Driving engagement within social learning communities

Think social learning and invariably the L&D community starts thinking of ’Enterprise Social Networks’ (ESN).

This includes the modern enterprise networks like Yammer and Chatter as well as the traditional platforms built on SharePoint with social features.
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Employees are hooked on to the virtual world. Social networking, micro blogging, YouTube videos are realities that employees are embracing in their personal learning space. 
Learning communities within the enterprise should use the same engagement principles and support employees in gaining knowledge, acquiring skills and finding new information.
Do you need an ESN?
While most would argue that an enterprise social network may not be a necessary condition for social learning, it does provide a platform that adds a level of tangibility to social behaviours. 
An online community also enables participants within a learning journey to work out loud, an important ingredient of social learning. The value proposition of a social learning community is easy to articulate with the key drivers being the ability to:
• Turn learning events into learning journeys
• Sustain engagement throughout the learning track (before,during and post-event)
• Create blended learning tracks (integrate synchronous and asynchronous components)
• Flip a learning event by pushing out content to the community
• Encourage peer to peer sharing and sense making
• Incorporate the ‘test as you teach’ methodology.
While this is not an all-inclusive list, it covers most of what a social community can drive. 
The key challenge for L&D continues to be building and sustaining engagement level of learners within an online community. This calls for community management and curation skills, which L&D professionals must embrace. Here are some mechanics that can help drive engagement:
Define the track
You may be engaging participants in social learning, however it still needs to be defined. 
Create a structured timeframe: four to six weeks at best, anything more and you run the risk of participants losing interest and other priorities taking over.
Each week have structured activities that the participants are expected to perform within the community, such as reading a slide-share and sharing an example of how a concept can be applied to solve a business problem. 
It’s best to assign no more than two to three activities per week. The focus should be on peer to peer sense making and sharing and not sheer consumption of content.
Create a reward and recognition framework
Identify and recognise your social learning champions on a weekly basis. Base the reward on not just on the level of engagement, but also the quality of contribution. 
Recognition from the senior leaders within the organisation also helps drive traffic within the community. Get some members of the senior leadership to record 30 second congratulatory messages and post these videos on the network.
Create a consumer class experience
Participants in a social learning community will demand a consumer class experience. So if a post does not get a response for over 24 hours and a question does not get answered for days, you probably have the answer for ‘why engagement levels are low.’
To tackle this, assign the responsibility of moderation and community management to specific members of the team. 
Encourage the participants to use the social platform in both supported as well as competitive ways.
The community managers task is to nudge folks to participate, comment, curate answers and generally keep the momentum alive within the group. 
The community managers must also establish a series of meaningful conversations with contributors, which could even mean endorsing other’s views, sharing insights, asking questions and being an enthusiastic member in the community.
Consider virtual and local meet-ups
Add a synchronous part to the learning journey by including a weekly virtual instructor led session or a local meet up event. This enables the participants to come together and provide each other the context in which the learning can be applied.
In summary
The days of debrief and the moral of the story are extinct. Today, people are interested in the story as its being shaped and not a narration post once it has played out. This calls for a change in approach to the overall learning design and engagement process. 
As learning increasingly becomes digital and self-serve emerges as the preferred mode for learners, the ability to engage participants online will emerge as a key skill for L&D.
About the author
Sunder Ramachandran is general manager, Commercial Training at GSK Pharmaceuticals India. He can be reached on Twitter @sundertrg


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