Creating social networks for learning and sharing ideas

employment.studies.co.uk

Creating social networks for learning and sharing ideas

delivery necessarily, but more about providing themeans for people to find and share information forthemselves. Understanding the psychology ofrelationships and networks will be fundamental tocreating effective learning environments.How do you capture the tacit knowledge of experts inthe organisation who may be retiring or who may atsome point leave the organisation? Perhaps encouragethem to capture their knowledge on video or in an onlinewiki. Social networking ideas allow people toconnect with experts anywhere in the world to getanswers to their questions, and to answer other people’squestions. Often the answer emerges through discussionor debate; perhaps this used to be at the coffee machineor water cooler where some of the most useful creativeideas emerged. Now this can be on‐line with peoplefrom diverse cultures and backgrounds. The potential forthe development of creative solutions and rapid learningare enormous. But in many organisations this requires acultural shift for people to feel comfortable networkingand sharing knowledge and experience in this way. TheL&D community needs to understand the psychology ofnetworks and how they operate and be focused on howto maximise the benefit of collaborative learning thatalways on connectivity allows. The key is that thesolutions produced are designed to tackle real businessissues and deliver real business benefit, not just sharingfor sharing’s sake.IES recently carried out a piece of work for the NHS inthe UK looking at what is required to establish newsocial networks for the sharing of ideas and knowledgeacross a large multi‐site organisation. We reviewed therelevant literature, interviewed leaders of successfulonline communities and ran focus groups and a surveywith staff to understand what would encourage andallow them to engage with such a community. The restof this paper presents the key themes from the researchliterature and then goes on to presents hints and tips forestablishing a new online community.Key themes from the researchliteratureAn initial literature review identified seven broad areasthat need to be considered when developing onlinenetworks or communities. These were:■ Individual factors such as their confidence in usingthe technology and training they received,motivations and time to engage and the anticipatedbenefits from engaging.2■ Environmental influences including theirorganisationʹs attitude to the use of such technologyat work, the availability of, and access to, thetechnology to use the network (either at work or athome) and the availability of training, support andencouragement at work.■ Technological factors such as the range of ways thatpeople can access the network and the power of thecomputers (or other device) and internet connectionrequired (including lack of firewall blocking).■ The ease of use of the website and community areassuch that staff can find what they are looking forrapidly and contribute easily in a way which is rightfor them.■ Psychological influences on individuals engagingwith online networks and, in particular, the trust thatthey have in the community and its other members;and the need to proactively build this trust.■ Appropriateness of content; ensuring that users canaccess and are presented with information that isright for them and allowing communities to grow uparound common areas of interest.■ The management activity and offline effort requiredto sign up members, generate activity withincommunities and moderate content as well asbuilding trust of, and within, the network.Hints and TipsOut of the work, some clear practical messages emergedabout how to establish an online network of communityto allow people to share ideas and knowledge.Encouraging initial engagementGetting people to join and then engage in an onlinecommunity is not a trivial task; it takes significant timeand effort to reach a level of sustainable activity.■ Give people a clear reason to join the network. Themost successful networks are based around a specifictopic.■ There needs to be a clear benefit and value added forpeople to want to join.■ It is more effective to work with those that want towork with the network and who self‐select in, ratherthan chasing everyone.■ If there is not already some sense of communityoffline then can be very difficult to create that online.Creating social networks for learning and sharing ideas


■ The amount of effort required to create content forthe site should not be underestimated.Recruitment activityKey to success is the clarity of strategy needed to recruitand engage people, rather than any tactical activity onthe website and or within the community.■ Almost all the successful networks undertakeextensive offline activity aimed at finding newmembers.■ Often, members are found (initially at least) throughpersonal contact, word of mouth and activity by thenetwork champion until a degree of critical mass isachieved.■ A face‐to‐face set‐up meeting with the very firstmembers and subsequent champions can be helpful.■ It is a good idea to use existing networks to expandawareness and reach of the new network.■ A training programme for network facilitators canbe helpful.Maintaining/increasing activity andengagementPeople must feel that they are getting value from thetime they spend in the community or on the website.■ They need to be made to feel welcome, perhaps by apersonal message of welcome from the facilitator andencouraged to make an initial post.■ Building a sense of trust in the community isimportant to ensure that people feel able to contributeand comment openly.■ Traceability of participants and content areimportant factors in the development of trust.■ Equally, trust in the community affects thecredibility of the material accessed.Content must be kept highly relevant to the members.■ Collecting some initial data from new members canbe useful to help understand their interests.■ Data about members can be used to target andpersonalise email communications and networkareas/content appropriately – achieving the rightbalance of activity without overwhelming people isimportant.■ Developing sub‐communities with a specific focusis a useful way to ensure content finds the rightpeople.■ Enable users to filter so that they access only relevantgroups/areas.Recognise that it is impossible to engage everyone■ The primary focus needs to be on recognising theactive users to ensure their continuing participation.■ Reinforce the contributions of active users (byfeedback or showcasing it) so that they feel valuedand continue to participate.■ Ensure that something happens with what is posted– otherwise people will think they are wasting theirtime contributing.Ease of useThe ease of use of the website and community areas isfundamental to success. Individuals need to be able tofind what they are looking for rapidly and contributeeasily.■ Clear navigation and a minimum of links to reachthe desired content are crucial.■ Conversely, complicated navigation and notknowing where or how to post a question or find ananswer is frustrating for users.■ Alerts to new content are valued by network users,so long as they are appropriately targeted and alertthe reader to relevant information.■ Conversely, too many email alerts ‘cluttering up’ aninbox can lead individuals to leave a network.Other factorsExternal factors can either encourage or discourage theuse of networks:■ The work environment affects individuals’willingness to participate in online communities andshare information.■ The attitudes of colleagues and managers candiscourage use of online resources, where these donot view online activities as ‘real work’.■ Where a culture of sharing is discouraged, peopleare less likely to respond to online requests forinformation or guidance or to contribute examples ofgood practice.IES is a charitable company limited by guarantee. Charity no. 258390© Institute for Employment Studies 20113

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