Did You Google It? Enterprise Social Media Enhances Autonomous Learning

By: Keaton Fletcher

It has become expected by both employers and employees that jobs will require continued learning over the course of one’s career; enterprise social media is one method that companies can use to facilitate learning. According to a conference paper published by Carine Touré, Christine Michel, and Jean-Charles Marty, enterprise social media is essentially corporately sponsored online forums. These forums capitalize upon the current way most of us search for information outside of work (hint: we Google it). 

Although there are many methods corporations can use to facilitate learning (e.g., formalized training programs, informal mentoring programs), evidence suggests that roughly 75% of learning at work occurs informally. Understanding this, organizations have tried different methods to ensure that employees have access to correct information when they need it. This started as knowledge management systems that functioned as repositories for knowledge. In theory, employees could search these knowledge repositories for the information they needed, when they needed it. However, oftentimes these static knowledge repositories are difficult to use or search, and are left unused, collecting digital or literal dust. 

To address the weaknesses of these static knowledge management systems, organizations turned toward communities of practice. These communities introduced a social aspect to learning, allowed workers to share their experiences, learning from one another. In theory, communities of practice capitalize upon the social nature of humans, allowing the members to identify with their community, motivating them to participate. Touré and colleagues, however, suggest that these fall short of aspirations as well. Often, there are questions about the validity of information provided through communities of practice. Who determines who is eligible for the community, and how do they make this decision? 

More recent attempts to address these issues rely on enterprise social media, to combine the benefits of traditional knowledge management systems and communities of practice. Online forums that connect workers within an organization, or across a discipline, allow for the creation of a large, and easily searchable knowledge repository. They also allow for social interaction through commenting and “liking” or “upvoting” answers or posts. This combination creates a dynamic and engaging way to create opportunities for informal learning on the job. 

To test the design of an enterprise social media intervention, Touré and colleagues worked with a water treatment and distribution company in the south of France. The company originally had a traditional knowledge management system that acted as a catalog of information that was digitally accessible to employees. Employees reported not using this function to learn or to solve their problems. The researchers worked to implement an enterprise social media system for the company; they interviewed employees about how best to do this. Employees wanted comments to be moderated to prevent overuse or abuse, they wanted posts to be labeled with their level of information coverage and their level of utility. The researchers found that users thought the new system was easier to use, but that usage did not actually change because people still felt that they were already experts.

So, what have we learned? Combining digital repositories of knowledge with social media platforms offer companies ways to enhance informal learning. The next steps for companies may be helping employees recognize their own limitations, and the utility of seeking information from these systems.

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