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Product and Topic Expert
Product and Topic Expert

I recently published an article in the "People Development Handbook 2013" with many use cases on how to use social media in learning and talent development. Below you can find a translated version - happy reading!  I hope you find it interesting - and any questions or feedback is highly appreciated.

Social media is increasingly becoming part of everyday working life. Initial experience has underlined the importance of integrating social media into IT infrastructures and business processes to ensure they become an integral part of the working day. If used properly, social media can help companies run more effectively, including in the area of learning & talent development (L&D) and associated areas such as knowledge management and change management. If done right social media can help to optimize knowledge work tremendously. L&D managers can assume key driving roles here: by using social media in typical personnel development processes, as experts in facilitation, instructional design, or change management, and in their roles as educational experts.


Social media employ web- and mobile-based technologies to support interactive dialogue. According to Wikipedia, it can “introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organizations, communities, and individuals.” They involve information, communication, collaboration, knowledge management, multimedia, and entertainment. As new technologies continue to emerge, the area is constantly developing – be it the use of location recognition/GPS, “Big Data”, and of new devices such as tablets, or the introduction of new combinations, such as new business models.

Since the triumph of the smartphone, there is no longer any question about sustainability of social media in the future. “Generation Y” will promote the use of social media in the workplace – and social media will have to be used to recruit and retain particularly talented employees in the face of the increasing shortage of qualified personnel.

These technical innovations will also support more effective learning, knowledge transfer, and talent management. L&D managers need to consider:

  • How they can best use these new media in their areas
  • How this can change their role as personnel development manager

Integrating social media into existing processes has proven to be more effective than simply making the technology available to employees.

Potential Uses of Social Media

Using social media changes general communication values. New values include freedom from hierarchy (anyone can contact anyone else) and transparency (all information is accessible within one's own network at least). Career values have also changed. Motivation at work stems more and more from quality of work, lifestyle, development opportunities, and employer branding.

The values associated with social media, and the new career values in which social media also represent a lifestyle tool, must be taken into account when social media are used. Social media such as Facebook fan pages and LinkedIn have been used as job search engines in the area of recruiting for quite some time. How social media can be used in learning and talent development is now also being considered. Let us now look at some possible scenarios.

On-Demand Learning and Knowledge Management

Content and experience in wikis, for example, can help optimize knowledge management and accelerate informal learning. Implicit knowledge is made explicit thanks to comments, ratings, user contributions, and discussions – and the highly valued user-generated content that emerges becomes organizational knowledge. Some applications provide features for adding and sharing videos or screenshots directly from social media platforms. This further transforms users into content and media producers. What results is a searchable knowledge base that could never be created with the same scope, up-to-date information, speed, cost-effectiveness, and quality by central departments.

Learning and obtaining information quickly as part of the job, for example, to solve a specific problem, are integral daily tasks in knowledge-intensive jobs. Not everything can be learned in advance nowadays. Wikipedia is a particularly useful and popular problem-solving tool used by many. Such scenarios can also be implemented internally within companies – thereby ensuring data privacy and legal protection. This allows employees to use social networks to find experts who can help them further, for example. Or they can find solutions in user-generated content, such as that available in discussion forums or company wikis.

Social media should ideally be integrated directly into work processes. Forums or wiki pages could be incorporated into product documentation, for example, enabling users to help themselves with support from facilitating experts. Another example would be a forum for every sales order created in which questions or documents could be exchanged as part of customer support. If on-demand learning is made an integral part of the working environment and existing processes, it is no longer learning – but part of the job.

An example from personnel development would be social media features integrated into the learning infrastructure, such as course ratings and comments. This allows learners to obtain valuable information when selecting courses and share their views with other learners based on the comments. Ideally, learners would be able to search for formal content (such as training courses and e-learnings) and use the same search function to find user-generated content (informal content such as wiki contributions and videos).

Communities of Practice (CoP)

Communities of practice (CoP) are an established method that has been boosted through the use of social media. These are communities of experts that are interconnected informally and that face similar tasks. Social media platforms can provide the “adhesive glue” within these communities. If an established expert group has reached a certain size and is adequately distributed, the CoP can also function independently via social media without considerable integration effort, assuming it is facilitated and managed appropriately. Its success hinges on the commitment and management of the group, however.

In the area of personnel development, a community for talents or high potentials could be a useful application – although integration into a process, namely the talent management process, would also be beneficial in this case. SAP AG, for example, has set up a talent community for its global talents through which all communication is made –from providing information about new development activities and programs, to subsequent questions and comments from talents. The community is facilitated by the talent program managers.

Another potential use is in the onboarding of new employees: New employees can share their initial experiences and network with others. In addition, formal content such as checklists help to shorten time to full productivity.

Another example – open innovation – is evident in the US-based company UST Global. This IT consulting firm uses a social media tool for asynchronous colloquia for idea generation (jam sessions), in which new products are discussed. The company also sets up communities for each customer project, thereby optimizing internal communication for project business.

Blended Learning 2.0

Social media provide tools that are easy to use and can be integrated into existing learning settings, allowing blended learning to be combined with social learning and taken to the next level. Social learning can be defined as learning from and with others using social media. It can take the form of independent learning, on-demand learning, or informal and collaborative learning.

It can involve:

  • Supporting discussions
  • Submitting questions and answers
  • Working through exercises
  • Sharing documents before, during, or after courses

Again, it is important in this case for integration to take place at a methodological and design level. If forums are merely set up for a course, there is no guarantee they will actually be used.

An SAP example of such an application is the Strategy to Action program in which participants use a social media platform to discuss homework between seminars, access course material, and share their experiences. Integrating the social media platform in the instructional design was a key move. Specifically why and how the platform is to be used was explained during the course, for example.

Yet another example is a training program set up by a midsize German bank, in which working and learning tasks for trainees proved to be particularly successful in the sales community. As part of the trainee program, working and learning tasks were announced on the social network, where documents were made available and subsequently processed by learning groups. Trainees were notified about project changes or updates automatically, could set up personal profiles, see which participants were active at any given time, and create their own groups or activities. Such was the success and enthusiasm of the participants for this new form of learning that management decided to make these learning communities the basis for trainee programs across the entire bank group.

Communication & Information

Communication can be made more effective through the use of social media. Social media conveniently replace newsletters, central mail inboxes for specific areas or projects, and help optimize communication including feedback and discussion options, for example. This can serve not only to simplify tasks within personnel development (by having blogs for each project), but also to improve the communication of information to internal customers (by means of podcasts or a social networking group for personnel development).

Team and Change Management

The key to successful change processes is to ensure that employees are informed sufficiently, trained, and involved in shaping the change. Social media are valuable tools in each of these three areas of action. Furthermore, the introduction of social media should be accompanied by a change process since the transported values are not always in alignment with corporate values. In companies with strict hierarchies in particular, social media must be used purposefully and managed carefully to ensure employees feel encouraged to use them.

Social media offer an array of potential uses from which team development can also benefit. The objective of the “SAP Marketing Film Festival” was to optimize communication between departments, for example. Departments from the various countries involved in SAP Marketing put together videos introducing themselves. They uploaded their podcast videos to a social media platform, where the best video was then determined using the rating function.

Performance Management

Social media can also be incorporated into the performance management process and help define and monitor employee goals and further development depending on what is used. In a simple scenario, communities could be set up specifically for this purpose, allowing managers to learn on-demand during the performance management process and get mentored by HR experts.

Using social media for actual performance management, however, is more revolutionary. A product featuring typical social media functions was developed in a pilot project carried out by SAP.

It featured:

  • Employee profiles with options for status updates, feeds, notifications, requests, and so on
  • An option to share goals – publicly or confidentially with the manager
  • A function to publish activities and tasks for each goal, which can be viewed by people in the network over time
  • Evaluations of goals and activities – from managers and other persons

It will undoubtedly take some time before such a radical application sees acceptance for binding areas such as performance management, even if the resonance from the US and younger users is extremely positive.

Internal Talent Markets

Transparent employee profiles can make talent management more effective. This means moving toward a more transparent internal talent market in which employees search independently for career options (pull instead of push) and (more or less) present themselves using public profiles. This shifts the primary focus to the individual, since talents are becoming more and scarcer due to demographic changes. Employees want to pursue attractive positions, which they determine according to lifestyle, employer branding, or quality of work. In addition to employee transparency, this also demands a high level of transparency for positions in the internal talent market.

If we consider the current practice, which has a strong focus on processes, target profiles for key positions, the definition of successors, or evaluation of performance management data, there is still some way to go. Needless to say, new approaches for internal talent markets have to be integrated into the processes for filling positions and selecting personnel.

Factors for Success and Lessons Learned

In recent years, SAP has gained various insights into ensuring the successful implementation of social media. This section presents these insights as success factors and lessons learned. Where infrastructure is concerned, it is important to strike a balance between a centralized and decentralized approach. One common advantage of decentralized pilots is the bottom-up implementation approach that is applied. Since the “social Web” relies on active user participation, this approach is often more effective than a top-down implementation. A further advantage of decentralized pilots is flexible, rapid success. In contrast, the advantage of a centralized approach is the integrated infrastructure and the close alliance with the IT department.

The long-term objective should always be to integrate new social media tools into the standard IT landscape in a way that allows structured content on the corporate portal to be found, in addition to podcasts, wiki pages, or forum posts. Central user management systems can be used in parallel to facilitate simple, high-quality user management.The technical foundations on which social media are used must be solid: Software performance must be fast and tools must be easy to use. Fundamental issues, such as data privacy and reporting, must first be addressed with the relevant committees and approved by the works council (in countries where this is relevant).

As with all trends driven by technology, it is always important to focus on the value added rather than getting caught up in the technology euphoria. It is crucial to always consider the actual objectives of a measure to ensure the best methods and tools are ultimately used. There are a number of proven nontechnical measures, such as providing coffee corners, peer learning, coaching, and mentoring,, which can also help promote informal learning.

The trend for «social» technologies is shifting from individual tools to corporate social media platforms that merge all relevant functions – from wikis and blogs to groups/rooms and profiles, and even mobile apps. Mobile access via apps or browsers on tablet PCs has become a must.

In some scenarios, such as communities of practice, these platforms can be used independently. Social media can also be integrated into online help for systems – to help users help themselves. It is generally beneficial to integrate social media into business processes and systems used. This integration may automate certain activities (automatic creation of collaboration groups, automatic assignment of participants when courses are booked, and so on) and thereby improve operational efficiency. While free platforms are a good option for pilots, they are not considered sustainable options in the medium term since they are generally financed by advertising and the sale of user data.

As a solution provider, SAP offers its customers a range of predefined integration options, both for existing customers who have already installed SAP products in their corporate infrastructure, and customers who want to subscribe to software via the Internet (cloud software). The SAP social media tools can be integrated into business processes based on the approach deemed most suitable.

Usability Requirements

Even if the tools are essentially easy to use, it is important to ensure that users are able to use them – by providing FAQ lists, short multimedia units, demos, instructions, or overviews indicating how each tool is to be used for what, for example.

Social media guidelines can help make requirements for the use of social media transparent. These guidelines should reflect corporate culture and should not be limited to general, socially desirable statements. Should barriers be identified (in the manner in which knowledge is shared, for example), change management measures to adapt the learning and knowledge culture must be initiated.

Special considerations must be made for older employees – since the younger generation who are more familiar with the use of social media tools are just a subset of the workforce. Examples, demonstrations, and specific situations can be used to allay fears. A critical mass of users and a facilitator for the startup phase are required to ensure sufficient activity.

Typical user types and distribution of users are as follows:

  • 70% lurkers: users who are logged on and view content, but do not actively participate in the community
  • 20% commenters: users who comment on or reply to existing articles, blogs, questions, or similar
  • 10% creators: highly active community users who submit articles or create blogs, for example – to set up effective communities some creators need to be available and motivated, ideally in the set-up phase.

Board blogs written by communication departments are rarely successful due to their lack of authenticity. A more successful approach is to use multipliers such as trainees and students as “teachers” and reverse mentors for Web 2.0 tools. Fears about potential tool misuse (such as hidden performance management) should be addressed openly and specifically discussed with committees such as the works council or data security officers.

Processes and Content

Social media tools such as communities are not “self-running.” They have to be managed and supported. This requires new roles to be defined or existing roles to be extended, such as those of trainers or personnel development managers. Community facilitators, online mentors, and wiki gardeners are the new roles to be filled. And working hours and resources must be allocated accordingly.

Using early existing available content- whether podcasts or discussions - plays an important role in generating immediate benefit. This can be achieved using instructions at the meta-level or exceptional content, examples of which would be contributions from known persons or valued experts within the company, or articles on relevant topics such as strategic initiatives or new products.

It is crucial to align content with corporate priorities and to avoid limiting the focus only to typical education fields such as languages or management training. However, content that is sensitive or legally binding is less appropriate on social media. It is important to define clearly which content is to be managed and is therefore safeguarded, validated, reliable, binding, and up to date, and hence is not suitable as user-generated content.

Personnel development departments should strive for an instructional design integration to ensure that social media are not an end to themselves, but an integral part of learning arrangements. When social media are introduced, it is important to define success criteria using key figures such as (active) use, contributions, acceptance, and perceived benefit. At SAP, for example, statistics are recorded on the number of podcasts created and used, wiki entries and basic read access, top ratings and top discussions. This information is also channeled back to communities to motivate contributors and draw attention to content of particular interest.

Role of Learning and Talent Development and Management

L&D managers in particular can contribute significantly to social media implementations – be this their competence in change processes, or their pedagogic competence. This helps prevent social media implementations from becoming too technology oriented. In addition to including social media in their service portfolio, L&D managers can use social media to position themselves strategically as competent points of contact.

These examples underline the many ways in which social media can support personnel development. And associations such as the American Society of Training & Development highlight their growing relevance, declaring social learning a new “area of expertise” in 2011.

These competencies include:

  • The use of social learning technologie
  • Knowledge of various tools, their areas of application, and their limitations
  • Techniques in overcoming organizational hurdles during implementation

Management will also be faced with new requirements. In an environment in which it is established practice to voice criticism and feedback, they can expect decisions to be called into question more often and become more difficult to enforce. If hierarchies in a company have strongly shaped its decision making to date, the interaction structures on the social Web call for decision-making facilitation rather than decision making. This demands more responsibility and commitment from employees and less governance from managers.

I hope this article was useful and informative. Please feel free to share your comments, experiences, thoughts with me right here in the community.

*This article originally appeared in German as “Personalentwicklung 2013 - Themen, Trends, Best Practices”, Schwuchow, K./Gutmann, J. (ed.), Freiburg, Haufe-Lexware 2012


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