An increasing desire to incorporate social media in corporate learning has garnered lot of attention at recent conferences and in trade publications. Many early efforts have borrowed from consumer social media models such as Facebook and YouTube. Early adopters rushed to co-opt various social media look-alikes in closed networks behind the corporate firewall. Media 1 has even helped with a few of these implementations using SharePoint™-based solutions.

Some have gleaned positive results—including reduced travel costs, increased global connectivity, and improved access to just-in-time learning and job aids. Other well-meaning efforts attracted a flurry of early activity; then withered on the vine.

Why do some social learning sites take off while others fail to thrive? To answer this question, we took a closer look at some of our client’s social learning efforts to see if we could uncover any obvious patterns or trends.

Failure to Thrive?

Many Communities of Practice and general purpose social communication portals tend to burn strong at rollout, but fade fast. Well-timed promotion and curiosity drive early traffic to social sites that may not stick. Usage of YouTube-like media share portals, while valuable performance support and reference tools, may also trend downward over time. (And, in an interesting twist, participants also tend to shy away from rating corporate media—especially clips posted by superiors—despite what we might expect based on ratings in consumer sites like Amazon and Trip Advisor.)

It’s not that corporate community sites in general don’t work; some communities do indeed grow over time. It’s just that establishing a social media site on its own doesn’t guarantee social learning success. Research shows that people are motivated to share knowledge (or not) for a number of complicated reasons, including deeply rooted cultural factors such as trust, recognition, and internal competition. Enabling social technology alone does not provide or support motivation to actually use the site over time.

In sharp contrast, social learning frameworks for cohort learning programs tend to be universally well-received, with most social media features utilized by participants throughout their tenure in the program. The very nature of cohort learning—in which a select group of participants start and finish a course together—promotes a group bond and trust through participation in shared experiences over time. Coaches provide ongoing recognition and mediate situations and activities that might otherwise discourage participation. The social media tools offered to cohorts are just that—tools that eliminate barriers of distance and time to enable communication between participants who already have an innate desire to reach out to each other for personal gain.

Why Cohort Learning Works

We have been able to identify a number of common elements that we think make cohort learning programs the killer app for social media success:

Accountability — Perhaps the primary factor in the success of the cohort learning framework is accountability. In a learning situation, cohorts are aware that peers and coaches are monitoring their activity. Participation in interpersonal interactions using social media (chat, discussion boards, blogging, media share) may even be designed into the curriculum as part of practice and feedback exercises and considered in assessing the success of the participant in the program. We have a greater chance of achieving that which we measure.

Intrinsic Motivation — Assuming that future job success is tied to success within the cohort learning program, stakes are high and learners already come to the table with a high motivation to succeed. Social media tools that help them achieve that success will be readily accepted and utilized.

Efficiency — A well crafted cohort framework provides “one-stop shopping” for learner needs throughout the life of the program. The framework provides context for the learning, and just-in-time tools handle secure program registration/authentication, communication (live and message driven), and assignments. Contrast this with managing email communication with a coach and document sharing vs. an option to go to a separate social portal. Making it easier for participants to complete course requirements helps them fit those requirements into their already busy work schedules.

Relationships — Facebook is successful in spite of its clunky and often maddening interface because of our strong desire to connect with a closed group of friends and family. Likewise, cohort groups build relationships based on shared interests, knowledge, and experiences. Many cohorts welcome technology that helps them learn from and share with each other within the context of the program.

Set Timeframe — Like a good story, cohort participation has a beginning, middle, and end. Participants start together and muster the energy to stay engaged for the duration of the program, knowing there will be a completion point.

Value is Key

As Harrison Withers pointed out in Communities of Practice: *Batteries Not Included:

It’s not enough to build [social] capability and hope that it will be used; you must make sure value is present on a continuing basis.

The value in visiting a social learning framework for a cohort group is naturally present in the mechanics of a cohort program.

If you are thinking of exploring social learning at your organization, look to piloting it in your cohort programs for greatest acceptance and immediate ROI. If you currently deliver a “bootcamp” for sales, leadership, or Onboarding, a distance-learning cohort model with a directed approach to social media will quickly reap positive rewards.

As always, we welcome your perspective. What has been your experience with social learning at your organization? Can you offer any social learning experiences to corroborate or refute our observations? We welcome your feedback!

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