7 steps to creating a social learning community

The benefits of social learning

The potential for social media to transform how we learn at work has captured the imagination of L&D departments across the world, and with good reason.  Organisations who embrace a more open and social learning culture are reporting significant increases in productivity, efficiency and speed-to-competence of new joiners and movers.  However, social learning requires a leap of faith on the part of L&D practitioners. We need to move away from the traditional ‘command and control’ approach to the provision of learning and instead put greater emphasis on discussion, inquiry and knowledge sharing.

So what are the key benefits of social learning? Here are just a few:

  • It helps dispersed learners in global organisations to network and share experiences
  • It provides access to a wealth of user-generated and curated resources
  • It supports communities of practice and inquiry
  • It’s scalable: colleagues from across the world can connect, question and share
  • It’s trackable: organisations can measure activity and ROI
  • It’s cost-effective: secure corporate social networks come at a minimal cost per user
  • It’s social! So reduces feelings of isolation associated with self-directed learning

7 steps to social learning success

Now that’s all well and good, I hear you say, but how can we make this happen? What will motivate our time-poor colleagues to share their knowledge and expertise? This is an important consideration as lack of participation is arguably the number one reason why work-based social initiatives fail. To help you implement a buzzing social learning platform which colleagues enjoy using on a daily basis, try following these 7-steps…

  1. Define needs and goals. Are you looking for an enterprise-wide system where colleagues can post questions and answers on any topic? Or are you looking to support collaboration and knowledge sharing within a targeted group (e.g. new starters or managers)? Think about what you want to achieve and set some realistic success measures.
  2. Choose the right platform. People have high expectations of social networks, based on their experience of using services like Facebook and LinkedIn. So make sure you choose a platform that’s easy to use and offers the functionality (e.g. community areas, leader board, rate & review and curation tools) to meet your needs. To test the water, run a ‘pilot’ project with a relatively small group of users before rolling out the platform to the rest of the organisation.
  3. Identify your social ‘champions’. The ultimate goal of social learning is to create a self-sustaining community where learners are motivated to share their insights, observations and expertise. But people can be shy about getting involved at first, so it’s good to identify a few champions who can stimulate activity in the early days and inspire others to participate. Ask your best champions to become ‘curators’ i.e. contributors who post links to interesting new content and answer questions on an on-going basis.
  4. Promote the platform. Use all your communications channels (email, newsletters, face-to-face events, posters etc.) to promote the platform and notify learners when new content is available. People pay attention to leaders, so ask senior managers to endorse the platform and encourage their teams to get involved.
  5. Set clear goals. Make sure your community understands the purpose of the initiative and the value of sharing questions, answers and links to relevant materials.
  6. Reward participation. Give your best contributors positive feedback and recognise their achievements in performance reviews. As noted earlier, the main reason why social initiatives founder is due to lack of participation. So give the community the chance to express itself freely and take a light-touch approach to moderation. Remember that the vast majority of colleagues will use work-based social media responsibly, so don’t stifle the initiative with too many rules and regulations at the start.
  7. Get feedback and refine your strategy. Social learning is a continuous and evolving process. Once your platform is up-and-running it’s important to get feedback from learners and identify ways to improve the service.

How it works in practice

Social learning initiatives tend to work best when targeted at a group with a shared set of needs and interests. So for example, giving graduate trainees a dedicated space where they can post questions, network with one another, and share their experiences is an increasingly popular application of social learning in big organisations. Here are some other examples of social learning in action.

  • Sales teams – sales teams are often dispersed, finding it hard to meet in person. A social platform can be used as a ‘hub’ which provides access to product news, core learning materials and allows reps to share ‘war stories’, best practice tips and client feedback. Gamifying the platform with points, a leaderboard and badges can be a good way to motivate learners and encourage some friendly competition.
  • Induction – social learning is perfect for induction as it helps engage, creates a sense of community, and provides new starters with a tool that matches their expectations of how they interact with social technology in their daily lives. It also provides a ‘safe place’ where ideas can be tested and questions asked away from day-to-day working pressures.
  • Management capability – Management capability can be aligned and supported with a community of practice. In addition to learning and toolkit access, new ideas and ways of working can be shared and feedback gathered from dispersed teams. Managers can pull in relevant industry information and market developments to share amongst their community.
  • Healthcare – Healthcare professionals at all levels (consultants, nurses, clinicians) can come together and share around a particular specialty area to work in conjunction with other learning CPD initiatives and enhance the growing importance of team learning in this sector.

People have always learned from one another, as asking for help from peers and experts is the obvious way to boost our ability to complete any given task. So social learning is not a new phenomenon. What’s changed is that we can now facilitate this process on a massive scale via social networking technologies. This is why many organisations now include a ‘social’ element in their learning and change programmes as a matter of course.

This article is an extract from the Total Learning System whitepaper, which was first published on the Brightwave website.


Top 5 curation tools for corporate learning

The following article was first included in a Brightwave white paper, Curation: content and tools to support continuous learning.

There are literally hundreds of freely available curation tools on the web, so which one is right for you? When choosing a curation tool for corporate learning, consider these questions:

  • What’s your topic? Focus on a subject that’s important to your organisation and meets a learning need.
  • Who is your audience? Are you happy to share curated content with the world? Or do you need a private space for trusted colleagues?
  • Are you sharing or broadcasting? Are you the voice of authority on a specialist subject? Or do you want your audience to take part in the conversation? Decide on whether you need a closed or collaborative learning space.

Here’s a roundup of some of our favourite web-based curation tools. All of these are free to use (but some services offer premium features for a fee) so why not try them out and make up your own mind?

1. Storify

Storify is a “social media curation and publishing platform” which works in a similar way to blogging sites like WordPress and Blogger. Within minutes of signing up to the site we’d published our first ‘story’ (on the Data Protection Act) with a mix of curated and original content. Storify’s powerful search tools combined with the ability to contextualise each story make this a great platform for fostering a community of interest around a specific topic. And if you want to keep your stories and conversations out of public view, sign up to Storify Business so that colleagues can access your site via a secure link.


2. Paper.li

Paper.li automatically finds and promotes articles, photos, videos from your chosen subject area in an online newspaper format. For example, you could start a weekly paper about your business sector to keep colleagues up to date with market trends and expert views. All you have to do is search for the sources you want Paper.li to grab from and define the frequency and update times for your paper. So if you’re looking for automatic aggregation of news stories on a particular subject, Paper.li could be the perfect choice.


3. Scoop.it

Scoop.it lets you edit and publish curated content in an engaging magazine format. A great feature of this service is the Scoop.it bookmarklet, which lets you publish interesting content directly from your browser to the magazine at the click of a button. The Pro and Business versions of this platform also offer analytics packages to help you grow and measure your audience.


4. Pinterest

Pinterest, “a content sharing service that allows members to ‘pin’ images, videos and other objects to their pinboard”, took the web by storm after its launch a few years ago. With its modern and immersive layout, Pinterest is designed to help you discover and explore new visual content. This is a fantastic space to showcase inspirational design work, but, because of its focus on the visual, is less well suited to more structured learning initiatives.


5. BagTheWeb

Like Storify, BagTheWeb lets you quickly and easily curate web content on any topic. A great feature of this site is that you can build networks of related content by linking to other users’ ‘bags’, thereby providing a rich and comprehensive route through your chosen subject area. This site has a strong focus on teaching and learning which makes it attractive to education and L&D professionals.


Download the complete white paper here: Curation: content and tools to support continuous learning

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Power Up! Game-based learning white paper

This is the opening to a white paper on game-based learning I’ve written which you can download here.

 “A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” – Jesse Schell, Professor of Game Design at Carnegie Mellon University

“Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” – Albert Einstein

In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in using video game techniques (or ‘gamification’) to make non-game applications more fun and engaging. Gaming strategies can now be seen in a wide range of contexts including business (gamified marketing campaigns and loyalty programmes), health (the gamification of fitness through programmes like Wii Fit and Nike+), government (the application of ‘nudge’ tactics and behavioural economics) and the military (war games and simulations). So whether you enjoy playing games or not, it’s important to understand how they’re shaping the world we live in.

The concept of game-based learning is not new. Effective teachers and instructors have always understood the power of games to motivate and inspire. From using chess to develop strategic thinking; Backgammon and Monopoly for mental arithmetic; Scrabble for spelling and vocabulary; to sophisticated driving and flight simulators – games make learning fun. The buzz word of the moment – ‘gamification’ – has simply reactivated interest in how games can increase learner engagement and influence behaviours.

In this white paper we’ll look at how game-based techniques can energise online learning programmes. Throughout the paper we’ll provide examples of game-based learning that has made a positive, measurable impact. Some techniques (such as immersive 3D virtual environments) require substantial levels of investment, while others can be produced quickly and cost-effectively with just a little imagination, planning and game-based thinking. If you’re interested in gamifying the provision of learning in your organisation, this white paper will give you some useful food for thought.

Easy to understand and remember

In the same way that the novel defined 19th century culture, and cinema was the dominant art form of the last century, video games are the most influential medium of our time. And what do all three media tap into? The human fascination with stories, characters and goals.

Many online learning courses fail to engage because they transmit too much information in an uninvolving and decontextualised way, i.e. screen after screen of dense text, diagrams and bullet points. So why not take a lesson from game designers and reimagine your training course using a compelling story? As well as being more fun and engaging, research shows that stories are much easier to remember than text and bulleted lists. Let’s take a look at some examples…

Download the full Power Up! white paper now.

The Age of Mobile: work-based m-learning

I wrote a white paper about mobile learning for Brightwave recently, which is designed to answer the following common questions:

  • What are the benefits of m-learning?
  • What does effective m-learning look like?
  • What technology is required?
  • What are the cost factors?

You can download the full paper from the Brightwave website. Here’s a short sample…

Over 70% of the world’s population now have a mobile phone and by 2014 mobile internet is set to overtake desktop internet usage. As Bob Dylan rightly observed:“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, but let’s give you a quick update on the forecast for m-learning. Recent research from the eLearning Guild shows that m-learning implementation plans are growing significantly year-on-year, with 65.7% of respondents planning to do more m-learning in 2012. 

So why is m-learning becoming so important to organisations?

We believe the opportunities offered by m-learning are immense, in terms of providing learning at-the-point-of-need and by taking advantage of functionality (e.g. camera, GPS, Augmented Reality and social media integration) which cannot be matched by desktop computers. By providing content via the broadest range of channels, organisations are also able to connect with more staff than ever before and accelerate time-to-competence. M-learning also ties in with a shift away from formal courses to just-in-time performance support which embeds learning in the workflow.

Download the white paper now.

E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace

The following post was first published on the Brightwave website.

Brightwave’s recently published green paper, E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace, provides a fresh take on blended learning and emphasises the importance of high-impact communications, bite-sized e-learning, social media and user-generated content.

We ran a seminar on E-mosaics at the Learning Technologies conference in January which generated lots of great questions and discussion. One of our audience members asked: ‘Why do you think so many people are self-directed learners at home but not at work?’ This question really hit the nail on the head. Most of us are active learners at home, whether it’s doing quick research on Google/Wikipedia or going to YouTube for ‘how to’ videos on DIY, cooking, sports, video games, playing a musical instrument – or whatever your hobby or interest might be. But something changes when people return to work.

Obviously motivation and incentives are a factor (and cumbersome Learning Management Systems can be a barrier!) but I think the culture of many organisations, sometimes unwittingly, discourages people from taking learning into their own hands. The traditional command and control structure of the corporate world results in many people equating ‘learning’ exclusively with ‘training’ i.e. something that is done to them, rather than something they can do for themselves. Hopefully the E-Mosaics concept and the work that Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and others are doing will help organisations improve how they support work-based learning and development.

E-Mosaics green paper: E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace

E-Mosaics seminar slides: E-mosaics: agile learning for the workplace in 2012

Gamification vs. Game-based thinking

Karl Kapp’s brilliant series of posts on the Learning Circuits site are a must-read for anyone interested in game-based learning. It certainly stirred things up on the usually sedate LC comments pages with several readers arguing against the dark side of gamification and the risk of treating people like lab rats. Kapp draws an interesting distinction between ‘gamification’  (perceived by some as being manipulative, through the misuse/abuse of reward schedules) and ‘game-based thinking’ (the motivational and instructional power of gaming). And his conclusion is hard to disagree with:  “Regardless of what you call it, more game-based thinking can only improve the current state of mind-numbing, page turning e-learning–not harm it.”

Award winning playwright Lucy Prebble’s feature ‘Gaming is an artform, just like theatre’ also provides some interesting insights into how video games can stimulate creativity and lateral thinking. Of course, all of this is heresy to doom-mongers like Baroness Susan Greenfield who make a good living filling up column inches at the Daily Mail on how video games are set to destroy civilisation as we know it. But the games industry is so diverse now that all the good and bad things it’s accused of can be justified with relevant examples, just like cinema, books or television. I guess that goes to prove what a mature and interesting medium it’s become.

Top 10 e-learning agencies: web ranking vs. turnover

Nowcomms.com published the Top 100 ranking websites in eLearning and learning technology earlier this week. The list was calculated by crunching together individual rankings from Google PageRank, Moz Rank, Alexa, Hubspot‘s Web grader and Compete, so provides a good indication of each company’s presence on the Web. I thought it might be interesting to see how the list of top 10 UK e-learning companies in terms of web ranking compares with the top 10 revenue-wise (based on the last published list I’ve seen)…

Top 10 bespoke e-learning companies: web ranking

1. Kineo
2. Epic
3. Learningpool
4. Tata Interactive
5. Saffron Interactive
6. Edvantage Group
7. Brightwave
8. Line Communications
9. Caspian Learning
10. Redtray

Top 10 bespoke e-learning companies: revenue

1. Line Communications
2. Kineo
3. Epic
4. CM Group
5. Cognitive Arts
6. Redtray
7. Brightwave
8. Saffron Interactive
9. Assima
10. IMC

The real outlier here is Line Communications who are top of the pile in terms of revenue but only number 7 by web ranking in the UK (and a humble 74 in the full Nowcomms.com list; while Kineo, their nearest rivals in terms of revenue, make the global top 10). Time to invest in some SEO advice, guys?! I guess the other conclusion to be drawn is that well established e-learning companies in the UK can enjoy strong turnover without having an equivalent web presence, as most revenues are derived from their status as approved suppliers for FTSE100 companies. However, if these companies want to grow they’ll need to win business from both overseas and new companies in the UK, so higher web rankings and brand recognition will be a real advantage in the long term. Kineo’s franchises in the USA (combined with their unique name) have clearly given them the edge in terms of Google ranking.

Also, it’s important to remember that web ranking and turnover are just two measures of success and give no indication of  quality, customer satisfaction, growth potential, profitability, etc. As we all know, biggest isn’t always best!

Case Study: free e-learning for start-ups

http://www.businesslink.gov.uk hired me to manage the design, development and delivery of their new online learning services for start-up businesses, which went live at the end of 2011. I wrote this case study about the project for E-learning Age magazine. 

Starting a business can be one of life’s most exciting, liberating and rewarding experiences. But working for yourself can also be nerve-wracking, as you need to learn quickly how to promote your business, manage your finances, keep customers happy and meet your tax obligations.

My New Business provides start-ups with the core educational support they’ll need to succeed in the first 18 months of trading. With over 200 specially commissioned videos and e-learning courses on a wide range of start-up topics (including business planning, finance, marketing and tax), My New Business is one of the biggest government-backed online learning initiatives of the last 10 years. In this article I’ll outline the high-level project objectives and describe how the videos and e-learning were designed to meet the needs of the target audience.


Business Link produced the content for the My New Business site in partnership with two of the UK’s bespoke educational video and e-learning specialists, Thomson Reuters and Epic. The high-level objectives for the content development teams were to:

  • Provide educational support in a variety of formats to meet the learning and media preferences of a diverse audience
  • Attract and retain new users to http://www.businesslink.gov.uk and encourage registration
  • Encourage early adoption of good business and compliance habits, with potential benefits for users and government
  • Increase effective use of business tools and government online services e.g. Online Incorporation, Self Assessment and VAT
  • Syndicate to partner sites to maximise content views and reach the target audience via multiple channels
  • Provide clear and relevant links to deeper content on http://www.businesslink.gov.uk for those that need further information

User requirements

My New Business has an extremely diverse target audience – all UK-based pre-starts and start-ups – and the Business Link site as a whole receives over 20 million visits each year, so the potential audience for the new online learning content is huge. To ensure the content was tailored to user needs, ­we took the following action:

  • Data analysis. We identified the most popular start-up topics on the site by analysing existing http://www.businesslink.gov.uk usage data, including page views, search terms, common queries to the helpline and suggestions for improvements.
  • User testing. We conducted four rounds of user testing at key stages of project development to gain feedback on e-learning and video prototypes and refined the content in light of customer requirements. A focus group (with a representative mix of Business Link users, including trades people, shop owners, hairdressers, child minders and freelance professionals) was used to select video presenters and narrators to ensure the ‘faces and voices’ of My New Business are appealing and engaging.
  • Content workshops. We facilitated content workshops with key stakeholders from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC). At these sessions, sample user personas were used to prioritise learning content and keep government stakeholders focused on customer needs.

After reviewing the data, user feedback and workshop materials, Epic and Thomson Reuters produced a detailed consultancy report which scoped the overall learning requirements and made recommendations for change.  The report also provided a comprehensive description of the project lifecycle, including programme governance, project structure for each content area, standardised development/approval processes across all content areas, and change control procedures.

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the most important people in any online learning project team. There’s no point creating a course with the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster if the core content isn’t focussed on delivering learning objectives, crammed full of valuable information and factually accurate. As SMEs can make or break an online learning project, it’s vital to select the right people and manage them carefully. Business Link’s Web Content Managers worked closely with over 90 business and tax experts from across the UK to gather relevant source materials and provide Epic and Thomson Reuters with detailed feedback on video and e-learning scripts and prototypes. In order to share work-in-progress e-learning materials with our geographically dispersed SMEs quickly, we used a cloud-based file sharing service, Huddle, to host videos and e-learning prior to site launch.

Treatment types

http://www.businesslink.gov.uk has long been recognised as a comprehensive and trusted knowledge base for all things business-related and has a large and loyal audience in the UK and abroad. However, during our initial customer engagement sessions, we found that many users felt that the site was too ‘text-heavy’ and key start-up information was difficult to find.  We took this feedback onboard and made the decision to present start-up information in a variety of formats, including a range of video and e-learning object types, as well as plain text, in order to broaden the appeal of the website. All start-up content on Business Link is now accessible fast, via three main access points – the Starting Up Theme page, the personalised ‘Recommended Start-up Tasks’ tool, and the Learning Directory.

Video and e-learning treatments on the revamped Business Link site include:

  • Presenter and expert-led videos that humanise the online learning experience. This was an important consideration when helping start-ups transition from face-to-face support to online services
  • Case study videos which are designed to inspire, build confidence and communicate ‘lessons learned’ from successful entrepreneurs
  • High-impact animations which introduce topics in an attention-grabbing and memorable way
  • Self-paced e-learning tutorials which guide users through key start-up activities
  • Myth Buster activities which challenge common business myths
  • Diagnostic tools which prompt users to reflect on what they know already and identify gaps in their knowledge
  • Useful start-up documents and templates (e.g. Business Plan) so that users can put newly acquired knowledge into action
  • Text-only versions of all videos and e-learning, which meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 3.0) and are optimised for assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifiers

Delivery platforms

A robust technical infrastructure is critical to the delivery of high volumes of media-rich learning content over the Internet. All videos on the My New Business are distributed through Brightcove, the world’s leading cloud-based video platform. Brightcove smart players automatically detect the user’s device and bandwidth, and then output video in the most appropriate file size and format. This means that videos on the My New Business site are truly cross-platform compatible and can be played on PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices by users with both high and low bandwidth connections. All Flash-based e-learning objects on the site are launched and tracked through the Xtensis SCORM content management system, which has previously been used by the National Learning Network (NLN) to successfully deliver one of the most substantial and wide-ranging collections of e-learning materials in the UK to over 10,000 registered users in the higher education sector. Both Brightcove and Xtensis provide powerful reporting tools which will allow Business Link to closely monitor video and e-learning usage on a daily basis.


So how will the overall impact of My New Business be measured? Ultimately the site will be judged on its ability to provide effective and practical educational support to new businesses which helps them to succeed. While it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions, the initial usage reports from Brightcove and Xtensis are encouraging and show a strong uptake of e-learning and video materials by Business Link customers, with content on generating business ideas, choosing the right legal structure and business planning proving to be especially popular. Feedback via Business Link’s social media channels in the first few weeks since launch has also been very positive, with users praising the engaging and easy to use nature of the new content. Business Link will conduct a detailed user engagement survey in 2012 which will capture customers’ reactions to the My New Business site, including questions on how the new learning content has helped change behaviours, in terms of fostering good business and compliance habits. Syndication of content through partner sites will extend the reach of the materials and provide additional sources of feedback. HMRC is also intending to commission an independent evaluation of all its education channels in 2012, including My New Business videos and e-learning tutorials.

My New Business is one of the biggest free repositories of online learning content in the UK, so the results of these evaluation activities will be instructive for the e-learning industry as a whole. Wide-scale and free-to-access online learning initiatives are rare in our industry so it will be fascinating to see how the general public responds to this kind of resource.

Game-based simulations

Recent evidence-based research (Sitzmann T: “A Meta-Analytic Examination Of The Instructional Effectiveness Of Computer-Based Simulation Games”, Personnel Psychology 2011) provides compelling reasons for using game-based simulations in adult training. After analysing 65 studies and data from 6,476 train­ees, Traci Sitzmann found that trainees who used simulations gained the following performance improvements over a comparison group who were trained with other forms of instruction (e.g. lectures and assignments):

  • 20% higher confidence levels
  • 14% higher skill-based knowledge
  • 11% higher factual knowledge levels
  • 9% higher retention levels

These findings chime with my own experience of using simulations in a wide range of training interventions over the last 14 years. Learners respond enthusiastically to game-based simulations because they provide an authentic but risk-free environment where you can practise skills, and also feature motivational devices (exploration, challenge, feedback, rewards and virtual coaches) which makes learning fun and addictive. Game-based simulations can also help overcome ‘e-learning fatigue’ in organisations where learners have become tired of clicking through linear tutorials. But to maximise the business impact of game-based simulations, it’s important to deliver them within a blended learning model which provides learners with the opportunity to discuss how newly acquired knowledge and skills can be applied in the real-world. As Traci Sitzman notes: “Games are beneficial for practicing work-related skills, but trainees must first learn work-related knowledge to apply it during game play. Furthermore, a debriefing ses­sion after game play is beneficial for ensuring that trainees realize how their experience in the game is applicable to the work environment.

While playing the computer game LA Noire (where you take on the role of a detective investigating a series of crimes in 1940s Los Angeles), I was reminded of a fraud investigation simulation I produced several years ago.  As part of your detective work in LA Noire you must interview ‘persons of interest’, ask them the right questions, and decide if they’re telling the truth.

LA Noire

Still from LA Noire, produced by Rockstar Games.

The fraud investigation sim I worked on featured a similar interactive approach. We filmed actors talking straight to camera to mimic the experience of being in a tense, face-to-face interview situation. Depending on your choice of questions, the characters under investigation would react accordingly (sometimes with explosive results!). Similarly to LA Noire, the goal was to challenge learners to ask the right questions and get to the truth.

Realism and authentic practice activities like this are key to effective game-based simulations. As Ruth Clark (“E-learning & the Science of Instruction”) makes clear: The surest road to learning is to engineer overt interactions…Rather than asking learners to ‘click on the guidelines for a good client response’ design a simulation in which they will respond to the client and see the client’s reactions.”

Evidence-based research conducted by academics such as Traci Sitzman is starting to validate what many training practitioners have known for years: game-based simulations can provide some of the most effective, motivational and memorable learning experiences the e-learning industry has to offer.