these wiki pages. They were hosted in different areas, so you had to know about them to find them.
  • Standards and Structure: varied from department to department.
  • Alignment: There may be gaps between the wiki’s content and the organization’s goals.
  • Validation: The content on the wiki page may not have been vetted by organization’s top subject-matter expert in the area.

When Corinne learned about these projects, she encouraged them to come within a common platform and framework. The wiki solution needed to be able to scale to a much larger scale. As a result, people needed to take responsibility for making key decisions about the wiki’s organizations and structure. The bottom-up process evolved into a managed process that still retained many of its peer-to-peer characteristics. However, rules-making and process also slows down the development of social learning content.

Based on her experience, Corrine shares the following wisdom: “Social learning is unavoidable and enables agile knowledge transfer within organizations. But to be most effective, all levels of management must promote, enable and sustain the social learning systems.”

Sometimes an organization needs a top-down social learning solution; however, grassroots social learning solutions will naturally fill gaps when authorized solutions cannot  be (or have not been) developed. A savvy social learning strategy allows for four different models:

  • Rollout of authorized top-down solutions (mentor programs, centralized social learning tools)
  • Creation of grassroots social learning solutions (vibrant ecosystem)
  • Roadmap to transition grassroots social learning solutions into managed processes with structure and accountability
  • Roadmap to transition top-down social learning solutions into community-managed projects with distributed structure and accountability

No single solution will match every organizational need. Therefore, learning managers must manage all four social learning processes.

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