Can Facebook make you a better learner?

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A study published in December 2008 by global think tank, the Human Capital Institute (HCI), revealed that over half of all organizations are experimenting with communities of practice for business purposes, along with other popular applications such as social networks (49%), blogs and/or wikis (39%). 

According to the third annual Deloitte LLP Ethics & Workplace survey published earlier this year, 60% of business executives believe they have a right to know how employees portray themselves and their organizations in online social networks and 74% believe social networks make it easier to damage a company's reputation. However, 53% of employees (and 63% of 18 to 34 year olds) say their social networking pages are not an employer's concern.

Facebook and Twitter - L&D's allies?

"With the growth of online social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, blurring the lines between professional and private lives, these virtual communities have increased the potential of reputational risk for many organizations and their brands", says Sharon Allen, chairman of the board at Deloitte LLP. "This reinforces how vulnerable brands are as a result of the increased use of social networks. As business leaders, we must continue to foster solid values-based cultures that encourage employees to behave ethically regardless of the venue."

A different perspective on this issue came from a recent study by the University of Melbourne, which suggests that using Facebook or Twitter at work makes you a more productive worker. The study showed that people who use the Internet for personal reasons at work are some 9% more productive that those who do not.

The study's author, Brent Coker noted that ‘workplace Internet leisure browsing’ (WILB), helps to sharpened workers' concentration: "People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration", he explains. "Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the Internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days' work, and as a result, increased productivity."

According to the study of 300 workers, 70% of people who use the Internet at work engage in WILB. "Firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos, using social networking sites or shopping online under the pretence that it costs millions in lost productivity. That's not always the case", adds Coker.

The case for social media

While opinions differ on the value of using social networking for business purposes, there is general agreement that, to be successful, organizations must adapt to new, shifting business dynamics. Information cycles are shorter now; globalization offers new markets and the economic downturn has challenged business leaders to develop and retain top talent while reducing budgets and workforces. Moreover, employees are increasingly mobile and geographically dispersed - and they are operating within flatter managerial hierarchies. 

U.S.-based Knowledge Infusion analyst Jason Corsello has a different perspective on the issue: “Companies are finding that they can’t operate in silos", he says. "This is pushing them to adopt more collaborative, team-based structures - ones that are more about the performance of the team rather than the individual.”

These changing business dynamics are forcing HR leaders to re-evaluate the way they foster high-performance cultures, address skills gaps, retain top performers and develop leadership pipelines. In turn, this is driving the evolution of human capital management software, with enterprise social networking and collaboration tools now integrating into talent management platforms.

Traditional learning methods are not going away but there is an opportunity for trainers to become sources of knowledge transfer – rather than simply course providers – by extending their LMS’s components to include collaborative, social learning. While unstructured and informal learning happens all the time, organizations that take a more active approach in fostering it with the right tools and forums can start to account for it and, in some ways, track and follow it.

Extending beyond traditional HR and talent management, more companies are creating strategies to serve external audiences of customers, partners and channels. Organizations engaging their customer networks to discuss and get input on products and services, have an invaluable opportunity to build lasting relationships with those customers – even treating customers as part of the organization’s ‘team’. 

The importance of community

Many organizations are already serving customers though custom portals, but collaboration tools provide opportunities to enhance self-service support. This includes building communities to share documentation and provide immediate access to materials that customers need – which can help to reduce support calls.

Talent management system producer Cornerstone OnDemand recently launched a client portal that acts as a virtual, 24x7 user group, allowing clients to interact with others, as well as with product experts; ask questions; share best practices, and learn more about products and services. Clients create their own user profiles, making it easier to network with peers who have similar interests. Client-authored blogs provide learning and talent management insight.  Product suggestion forums allow users to drive product enhancements - and a fully searchable Q&A and wiki offer immediate answers to product and talent management questions.

“Social networks should be embedded with other applications, not be kept separate,” says Bersin & Associates analyst Leighanne Levensaler. And Adam Miller, Cornerstone OnDemand’s CEO, observes: “Ultimately, the point is to embed user-generated content with traditional data. It is taking organizational data that everyone uses and meshing it with user-generated content to give you a holistic picture when making decisions about your talent as well as your business.”

What are your experiences of social networking being part of the informal learning mix? We welcome your comments.


For over 20 years, Bob Little ( has specialized in writing about, and commentating on, corporate learning – especially e-learning – and technology-related subjects. His work has been published in the UK, Continental Europe, the USA, Singapore and Australia.  He blogs at

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