eLW Mag
eLearning Weekly Magazine


April 11, 2009

Beware of Social Learning Backlash

I’m finding out that the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” has some major significance when it comes to introducing social learning (specifically, social learning tools) at an organization. In fact, even worse things can happen if you don’t market your offerings correctly…

When introducing social learning tools and concepts, it’s easy to get excited and anxious to share our findings. We often see the potential of how these tools can impact our organization, and we can’t wait to tell everyone we know about it. But here’s the tricky part: A good portion of our audience may not see the same potential, and it’s important to understand their point of view. They may have these feelings for several reasons:

  • They may not understand the concept(s)
  • They may fear new technology
  • They may be afraid to learn something new or change their current processes
  • They may feel intimidated or threatened

In fact, some people may undermine your efforts by expressing doubt to others and they may refuse to use new tools. To be clear, I believe constructive criticism is always a good thing. I’m only concerned about the people who counter your efforts because of one of the reasons listed above.

On a sidenote, it doesn’t help that many of the social media and social learning tools have goofy names. Many non-technical people immediately dismiss the idea of using these tools because they can’t take the name seriously. (Personally, even though I am a fan, I think Twitter’s name is one of its biggest downfalls.)

Here are a few tips to prevent social learning backlash:

  • Communication and change management are key
    Begin by explaining the basics of social learning and gradually work up to the benefits of using social learning specifically at your organization. Explain all benefits and be honest about possible shortcomings.
  • Seek out allies in your organization
    Find people within your organization who can help you tell the story of how social learning can benefit your organization. This way you won’t be seen as the person trying to make all the changes on your own.
  • Don’t just talk – produce
    I can talk about Web 2.0 and Learning 2.0 until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t do anybody good until I actually produce something. I would recommend staying light on the concepts and heavy on the examples. As they say, actions speak louder than words.
  • Carefully connect social learning to familiar external sites
    Explain that most people already use social media and social learning resources outside of work, whether they realize it or not. For example, what tools do you usually use when you have a question, or when you need information? Wikipedia, Google, and social bookmarking sites like Delicious are a few simple examples.
  • Re-brand the technologies in-house to use more conventional names
    If you install any social learning applications in-house, you may consider re-branding their names to something that makes sense within your organization.

Kevin Jones has done a fantastic job of covering all things related to social learning. Be sure to check out some of his posts below. You’ll find additional tips for improving the adoption of social learning at your organization:

Author: B.J. Schone

B.J. is the Founding Editor of eLearning Weekly and has contributed more than 150 articles. He works in elearning at Qualcomm, focusing on mobile learning.

About the Author

B.J. Schone
B.J. is the Founding Editor of eLearning Weekly and has contributed more than 150 articles. He works in elearning at Qualcomm, focusing on mobile learning.


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  1. Kia ora B.J.

    I add to your list one other reason why people may not wish to embrace ‘your offerings’. It could be, and is quite probable that:

    – they are sick-fed-up being offered a long list of flash-in-the-pan offerings that don’t fulfill what’s been promised.

    We live in an age of change – this is true. But the changes that are taking place are switching so rapidly and capriciously, often with no apparent reason seen or given, that they trigger a Pavlovian reaction in people.

    When change happens as rapidly in an organisation as some of the changes people have had to experience in present times, there is hardly enough time to cope with one change before it is superseded by another to do with the same procedure or function.

    I’m afraid that I have great faith in people. We are here because we are survivors. That survival has been won through learning, persistence and the action of community opinion. Part of that heritage is in all of us. We should respect it, for it is what brought us here.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Agree with your post! But would drop the “Learning” label from the discussion and revive the EPSS – Electronic Performance Support Systems label/tag and talk about enabling human performance better, faster, cheaper! Then perhaps their would be better reception to the concepts and tools.

    Web 2.0 final fulfills the “promise of IT” from way back in the 1970s! That might resonate with some of those older stakeholders you are trying to sell.

    Also – if you could first determine/establish the “costs” for not using Web 2.0 first (the Returns), and then provide the “costs” (Investments) for using Web 2.0 – you might more easily sell Web 2.0 including Social Networking Tools – and – as long as content can be in some semblance of Enterprise “control” – and I would recommend “control” via designated groups after the fact/posting. Not a screen for data on the way in to the systems.



  3. You make some very good points about why many people have problems with distance education and social learning. Universities are a place where substantial change can happen, but they are also a place of tradition and often, old ideas.

    Distance education and social learning is and will continue to grow as more people are seeking an education. It is far from perfected but we will all continue to learn as alternatives to the brick and mortar classroom grow.

  4. I would agree with Guy. Social media is really an EPSS. In the webinar I did with Dave Wilkins yesterday, I mentioned how this is not on the learning level, but on the performance improvement level.

    This my seem to go against a lot of what I do – Social Learning of the Day on Twitter, Engaged Learning, Social Learning podcast, etc… but most companies will have a training department LONG before they have a performance improvement or OD department. Because of that, it has to start here. A lot of the message is exactly what Guy stated: Sure we learn, but there is a lot more than learning going on – it is performance improvement.

    BJ – You make some very good points. People are even scared of the four letter words – blog, wiki, etc… Like you said, we need to see it from their point of view and possibly change terminology to match the culture.

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