Creating Safer Peer-to-Peer Learning Experiences

As a learning and development professional you are probably always on the lookout for ways to create more value – particularly for any ideas that don’t take a lifetime to develop and cost the Earth! But not all learning solutions of value need come at a great investment.

The most powerful – and least leveraged – learning solution is peer-to-peer learning. Workers learn more from mentors, coaches, peers, and members of their professional networks than from any other source. Recent advancements in social media make it possible for you to take peer-to-peer learning to a new level with a surprisingly low commitment in terms of time and money.

Is it safe to use social media for learning?

Is peer-to-peer learning safe? A major concern or fear expressed by business leaders is that widespread and facilitated peer-to-peer learning will create an unusable mess of low-quality and inaccurate exchanges and content. Business leaders typically demand that all training content must be reviewed, approved, or tested before it is published and delivered. No wonder employees often receive too little training, too late.

Are learning professionals suffering from a “one size fits all” content quality policy? What sort of training situations must have high quality content in the first instance? The answer is any situation where there is no room for error. We expect and need our surgeons, nuclear power engineers, and police officers to go through high quality learning programs. Otherwise we might see a rise in wrongful death or injury, legal battles, and other severe consequences. The point is that only some training situations require high quality content in the first instance.

Is the concern about content quality in a peer-to-peer learning system legitimate? What are the chances that some employees will pick up and follow an incorrect approach suggested by another employee, and that this would result in a wrongful death or injury, or a legal battle?

Guess what? This already happens today when employees provide inferior advice and suggest inaccurate methods of working, through e-mail correspondence, phone calls, and face-to-face discussions. There are no controls in place to ensure that employees share only high quality, approved, and relevant content in an e-mail, phone call, or face-to-face discussion. The good news is that social media will bring many discussions and content exchanges, good and bad, to the surface where the information in those exchanges can be seen and appropriately addressed. Good social media policies will help contain corporate risk and liabilities. And an appropriate mix of content quality control points will help identify and remove low quality content. Tools and methods are available to help create safer peer-to-peer learning solutions.

Want to know more?  Read my article on Learning Solutions Magazine: learning solutions

Selecting the Best Targets for Social Learning

Will we make social (or peer-to-peer) learning worse by creating incentives for community managers and members that are based exclusively on activity targets such as the following?

  • number of downloads, views and hits
  • average ratings
  • number of contributions (or uploads)

There is a systematic relationship among purpose, methods, and measures.  Imposing only activity targets (or measures) into the social learning ecosystem will create a de-facto purpose and constrain the methods of learning.  Such contingent metrics (i.e., if you do this you will get that) will shift the focus from the higher purpose of social learning (i.e., how do I do learn more and perform better and help others to learn more and perform better?) to surpassing previously achieved activity metrics (i.e., how do I survive in a social learning system?).

An obsession on activity targets will always increase costs and create more waste.  Such a focus is detrimental to content quality, community motivation, and community attitudes.   The community will focus on the incentives from achieving activity targets (or the rewards) rather than on improving how they learn, collaborate, and network.

Imposed activity targets will manipulate and often destroy collaboration, blindly promote a single and arbitrary purpose, deter risk taking, and reduce creativity.

A better approach is to derive targets from the purpose of the “learning ecosystem” according to the point of view of community managers and members.  Put the targets (or measures) in the hands of the people managing and participating in the learning ecosystem and you will see increased creativity and innovation, and a step change in the level of success.

Remember to also think about how to intrinsically motivate the community.  Permit community autonomy, create a shared sense of community purpose, and create confidence in the role of the community towards helping people to achieve mastery and success.

I recently viewed a recorded lecture from John Seddon that has greatly influenced my thinking about the role of activity targets in a social learning ecosystem.  The lecture is one hour in duration and it is focused on the organizational system rather than on a social learning system.  I believe many of John’s observations and findings relate to the social learning ecosystem and I encourage you to view his video.

John Seddon Video

Learning to Change – Changing to Learn

Watch this video on YouTube from May 2008 because the messages are still spot on.  Although the video focuses on the educational system (Kindergarten through 12th grade), several of the messages are relevant to corporations and professional enterprises.

There are a few concepts and ideas presented in this video that really grabbed my attention – such as:

  • Learners are effective content developers and ommunicators
  • Learning is about relationships, communites, connectivity, and access
  • Learners are living in a “nearly now” space where they no longer have to wait ages to get the content and discussion they need today – and where they have more opportunities to reflect, research, and test new ideas without the same pressures experienced in traditional learning systems
  • It’s about providing the best quality trainers and experts to learners no matter where they live and work
  • We have a classroom system when we could have a community system
  • The vending machine approach to training will not prepare people for the workplace
  • Learning is not about memorizing facts – it is about being able to find, validate, synthesize, leverage, communicate, collaborate, and problem solve with the facts, ideas, and concepts

What are your thoughts?

Key Social Learning Roles

Premise:  Learning communities or networks thrive because its members possess certain skills and capabilities.  Community members should be able to perform one or more of the five roles described in the table that follows.

The road ahead:  I am presently developing detailed role descriptions, community guidelines, role assessment tools, and the identification of appropriate learning products and offerings.  Please share your comments and ideas to guide me through my next steps.

Role Role Description Key Skills and Capabilities
Consumer The person who looks for and uses content, information, and social connections.
  • Self Directed: Able to identify and pursue learning needs without too much formal structure and rigor.
  • Media Savvy:  Able to use social media in a natural way.
  • Insightful: Able to filter meaningful information, patterns, and commonalities from multiple streams of data.
  • Group Oriented: Able to build collaborative networks and leverage the collective intelligence.
Creator The person who creates, shares, improves, and discusses content and information.
  • Attentive: Able to respond to requests and to reach out to others in a meaningful and timely manner.
  • Designer: Able to format and package ideas and information logically, concisely, and understandably.
  • Researcher: Able to augment and enhance the ideas, stories, and information created and shared by others.
Connector The person who helps others to find the content, information, and people they seek or need.
  • Broker:  Able to persuade others to collaborate.
  • Conductor: Able to simultaneously coordinate with many people.
  • Switched On: Able to understand the political dynamics and cultural values in various communities and networks.
  • Networker: Able to form and sustain networked relationships.
Carrier The person who helps creators to transmit and promote their content and information to others.
  • Communicator:  Able to transmit an idea, story, or information into a variety of viewpoints and perspectives.  
  • Trend Spotter:  Able to notice new and emerging ideas that deserve mass awareness and adoption.
  • Marketer:  Able to select and use media and channels for promoting content and information to a target audience.
Caretaker The person who manages the learning community.
  • Ambassador:  Able to represent the community and portray its goals, purpose, and policies.
  • Advocate: Able to intercede and act as a mediator on behalf of a community or an individual member.
  • Cultivator: Able to put into motion and institutionalize community values, policies, procedures, and practices.

Creating Value From Social Learning

Social Learning — namely, the use of social media in the workplace to foster learning, collaboration, networking, knowledge sharing, and communications — has taken on a kind of religious fervor among learning practitioners during the past couple years.  And not without good reason: It often creates more powerful and enduring learning experiences; it helps people establish and leverage social connections to accelerate the distribution and sharing of experiences, content and guidance; and it allows learners to be more productive, learn faster and work smarter.

One of the reasons many learning and development professionals are struggling to secure budget and resources for their social learning proposals is the inability to articulate the value proposition.  What does “good” look like and what are the influencers that create this “goodness”?

Does it all add up? Value Creation from social learning is more likely to take place when the business context and the learning ecosystem are “optimal.”

Read my article on the enterprise collaborative website: creating value from social learning

Verifying Virtual Value

“Learning via social networks and other Web 2.0 tools is anything but formal. Yet, when it comes to measuring its value, a structured approach should still apply. How can learning leaders assess whether the benefits live up to the hype?” – CLO Magazine March 2010 Issue.

I co-wrote an article with Craig Mindrum about verifying the virtual value of networked learning.

The article begins with this introduction:

“Networked learning — namely, the use of social media in the workplace — has taken on a kind of religious fervor among learning practitioners during the past couple years. And not without good reason: It often creates more powerful and enduring learning experiences; it helps people establish and leverage social connections to accelerate the distribution and sharing of experiences, content and guidance; and it allows learners to be more productive, learn faster and work smarter.

At this time, however, the enthusiasm for networked learning isn’t necessarily shared by everyone. This creates a gap between believers and nonbelievers — or, perhaps more accurately, between believers and those who still need some convincing.

On one side of the fence are those who have witnessed the transformative power of networked learning — its ability to enable faster and better knowledge sharing and more effective decision making and problem solving, as well as a substantial reduction in error rates and learning costs. On the other side of the fence are those looking for a clear business case and return on investment (ROI) — some assurance that it definitively impacts the business.”

Here is a link to the article:  Verifying Virtual Value (article in CLO Magazine March 2010 Issue)

Please let me and my blog readers know if you have successfully measured the value of networked learning or whether you are planning to try and measure the value.  We would also appreciate knowing if there are other good articles, white papers, or presentations on the subject.

Do We Need Sweeter Carrots and Sharper Sticks?

Learning or professional communities are “healthy” and beneficial to the organization when its members are intrinsically motivated to participate and contribute. Members of a learning community must have a desire to network, collaborate, and share information or the community will not thrive and will not drive business value. What will intrinsically motivate community members? Which types of rewards are cost-effective?

When I talk with organizational leaders about creating healthy learning communities I am often asked “how do we motivate and make them participate and contribute?”

One fundamental problem with this type of discussion is the notion that there is an “us” and there is a “them.” This position assumes that “we’ are better than “them” and “we” must force “them” or make “them” participate and contribute in the learning community. “They” do not understand what to do or “they” are too selfish to contribute, share, and help other community members.

The organizational leaders I speak to often suggest different ways to incentivize community members like the provision of gift points and other little presents to motivate them. What about the old adage “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink?” Do you believe we are able to “make” learning community members participate and contribute through a “carrot and stick” strategy? Are rewards and punishment schemes affordable and sustainable?

Some research findings and “experts” suggest that rewarding community members for meeting networking, collaboration, and information sharing targets (or punishing them for failing to meet such targets) is detrimental to quality, motivation, and attitudes. The main argument is that a rewards and punishment scheme is manipulative and will often destroy collaboration, blindly promote a single solution, deter risk taking, and reduce creativity.

Watch this 19 minute “Ted” presentation of Dan Pink who believes that we are punished by rewards.

Dan Pink

Dan presents a case to prove that contingent motivators (i.e., “if you do this then you get that”) will work for tasks that are mechanical, routine, rule-based, and that are organized around a clear destination or outcome. Contingent motivators will not work, according to Dan, and often cause harm when applied to cognitive tasks that require creativity, the resolution of complex and novel issues, and where the final destination or result is unclear. Rewards and punishment will narrow our focus, concentrate the mind, and lead to poorer performance. Rewards and punishment are detrimental for work tasks that lack a pre-defined and clear destination or solution, or a pre-defined and clear path to the destination or solution.

Dan claims that this is one of the most robust findings in social science and one that is often ignored by business leaders. In other words, there is a mismatch between what the science knows and what the business does.

What should we do if we want to intrinsically motivate and encourage members of a learning or professional community to participate or contribute? What else can we do besides roll out a rewards and punishment scheme?

Dan says that a new operating model is required and that we should not look for sweeter carrots or sharper sticks. He says that we should look at different building blocks: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is an urge to direct our own work. Mastery is a desire to get better and better at something that matters to us.  And purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Autonomy: Managing and governing a learning community is good if you want compliance. Autonomy is better if you want engagement. One way to intrinsically motivate your learning community members and to achieve higher levels of community engagement is to permit the members to have more responsibility over their governance. Another way is to allow the community members to decide what information to share. Do not create and assign targets for members to fill up defined subject areas with content. Allow community members to network, collaborate, and share information on anything that they want.

Mastery: What about mastery? Do community members believe that the community matters to them? Do organizational leaders want community members to have a stronger affiliation to their community than to their formal hierarchy? Do community members believe that community networking, collaboration, and information sharing will lead to higher performance and success on the job? One way to intrinsically motivate community members towards mastery is to help them become better community connectors and carriers. Not every community member needs to be only a content expert or contributor. Effective learning communities need only 10% of the members to regularly make content contributions. Learning communities will also matter to more members if there are enough helpful connectors and carriers. It’s not all about content. Especially in environments where there is a lot of change, the work is complex and the solutions must be novel and surprising, and where collaboration is critical to success.

Purpose: Learning communities will fail if too few content experts have a sense of purpose or a yearning to share their expertise in the service of their community. Many content experts try to hold on to their power and job security by making sure people have no other option but to come to them for answers and advice. Why would content experts want to store their expertise on the “system” in the form of a podcast, knowledge document, blog, or discussion thread? Most people are not that altruistic and would not willingly sacrifice their career in order to help their learning community. Content experts might have a stronger sense of purpose after contributing to their community if it helps them become a more valuable employee. Content experts who share their expertise more widely and more efficiently will likely receive more feedback and ideas from more people. This might help content experts to more quickly and more effectively shape, grow, and refine their expertise. The content experts would also grow and improve their networks making it easier for them to more quickly and more effectively test new ideas, find new ideas, and share new ideas. A “smarter” and more “connected” individual is a valuable asset to most organizations. Sharing ones expertise might be a purpose worth pursuing.

Rather than simply providing monetary gifts so that community members focus and concentrate on narrow targets such as sharing a certain number of podcasts or knowledge documents during each quarter, we need to explore new ways of intrinsically motivating learning community members using building blocks such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Please let me know how you believe we should encourage and motivate members of a learning community.