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The catalyst to accelerated learning and performance


Lars Hyland explores how social tools can be harnessed to deliver a more engaging and effective learning experience.

It seems not a second goes by without some form of social media clamouring for our limited attention, whether it is on our desktop or smartphone. The speed at which we have access to the latest news and information is now literally instant (I assume most of you will have by now experienced the spooky nature of Google Instant search, if not give it a try). The irony is that while this may be true for us as internet consumers, in a workplace context the pace and access to available knowledge and tools is often much slower, hidden behind confusing interfaces and bureaucratic barriers. As a result it can lose much of its value when it comes to that crucial moment of application.

The experiential divide

The learning management system (LMS) can often fall into this trap, struggling to be perceived by its intended audience as valued learning gateway, instead relegating itself to a distributor of tracked learning events, typically compliance-related. Clearly this still plays an important role but perhaps, like plumbing, the LMS should be invisible and increasingly vendors do allow more distributed access to the valuable content it holds. However too often users are forced to engage with systems and content that just don't sustain the required motivation to learn and apply as intended.
"...too often users are forced to engage with systems and content that just don't sustain the required motivation to learn and apply as intended."
This experiential divide is beginning to create real tensions, as employees look for and find ways to circumvent sanctioned communication channels. Many of these are social tools (such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin) and the very fact that these are being proactively searched out and used suggests that organisations are missing out on huge productivity benefits.

Crowd Accelerated Learning

A worldwide exemplar of the catalytic effect of social learning is TED ( TED has grown from a fairly exclusive gathering of thinkers, artists and experts sharing their latest thinking in 18-20 minute talks. Under the stewardship of Chris Anderson, TED opened up access to these using online video which has led to vast, self-fuelled growth in participation through an extended network of TEDx events held around the world. This experience has led Anderson to notice a definite acceleration effect in the learning process for those involved – he calls it Crowd Accelerated Learning or Crowd Accelerated Innovation. As more and more people around the world create videos sharing their expertise/skills/latest thinking which in turn is inspiring others to be better. As a result, he reflects on the wider implications this has for education and training:
"We've actually got to bring back real creativity and find a way of nurturing that in the education process. In the age of Google the notion of having to cram all these little brains with facts is bonkers. What’s needed is to build skills like how do you stimulate people to ask the right questions? How do you stimulate people to have a meaningful conversation? To think critically? What are the lenses you give people to think about the world?"
These are big questions, and are just as valid to consider within organisations, teams and across your own professional network, as they are on a societal level. Consequently, as learning professionals we need to be mindful of what behaviours social media can catalyse within our own domains of influence, and determine what these mean for how we design learning experiences going forward. A more specific example is Jove ( an online Journal of Visualised Experiments aimed at the scientific community. It uses videos to show in detail the method and results of experiments. This sharing is rapidly accelerating innovation as there is less duplication of effort and the community builds on each others efforts in a healthily collaborative, yet positively competitive basis.
So how can we foster similar virtuous circles within our own communities? Well it would be misleading to say it is easy, especially when working within a corporate culture that may have deep-seated aversions to sharing its knowledge and capabilities in a more open fashion. But here are three suggestions on how and where to begin nurturing self-learning, self-motivated communities.

Start with the new joiner experience

New employees can be catalysts for wider culture change across your organisation. Delivering a social learning experience as a backbone to your onboarding experience can dramatically reduce the time to competence, reinforce best practice behaviours (sidestepping accepted common practice), while allowing new staff to much more rapidly build their professional networks across the organisation. One US insurance company redesigned the onboarding experience for their underwriters which included active participation within an online community across an eight month period, including weekly assignments, online coaching and shared experience roundtables. This resulted in a drop in attrition levels from 50% to 10% and crucially, each successful participant was underwriting $40m of business, which previously would have taken nine years of experience to reach. That has the capacity to be truly transformational in terms of business performance.

Think 'campaign' not 'course' in all your designs

When designing a training experience break it down into a more extended campaign of activities that are aligned with opportunities to practice and share the results with a network of peers, mentors and experts, transferring learning into active performance. Putting a social thread throughout the programme can help identify those who need additional encouragement and support and enable those who can move faster to build their expertise and experience at their own pace.
"Providing a forum for listening, contributing, explaining and reaching a new level of shared understanding reinforces both customer loyalty and staff engagement."

Bring staff and customers together in a shared learning experience 

Social learning can be used to cut across silos and bring fresh thinking to communities. The most radical approach is to open up to the customer and involve them in the learning process of improving your products and services. Providing a forum for listening, contributing, explaining and reaching a new level of shared understanding reinforces both customer loyalty and staff engagement. Starbucks has had tremendous success with its My Starbucks Idea site where customers can contribute ideas for improvement and see them being seriously evaluated and implemented. This concept can be taken inside the organisation too. We all have internal customers and using similar tools to draw out what really makes a difference in real and perceived levels of service focuses limited time and resources on what matters most. This could transform your standing within the organisation.

Opening up

So as Chris Anderson of TED says, it is time to "invite the crowd, let in the light and dial up the desire". In other words, leverage social tools and techniques to open up access to knowledge and expertise, remove unnecessary barriers and nurture a community that sees the powerful value of creating and sharing. A more fitting definition of accelerated learning, don't you think?

Lars Hyland is a learning technology specialist and founder of, an innovative learning reinforcement service. He blogs at Follow him on

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