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Social media learning: not IF but HOW

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on May 27th 2011.

British Airways fully embraced Campaign for Learning’s Learning at Work Day this year by staging an event for its staff. During their lunch break, employees were encouraged to attend interactive seminars, learn new skills such as juggling or plate spinning and had the chance to see what various learning suppliers had to offer on ‘The Street’. As a long term supplier to British Airways, LINE was on hand to see if BA employees felt social media could have a positive impact on their learning at work. Ed Lines was at the Waterside HQ to find out.

BA’s Waterside HQ is an impressive work of architecture; a giant glass frame housing six, four-storey sections which look out onto a central granite slab and cobblestoned walkway known as ‘The Street’. Complete with shops and restaurants, it might be mistaken for a recently developed British high street, were it not for the tall trees and glazed roof. The world you enter when you walk in is calm and peaceful, far removed from the chaos of Heathrow Airport, less than a mile away.

LINE at BA learning at work day

The Street is a perfect setting for an event such as BA’s Learning At Work Day. It spans the length of Waterside so large percentages of employees can see the interaction on the colourful stands from their offices and when they are on the move. Below them they could see the people heading to Jane Hart and Donald Taylor’s packed seminars as well some brave employees learning to perform circus acts. You could really feel the buzz of friendly curiosity throughout the afternoon.

LINE’s quest was simple enough; armed with our stand, a tv screen, a couple of laptops, an iPad and an iPhone we hoped to canvas opinion on social media learning. We would ask participants one of three possible questions and ask them to document their responses on Twitter.

1. Have you ever used social media to learn something?
2. How can social media have a positive impact on learning at BA?
3. What have you learned today?

As the afternoon unfolded their incoming answers would then appear on the tv screen in live word clouds revealing any trends and themes. Word clouds are a way of showing the frequency of words in a written passage. The more frequent the word the larger it appears in the cloud.

Well, that was the idea anyway… But how would it turn out?

I was aware that BA, like many organisations, does not actually permit staff access to many forms of social media, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Added to that Twitter has been receiving plenty of negative coverage in the press recently, Facebook has been badmouthing Google and Google’s YouTube, well, it’s just a great form of procrastination, isn’t it? I was prepared for plenty of cynicism in reaction to our questions. So this is why, the night before the event, I tweeted, “We aim to find out if social media can have a positive impact on learning”.

@LINEComms Not IF but HOW!” commented one tweeter.

That person may well be right, but ‘how’ assumes a concluded fact; I put the ‘if’ in there deliberately because, in light of the above, I just didn’t know what the social media consensus would be at BA. They might be ready to dismiss it completely.

So, at about 11.30, slightly ahead of schedule, we began to get our first inquisitive employees approach our stand.

Have you ever used social media to learn something?

Perhaps it was my beautiful colleagues, Phil and Patrick, or maybe it was the iPad, but for whatever reason, we found that the LINE stand was busy from the start. Encouragingly, the first few participants were more than happy to talk to us, they were open-minded about the role of social media and showed enthusiasm when being asked to tweet their thoughts.

Responses to our first question, “Have you ever used social media to learn something?” were highly positive as our word cloud suggests.

social media word maps

At times we helped with a little prompting; many people didn’t realise the breadth of the term ‘social media’. It’s easy to think of social media dismissively as just Facebook and Twitter, when actually it entails video sharing sites such as YouTube, blogging sites, forums, chat rooms and professional networking sites to name a few. Some people who initially said they had never learned anything through social media, when they fully understood what it encompassed, realised that they had, in fact, learned quite a bit through forums, video demonstrations and the like. We noticed this issue exactly when one gentleman tweeted, “I’ve never learnt anything from social media, just forums. Knowledge sharing could be useful”.

Many people that visited the stand were well ahead of the curve of learning through social media. One person tweeted, “I’ve joined groups on LinkedIn to gain support and knowledge from others in my role in the Leadership Development team here at BA.” Another said, “Following interesting people or companies on Twitter/Facebook as well as using wiki’s and forums can be very beneficial to learning.” The lack of cost and the ease of following industry experts to gain knowledge as well as the sharing aspects of social media, had already struck a chord with many of the day’s participants.

This was a test-the-water question, in a way designed to discover BA’s social media learning maturity. When you look at the word cloud, featuring many of the social media site names alongside words such as, ‘sharing’, ‘support’, ‘learn’ and ‘useful’, it’s clear that despite all the permission barriers, BA’s employees are already quite advanced in their use of the social platforms.

How can social media have an impact on learning at BA?

social media word maps

With the water tested, and discovered to be pleasantly warm, it was time to jump in. The tweeter who had picked up on the ‘if’ earlier, would be happier with the ‘how’ in this question. The answers were varied: “I can see that we need to move away from paper-based manuals in engineering”, tweeted one respondent. Could he have been thinking of an online engineering repository with a social comment and discussion function? Perhaps with immersive demonstration videos too? Less than 140 characters could spark tonnes of further planning and discussion!

Most participants agreed with one entry that identified, “a lot of potential for cross communication between departments”, whereas others urged caution, one exemplar saying, “I worry that unregulated forums will breed conspiracy and discontent”. Both excellent points – the potential for immediate mass participation provides for an excellent, low cost communication tool, however if left unregulated, it can provide organisations with a lot more than a PR headache.

The knowledge sharing across the company seemed to be the common theme indicated in the word cloud; keywords such as, ‘communication’, ‘relevant’, ‘sharing’, ‘information’ and ‘help’ all point towards a positive way in which social media can be harnessed.

What have you learned today?

social media word maps

Towards the end of the day we asked an open-ended, retrospective question about the employees’ experience of the day as a whole. Considering that plenty of other learning experiences were on offer including gaming, learning styles, web page design and, of course, juggling, it was fascinating to see what came through in the word cloud.

“Social media will drive the future of work in the next 5 years”, was one answer. Not bad to learn something so consequential in only a couple of hours!

Another participant wrote, “It’s taken me a long time to understand it’s not about the tools. You need to use/try them but fit them to your needs”. As I mentioned earlier, the social media spectrum is enormous and contains an almost infinite amount of information. It wasn’t just this participant who understood the importance of refining it to suit their own needs; another tweeted, “The challenge to adopting Social Media is ‘worth & relevance’ many have perceived views based on media portrayal. It’s worth a look!”
I couldn’t put it better!

Not IF but HOW!

The day was a highly enjoyable experience. BA’s Amanda, Hema and Wendy organised proceedings flawlessly and we were only too aware that the interest in the LINE stand was in a large way down to their generation of interest all over Waterside.

So, in conclusion then, what did I learn that day?

I’ll finish with a letter:

Dear @C4LPT,
You were right! Not IF but HOW.
Best wishes,
@LINEComms

How can social media have an impact on learning where you work?