Learning as a Key to Social Media Success

As I’ve written in  various places, I believe social media technologies can greatly enhance online learning opportunities. To me—and, I suspect, to most Mission to Learn readers—the equation seems pretty straightforward and obvious.

learning opportunity + social media = more effective learning opportunity

But I wonder more and more about a variation on that equation:

social media + learning opportunity = more effective social media

It seems like an equation that demands the attention of anyone concerned with how to realize value from social media initiatives.

Social media for entertainment alone is ephemeral. The funny YouTube video that goes viral today will be forgotten next week or next month.

Social media for distributing news or information is only as valuable and sustainable as the news or information.

Even an emphasis on relationships, collaboration, and user generated content in social media environments only goes so far if the object of these activities lacks substantive value.

When I look at my own social activities online, the common thread across the ones that I visit most frequently is that they are places where I consistently find I can learn something. Not just find information—Google does just fine for that—but truly expand my knowledge in a way that is meaningful to me. And this generally means that I can engage in a learning conversation. Whether I choose to or not, I can respond. I can engage and contribute.

Of course, it’s important to stress that I’m not using the word “learning” in the very limited way that most people tend to use it. Learning happens in myriad ways  (here are 50). It is not the same thing as education (or professional development, training, etc.). Social networks offer a valuable source for the type of learning that self-directed learners tend to engage in.

All of this may seem like an obvious point—particularly to readers here—but as I scan what I am able to of the content out there on topics like social media ROI, the business value of social media, social media marketing, and social commerce, I find that meaningful discussions of learning as a value generator within social media environments are few and far between.

Admittedly I am biased, but I suspect many of those seeking success in their social media initiatives could benefit greatly from knowledge of adult learning theory, instructional design, and assessment and evaluation. Even in the seemingly uncontrollable world of social networks, these disciplines offer tools that can help shape a much higher value social media initiative.


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5 thoughts on “Learning as a Key to Social Media Success”

  1. Ben–

    I don’t think I’d advocate pontificating for 50 minutes even in a traditional “we have always done it that way” professional development session. On the other hand, at a cocktail party there would at least be alcohol involved 😉

    But seriously, I am realizing from your comments that I probably need to post at some point on what I mean by “learning” here at Mission to Learn. While I think the traditional formal learning event–e.g., the 50 minute classroom session or the 20 minute online learning tutorial, etc.–often has its place, it represents only small segment of the activity in life that I would classify under “learning.” And it is absolutely positively definitely not what I have in mind when I talk about learning as a key to social media.

    “Self-directed” learning, as you put it, is closer to the point. But even that viewpoint on learning has its limitations, in my opinion. Most people’s self-directed learning is not particularly directed, and I suspect it is rarely as effective as it could be. While we have amazing tools now for pursuing self-directed learning, the majority of people simply do not have a very refined skill set for doing it–mostly because no one ever helped us develop that skill set.

    I see at least two opportunities here from the standpoint of organizations embracing social media and social networks:

    1 – Help users develop good skill sets for self-directed learning in the network (Not an idea that is even remotely original to me. David Warlick, among others, has written extensively about this.)

    2 – Actively work within social media and social networks to seed, guide, and facilitate learning. And serve as “curators” as suggested in one of my recent posts.

    This second one, at least as I see it, is not at all in the realm of forcing learning onto users. (One of the powerful aspects of social networks is that it is awfully hard to rob people of choice in them.) Rather, when ASAE does something like set up Associapedia and encourages participation, it is seeding and facilitating a learner experience. Same for when someone like Lisa Junker makes the rounds and encourages bloggers to read and participate in an interesting discussion. In the commercial world, I think Amazon.com’s success with things like user reviews and other community learning tools has as much to do with its success as the ease it has brought to search for and purchasing books.

    Bottom line is, I think that for organizations seeking to actively participate it and generate strategic value from social media and social networks, using learning approaches–which can, of course, easily complement “social for the sake of social” approaches is very powerful. Whether consciously or not, I think it already tends to be present in the more successful social media initiatives out there.

    I’d even go so far to suggest that for associations, i.e., organizations for which the continual delivery of learning and knowledge is a key aspect of mission, a learning approach to social media may be the basis for forging exciting new business models. More on that in the future.


  2. Well, associations exist for socializing and networking, among other things. If organizations are hesitant to adopt social media because “it’s just social” they should also question cocktail receptions and other strictly social things they do.

    I’m also thinking aloud as a thought experiment: What if we crashed a cocktail party by giving an educational speaker a microphone and letting her pontificate for 50 minutes? We would never! It would be forcing a square peg into a round hole. So why would we break up the party on SNSs?

    On the other hand, the hallway track is — for me — usually the best learning of any conference. That’s because it’s unofficial, spontaneous, unprogrammed and personal. When associations try to force learning into a social setting, I start to lose interest.

    I recently went to a conference where a friend NEVER went into a session except the one he presented. He spent the rest of the time catching up with friends and concentrating on the hallway learning. I’m sure he learned more than I did at the conference.

    I have strong biases for self-directed learning and networking that should be pretty apparent by now. 😉 But seriously, associations don’t need to force any more learning on me. I can find the learning on my own.

  3. Ben–

    My thoughts on this particular subject are admittedly ill-formed at the moment. Almost didn’t hit “publish” on this posting, but then decided that it was simply a blogging to learn moment as described so well by Michele Martin.

    (See https://michelemartin.typepad.com/thebambooprojectblog//2008/02/advice-on-blogg.html)

    A few points that may help to clarify where I’m coming from:

    First, I don’t really identify what I am describing with professional development necessarily, or at least not what has traditionally been thought of as professional development. I’d argue that you are learning, for example, simply by coming to Mission to Learn, reading the post, thinking about it, and commenting. And you probably would not bother being here or commenting if that weren’t the case. It may not be as tidy a learning path as traditional professional development, but cumulatively across all of your experiences with this type of interaction, I bet it is more effective.

    I think categories like PD and instructional design, among others, are currently suffering from still being confined to the old boxes in which they have been trapped for so long. Nonetheless, there is a lot that can be mined from these fields that I think is applicable in social media situations. One of the things I hope to do going forward (and many others are already engaged in this process), is to clarify what and how these disciplines might contribute to social networks.

    I agree that being social simply for the sake of social has value, but my main concern (and admittedly, I have not been clear about this in my posting) is with organizational adoption of social media practices and I don’t think “social for the sake of social” tends to make organizational leaders feel warm and fuzzy about embracing social media. I have to wonder how successful social media and social networking in organizational settings will ultimately be if approaches cannot be developed that elicit, if not order (which seems unlikely), then at least desirable patterns out of social network behavior. Dave Snowden of https://www.cognitive-edge.com/ (as quoted in Wikinomics, p. 286) suggests something along these lines when describing how effective leaders can manage chaos in a way not dissimilar to how a kindergarten teacher manages her students:

    “Experienced teachers allow a degree of freedom at the start of a session, then intervene to stabilize desirable patterns and destabilize undesirable one,” … “And when they are clever, they seed the space so that patterns they want are more likely to emerge.”

    I don’t know about intervention (and I realize the “kindergarten” analogy may seem condescending to some), but the “seed the space” concept is along the lines of what I had in mind in suggesting that the learning disciplines have something to contribute to how we think about effective use of social media and social networks

    Apologies for a very longwinded comment, but it seems better to keep thoughts here rather than creating a new post. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment + please share any additional thoughts you have.


  4. I dunno, Jeff. Socializing for the sake of socializing has value, too. I have yet to find a social network that I return to over and over for professional development. Maybe if someone did it right, my mind could be changed. But currently, all the major social networks are poor places to partake of professional development.

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