Social Learning: Take Me To Your Experts


by David Mallon

David Mallon, Principal Analyst for Learning & Development

Quick Question:  How easy is it to find another employee in your organization with a specific expertise?  Let me ask the question again another way:  is it easier, or harder, to make a real, usable connection to an expert in your organization (previously unknown to you) than it would be for you to find an old high-school acquaintance on Facebook or similar site?

Does your organization have an expertise directory?

For a surprising number of organizations, the answer is no.  According to our newest Corporate Learning Factbook, only 26% of US Organizations have some kind of expert directory.

Why surprising?

Well, we have been talking about social learning for long enough now – and there are enough mature examples – that we are starting to get a good sense of what is working out there.  And through our research with many organizations at various stages of maturity with their social learning efforts, we have come to conclude that social learning, when intentionally enabled, tends take one of five forms:

  1. Blending Social Activities into or around Formal Programs
  2. Coaching, Mentoring and Apprenticeship Programs
  3. Expertise Directories
  4. Communities of Practice
  5. Social Learning Environments

 (Note:  the lines between these categories are fluid.  Many actual example initiatives might involve aspects of one or more subset.)

  • Many (if not all organizations) are experienced with the first type.  Any good classroom facilitator knows that encouraging social interaction before, during, and after a learning intervention is an essential part of success.  And so most learning organizations have long created ways to encourage, and in some cases, require this learner interaction.
  • We know also that many organizations have experience with second type.  Informally – coaching, mentoring, and apprenticeship are collectively the oldest organizational model for training known.  And formal coaching and mentoring programs are now also commonplace.
  • The fourth: communities of practice, at least as a defined concept, have more than a decade’s worth of history in organizations now.  While overall adoption remains low, there are now many success stories of organizations for which the CoP is a crucial part of their overall learning strategies.
  • Of course the fifth type, the social learning environment (or continuous learning environment) is the one that is capturing everyone’s attention recently.  The modern day incarnation of the “learning portal,” these environments replicate the YouTube or Facebook experience inside of the firewall, for learning and knowledge sharing purposes.  We can point to several companies that have successfully graduated from the experimental stage in this category, but they are still just the early adopters.  There is tremendous interest on the part of many mainstream companies to create these environments, but there is just as much confusion as to where to begin.

That brings us to the third category, the expertise directory.  While simple in concept – we know that these tools can be extraordinarily powerful.  Yet, despite the value and potential, this concept does not get nearly the attention that the full-blown social learning environment does.  In fact many learning organizations seem even more unsure of this type than any of the other social learning forms.

Why?  Good question.

We are still researching this question in detail.  I would be very interested in hearing your organization's perspective.  So far we are hearing objections such as:

  • IT owns the company directory; we do not know how to work through them.
  • Besides, the data in the company directory is often wrong.
  • Besides, the data behind the company directory has more to do with systems and permissions than with people.
  • We are not sure if the company’s intranet or portal (Microsoft SharePoint for instance) is the best place to have such a directory?  Or if it should be in the talent management system, or the learning management system, or the (insert other enterprise system here)? 
  • We are sure which of these systems is the best source of information for such a directory?  Or should more than one of them be?
  • We are not sure how to best connect the data sources together?  Or of how to maintain them over time?
  • We are not sure how to manage the process of choosing and maintaining experts and expertise.
  • We are not sure how to manage the workload of expert requests.
  • We are not sure how this initiative would relate to our formal coaching and mentoring programs.
  • We are not sure if establishing such a directory is the responsibility of L&D. There is no learning content after all.

Any of these complaints resonate with you and your organization?  Have we missed any?

The challenges of the employee profile are immense; but so is the potential value to the organization if you can figure out a way to leverage this wealth of information.  (See our recent LMS Study for a short section on this topic.)  The related problems of system integration and the alliance with IT have plagued L&D and HR for as long as there have been employee-related systems.  In that light, much of the above list is entirely predictable.  Even so, we think the potential ROI of a fully functional expertise directory is more than worth the hassle of addressing these issues however. 

Some of the best extant examples of expertise directories are actually the simplest, examples in which the company did not attempt to replace the company directory at all but instead built a simple expertise-only directory in a system such as the lms for which L&D has more direct control.

Of course, if you want to go all out; there are providers that offer best-of-breed expertise finding and matching functionality.  Companies such as Newsgator can manage the process of connecting with experts, including load-balancing so that no one expert is overloaded. 

Per the last item on the list, L&D organizations have to understand that their relationship with their organizations is evolving; it must.  L&D can no longer stay simply source of blessed corporate content and hope to remain relevant.  Instead, L&D must become a broker for learning, connecting people to each other and to other sources of learning, wherever they are, not just providing them with formal learning opportunities.  So, regardless of whether or not the expertise directory involves actual “learning content” or not; there are few single initiatives that have the potential to build so much capacity for the transfer of learning as such a tool.  In other words, there are fewer higher leverage learning initiatives that a company could undertake.

So, those of you that do not have any sort of expertise finding tool, have we inspired you?  Talk to us.  We would love to hear about your plans (or dreams) in this area.

Comments welcome.


Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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