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Laura Overton

Learning analyst

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Like|Comment – trends in social media and learning


The 2011 Towards Maturity Benchmark provides insights into how organisations are using social media in L&D. Laura Overton looks at the results.  

Social media has captured much attention in the learning and development community but is it deserved? Over the last eight years Towards Maturity has been monitoring how technology influences both our learning decisions and, perhaps more importantly, results.

It is easy to jump onto a technology bandwagon but 1,800 organisations who have participated in our independent benchmark since 2003, are helping to uncover the hype from the reality.

"A staggering 78% of 600 participating organisations from across the private, public and not for profit sectors now say that they are looking at technology to help them support sharing of good practice within their business."

Historically, we’ve found that organisations have been investing in technology to help improve reach efficiency and even quality of learning interventions. We’ve been investing in tools such as online courses, learning management systems and live online learning environments to deliver learning consistently to an increasingly dispersed audience.

However, the 2011 Towards Maturity Benchmark shows that our interest is moving beyond pure delivery of learning. We are increasingly looking to harness technology to capture and share learning that already exists within the organisation.

A staggering 78% of 600 participating organisations from across the private, public and not for profit sectors now say that they are looking at technology to help them support sharing of good practice within their business. They want technology to encourage interaction, a two-way conversation - not just one-way communication - and this is where social media potentially comes into its own. 

What’s in use today?

Organisations have been experimenting with different forms of social media for some time now and some approaches are starting to become established.

We have found over the past two years that two in five organisations have been using communities of practice to connect like-minded people together. This year we see that 31% of organisations are now encouraging the use of user generated content within the business. Organisations are using a variety of tools to encourage this – podcasting, blogs, and even the capturing of effective practices via video are all on the increase this year.

The majority of organisations are harnessing existing enterprise information sharing platforms such as SharePoint to provide a point of focus for sharing (for the past two years over 50% of organisations are harnessing these systems to support learning).

And 58% of companies agree that they now provide access to third-party social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter sites (up from last year) and over the last 12 months we have also seen a threefold increase in the use of these sites for learning (up from 16% to over 40% of organisations are now experimenting in some way with 3rd party sites).

Social media in action

Ian Napier from BT, speaking at the recent Charity Learning Consortium conference, estimates that there are over 1.6 million years of contextual knowledge within their current staff members. For BT,  social media provides an opportunity to facilitate the conversations that are already taking place - allowing them to take part in the open so that others can benefit.

A variety of social media platforms are used within the company. Individuals can outline the areas that they are happy to have a conversation about and upload content that others might find useful via their SharePoint site.

They can also capture and share knowledge via Dare to Share, their podcasting platform that allows staff to share their experiences and expertise, enabling great content to rise to the surface via a rating system.

And it is not just technology firms harnessing social media. Tim Drewitt from legal firm Eversheds is also experimenting with in-house social media platforms. In terms of social media, Eversheds' in-house social networks are already gaining traction as a complimentary communication channel - initially within IT, learning and development and professional support lawyers. 

L&D staff are also active in the firm’s social media strategy, sitting on the social media steering committee for the firm. Social media is also being used within the L&D and practice support lawyers' community. It is also starting to be used in content design.

For example, when planning the mobile learning content strategy, the L&D community asked the question via their in-house social network: What are the core things that a lawyer really needs to know about their area of law? The answers that came back helped to define the content needed.

Hype versus reality

Those who are using social media tools for learning and development reported a number of specific benefits in communications from their use:

  • 62% reported improved communication between learners and tutors.
  • 46% reported imported communications between learners.
  • 46% reported increased employee engagement.

The uses of social media approaches (blogs, podcasts etc) for sharing are becoming established but there is still some hype around the use of third-party platforms to bring people together. Research shows that the jury is still out about their use. Only 31% of Gen Y agrees that you should use personal social media at work.

Two-thirds of UK workers think social networking sites should be banned from the workplace. In the Towards Maturity study last year over 76% believed that third-party sites would play an important part in learning by 2012, this year expectations have dropped (59%). 

That said, it is clear that social media is starting to find its role in learning by encouraging sharing and supporting the application of skills back into the workplace. Yes there are still barriers to overcome – the top two being IT related and the skills of the L&D professionals to harness the new media but it is clear that those that are harnessing technology effectively are thinking through the processes that they want to support rather than being driven by new media fads.


Laura Overton, managing director of independent benchmarking practice, Towards Maturity. The 2011 benchmark results will be published on 10 November

Author Profile Picture
Laura Overton

Learning analyst

Read more from Laura Overton

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