CIPD Podcast 54 - Learning and development in a socially networked age

Date: 03/05/11 Duration: 00:25:07

In this podcast John Baker, former Development and HR Operations Director, Legal & General, Charles Elvin, Director, Centre of Professional Learning and Development, The Open University. Clive Hutchinson, Company Leader, Cougar Automation and John McGurk, Learning and Talent Adviser, CIPD discuss what impact social media is having on the world of work and how learning and development is becoming 'social'.


Philippa Lamb: Hello. This month we're at HRD the CIPD’s annual learning and development conference to look at the trends effecting how we learn and develop as working people. Since last year’s event we've seen Facebook hit the big screen and Twitter emerge onto the world stage as a catalyst for revolution. But what impact is social media having on the world of work? Is it a niche issue or is it, as some claim, driving a real cultural shift in the way we work, interact and learn?

Now joining me to talk about that I have John Baker, former Development and HR Operations Director at Legal and General; Charles Elvin, Director at the Centre of Professional Learning and Development at the Open University, Clive Hutchinson who’s Company Leader at Cougar Automation and John McGurk, the CIPD’s own Learning and Talent Adviser.

John McGurk. Obviously eLearning is clearly broader than just social media. Can you just set the scene for us on how widely eLearning is now used?

John McGurk: Yeah I mean in the survey we ask about the incidence and the use of different learning and development practices and eLearning in terms of its use is increasing roughly 63% of respondents saying that they’re using eLearning compared to about 50% last year.

PL: And that’s across all sectors?

JM: Yeah and we can break it down by private and public. It’s being used more in the private sector but it’s catching up in the public. So there's a kind of growing trend towards it and the issue is then accompanied by the fact that people think that whilst its proliferation is increasing maybe its effectiveness is being questioned because in terms of the free learning and development practice which people believe are most effective eLearning comes fairly well down the list. You know we're certainly seeing the high proliferation of eLearning but whether that's accompanied by effectiveness is the issue.

PL: Well before we get into that can you just identify me what role social media is now playing in all this?

JM: Yeah what we're seeing emerging is a new form of delivery, a new media for eLearning but we've yet to really analyse the data and say what we think that means in terms of learning and development.

PL: Yeah we're all kind of forming our thoughts on this aren’t we but Charles Elvin what do you think is this big focus on social media? Is it part of this shift from training to learning as a more self-directed activity or is that overstating it?

Charles Elvin: I think it’s part of it. I think the description of learning as self-directed is something that I think needs expansion and I can come back to that later if you want. I think it’s more to do with engagement and active participation rather than self-directed or directed by another but the use of social media and how social media are used in relation to learning activities I think has grown and it’s one of the big challenges that exists at the moment for people who are looking at learning solutions. There is on first, prima facie looking at it, it looks like a huge opportunity the question is how do you integrate it to make it effective, how do you provide something that gives a genuine output and value for the organisation whilst using it? Bits of it you might argue are a fad. My personal view is social media such as Facebook have a role to play. Things that are more entertainment-focused like Twitter I've not yet seen, although I'm probably open to being contradicted, a useful use for Twitter. It’s entertaining. It can be fun. Is it useful? Does it add to learning experience? I'm dying to see an example when I believe it is.

PL: But is it symptomatic of the way people like to learn and communicate now? Is that really what it is?

CE: I think it’s symptomatic of the way people like to communicate and be involved. Is it how they like to learn? Is it a learning experience or is it something that people simply want to just say something for the sake of saying it? There are better ways of interacting than through Twitter, and more effective ways.

PL: What do you think John Baker, what did you do at L & G about this?

John Baker: It’s a really interesting area actually because I think from two perspectives, one is it’s very clearly a technology and a means that many, many young people just see it as the way of learning, of communicating and getting information and we ignore that at our peril in my view because we risk alienating a big chunk of the workforce. I think offset against that you've got all of the control and risk elements that any big organisation faces. So actually we took a view that if we were going to do those sorts of things we would do them inside our own firewalls on some of our own tools so we’d use, for example, within our learning management system, the collaboration tools that that had rather than open up Facebook.

PL: So were your people not allowed to use Facebook and didn’t have access to it during working hours?

JB: Yes.

PL: Okay and how did that go down?

JB: We didn’t get that much of a push back to it I mean partly because we never opened it up ((laughs)).

PL: Yes ((laughs)). This is what we're doing, we're not talking, we're not debating it. Okay but you replicated it with your in-house systems effectively?

JB: Yeah and very clearly some parts of the organisation absolutely loved it other parts, persons like myself aged 50 plus, and you think, ‘What do I want that for?’

PL: Really you did see a big age divide did you because that is something I'd like to get into?

JB: And certainly there were groups that absolutely took to it like ducks to water yes.

PL: Well before we get into that question of age Clive Hutchinson how does this play out at Cougar? I know you do some eLearning but what’s your attitude to the social media question?

Clive Hutchinson: Well I mean our attitude to social media in general is we let people do whatever they want and whatever they think is appropriate and we're, I suppose, the opposite really, we don’t control it in any sense at all.

PL: Do you monitor use?

CH: No we don’t monitor use at .

PL: So you've no idea whether it’s being, and I use the term loosely, abused or not?

CH: Well I mean of course if you want to put a label on it like abuse then of course then you might find abuse but it depends what you would call what people are doing. We trust our people.

PL: I suppose put it in more broad terms do you feel people spend too much time doing non work related stuff on it or you don’t get that sense?

CH: I really don’t care what they spend their time doing as long as they deliver for the customers.

PL: Okay.

CH: That's the only thing I’m bothered about and we do a lot of measuring in that area and people get a lot of feedback in that area. What they choose to do to achieve that that's entirely up to them.

PL: What about the question of age divide do you see a division in usage amongst your people?

CH: Yeah very much so I mean I'm 45 so I'm about at the turning point really. People younger than me use it a lot more than people that are older than me.

PL: Do you use it?

CH: Very little. It isn’t something that really interests me that much but I'm not a great networker so it’s not necessarily the technology that helps me to do the things I want to do.

PL: So you don’t see it having much of a role in learning?

CH: I see, well in my view really people will make use of it in the way they want to make use of it so if it’s got some advantage people will do that but people will find that for themselves.

PL: John McGurk what’s the data on the age divide because actually users of social networks are considerably older than one might think aren’t they?

JM: Yeah I mean I think there's a demographic and an economic issue in terms of access to, I mean first of all I think there's an issue about your level of autonomy in an organisation and your ability to use that that technology, I'm basically licensed to tweet and blog and all of those other things whereas there'll be people, and it’s not a good thing and it needs to be looked at, but people in less senior outward facing roles don’t get that access and that's one thing in terms of how it happens in the workplace and another thing is that this technology is expensive and it’s sometimes only really adopted early by people with relatively high incomes.

PL: Actually in terms of buying the kit?

JM: Yeah.

PL: An iPad or whatever?

JM: Yeah. And that's not to say that young people aren’t enormously engaged in it but I think the idea of a divide in terms of that is fairly exaggerated and overstated and not really looked into and examined but I think there are people who are distinctly uncomfortable with using social media. Some people think tweets are an absolute waste of 140 finger jabs or whatever ((laughs)) and some people think that they’re the future of connectivity and networking. Now the thing is there are people who do things around learning and development using tweets. They set up communities, they set up networks, they get people re-tweeting articles and we've got people talking about speeches etc. and a lot of those people are fairly senior practitioners who have the autonomy and the access to be able to do that. So I don't think that there's an age issue.

PL: Do you think that is a worthwhile and effective thing to do?

JM: Absolutely do yeah. I started off as a bit of a sceptic and I'm still the type of person that gets annoyed by people that are sort of hyper-connected to their mobile device and so distracted that they sometimes go down the gap at Clapham Junction Station because they’re so completely immersed in it but at the same time this is the infrastructure of learning outside the organisation and inside the organisation that we have to engage with. We can't say that it’s a waste of time because it’s absolutely vital to how people learn and all of the theory that's now developing around the psychology of learning is showing, in the way that the brain works etc, is showing that short, episodic follow ups that reinforce learning etc. are probably a much better way of evaluating and embedding learning than anything we've had to date and I think that that's where the role has got to be and lots of our organisations are using eLearning in that way.

PL: What do you think Charles because you’re obviously not a fan of tweeting as you've said?

CE: Well I like social media I'm just not a fan of Twitter. I think we need to separate the two away. I think when we use, I mean we're lucky that the Open University has an open policy towards all of these and I use Linked In, I use Facebook and we also have a lot of work going on with social media and how to apply it. For me it’s not whether the media or the technology in and of itself is interesting or not interesting and people use it in different ways, it’s effectiveness and appropriateness into that environment which is what matters. It is does it work? If you have the evidence that it’s providing, as John has said, some reinforcement and we all know reinforcement is a very vital point of learning. It’s a very important thing to do, reinforcement, reflection, the ability to come back over stuff. If the way you like that is someone to tweet you a question to spark that thought then it’s worked and someone has done something effective. If it is you do it in different ways whether it comes to an SMS message or whether it comes through something you’re doing online. If it’s working and we can demonstrate the impact I think that's fabulous.

I think it has, social media that sort of interaction, has a as yet not fully known role in how it interacts with other learning structures and what’s still I think a moot point and is interesting to watch what people are doing and different organisations are doing and different research bodies are doing it, is how you integrate it into an overall learning environment. In itself it’s no silver bullet, there isn’t any silver bullet in this world but it is an interesting and probably a very important addition and the danger is people fall in love with one technology and it is another technology. It’s a particularly pervasive one, it’s everywhere.

People talk about eLearning and one of the most interesting questions about eLearning is whether we all share the same definition because at the University we talk about technology-enhanced learning, using the technology to enhance and expand the learning experience. If it is doing that bang it works, fantastic. If it’s just a distraction it will probably die of its own accord anyway.

So I think it is a challenge for me and it’s still a challenge in terms of how we integrate it and that's the biggest bit I as yet haven't seen fleshed through and I think we're some way, as eLearning developed over the years lots of models were used and fell down the side, they didn’t work and people felt you could put everything onto eLearning and then well actually there's no point it’s just putting PowerPoint onto a screen with a next button and then you did it yourself was a waste of time. Doing simulations were extraordinary and gave you an enhanced learning experience and gave you with something you couldn’t do before and I think we're at the early phase of that with social media whereas we're more advanced with other forms of online and electronic learning.

PL: And what’s your take on the age demographic question? Are there differences or is that overstating it?

CE: I tend to agree with John I think there may be certain forms of financial demographic that are different although almost every teenager I see has a mobile phone and uses it more than I do so I'm not sure there's an age demographic. I think certainly for new technologies like the iPad I mean you can do a lot of work, you know, you will have to use an iPad and how it can be applied into learning I think there is a financial barrier there but I also think the iPad is clearly a potential game changer for a lot of mobile learning and you’re doing research in mobile learning and the OU even has a professor of mobile learning did you know that? Yes and it does potentially give you an extraordinarily transformed learning experience and I think the iPad is probably one of the most remarkable…or the iPad and others we should probably say, tablet PCs, have the potential to transform the effectiveness of mobile learning into a totally different realm. To me it becomes possible whereas before it was a bit awkward.

PL: What do you think John Baker would you agree with that?

JB: Yeah broadly I would actually yes and I think the interesting thing about working in the financial services industry is it’s quite a conservative industry so it tends not to be at the leading edge of this sort of stuff which actually can be quite an advantage because you can let the leading edge merchants test these things out, find out what works and what doesn’t and then pick the best out but yes certainly I can see these technologies making a huge difference.

PL: So Clive if I'm understanding you rightly you’re relaxed about the whole question of eLearning or social media, you let your people direct their own learning is that right?

CH: Well we're relaxed about the social media and all that kind of thing. We're relaxed about everyone. I mean what we want is we want people to learn the things that they want to learn. We organise the business so that everyone’s got a very clear sense of purpose of what they’re there to achieve. If people want to learn things to achieve that then we try and give them the opportunities to pull that learning as they want it.

PL: But it’s very self-directed. You don’t say, “You need to go and learn this.”

CH: Absolutely because who learns very much if they’re told they have to go and learn something rather than wanting to learn it.

PL: Well I take the point but that's how most organisations work isn’t it? I mean what do you think John Baker that's not how you did it at L & G was it? I think you take the view the business needs to direct what people learn because it’s a cost?

JB: Well you actually need a mixture of both.

PL: Right.

JB: Because if you want to change the culture of any organisation you have to do that through some quite strategic interventions but you also have to recognise that individuals have needs to develop their own expertise, their own careers, so it’s always a balance about how do you get both of those within the limited amount of resource that you always have.

PL: John McGurk is that, I mean just to play devil’s advocate, is there an argument for saying that investing in any sort of training is really dead money because you upskill people and they go?

JM: No absolutely not. I mean the idea that I mean organisations are only going to build capability through capable people and sometimes you have to take a…it’s a fluid labour market that we operate in and people do move on. You don’t lock people in, in apart from a few environments where you can lock people in after they’ve been trained…

PL: But doesn’t social media enhance that possibility?

JM: It does to an extent but it then raises the game for organisations to make sure that the learning and development offer that they put forward to their staff and that actually fulfils the business needs is fit for purpose and it actually because people are able now to think, ‘Well if I want to learn about project management I can download an app. I don’t need to listen to some boring kind of online, virtual network presentation, or I don’t need to go to a classroom and listen to it,’ so it challenges L & D specialists to raise their game I think and it challenges firms to put more value on learning because it’s become the boundaries between learning in the workplace and learning in the social environment are just becoming totally blurred.

PL: How does that work at Cougar Clive do you find that people they learn, they become extremely valuable to you and because they are more connected now they do hop off elsewhere?

CH: No because they want to work for us because it’s a good place to work because we're not telling them what they have to learn and what they have to do. We make it clear what our purpose is and what we're all there to do together and there's a sense of community. I think this idea if, you know, you should be worried if you train your people because they’ll leave, well that says something about what kind of organisation you've created that they want to get away from.

PL: But organisations are fearful aren’t they? They have this idea they’re going to spend the training budget and then their people, particularly their young people are so socially connected, both within and outside the organisation that they are going to be more mobile than they ever were.

CH: We do have an interesting debate in Cougar Automation about taking on fresh graduates because our experience with fresh graduates is they don’t know how good it is working in the business when they join us, they’ve got nothing to compare it with and there is this view it appears with people of that age now that they will move on and try a few different things out. So we find where you've got people who’ve maybe worked for five, six, seven years and then they come and work for us they’ll never want to leave whereas with someone straight out of university they go, “Well that was quite good I'll go and try somewhere else now.”

CE: I think you make a very important point and it reflects on the fact that learning inside any organisation is not a solitary activity. If you are going to spend time and money developing people, giving them new skills and capabilities you have to use those and give them something to do with it. You've enhanced their value and their capability. The worst thing you can do is train someone to do something new and then send them back to what they did before. It’s ultimately deeply demotivational. So when you put your learning strategy in place, whatever and however that works, wrap it around an overall policy of structure and activity to move people through roles and activities. It doesn’t even mean you have to pay them any more you just have to let them use and show that you value their new capability that you've given them.

PL: So this is a real leadership challenge.

CE: It’s a leadership challenge but also I mean I'm looking at John McGurk here it’s a frequent management error that you train someone and you put them through an expensive programme and then you ignore what you've given them and what do you think they’re going to do, just sit there and be happy with that? Almost certainly not. And it also reflects another, I think it’s quite a quick point, we've talked about the company and the individual a lot of the trends and a lot of the research shows that people are more and more identifying with their job role rather than their organisation and that's been a shift over a long period of time and that means that people are very conscious of what they’re provided as their own professional development and therefore if they’re not getting that from the organisation they do start to look at it themselves and pay for it themselves and you’re seeing a willingness to have both. The individual says, “Well I'm responsible for my own skill set because I'm not entirely confident the world of work is stable therefore if my company does it that's fabulous because I don’t have to pay for it and lovely thank you very much but if they’re giving me stuff that they need and I kind of think I need something else I'll supplement it, I will add to it,” I think that's a very…it’s not an either or, it’s become a both and people are very conscious of their own employability.

PL: So the whole arena has become more sophisticated?

CE: I think considerably more and I think the individual is more sophisticated.

JM: And I think the opportunities offered by eLearning and again I'm anxious to make sure that we don’t get into techno-faddism that we say that eLearning’s the new future or mobile learning’s the new future, it’s a medium for the delivery of…or a medium for, not even the word delivery’s wrong, it’s a medium for people to engage with learning and for people to develop capability and that being out there in so many different varieties means that people will find those opportunities if organisations don’t give them, if people don’t build them and I think that's going to be a positive thing for learning in the workplace.

PL: But for organisations in general, this cultural shift, an opportunity not a threat would we all agree?

JM: Yeah absolutely.

CE: I've only ever met one organisation whose view of their internal skills and their learning and development policy is if I want it I'll go and buy it in the marketplace and that was a large law firm and their view was, “We don’t do learning and development you do learning and development for yourself. We're not spending any money on it. If I want a specialist I advertise, I go find it,” Now I don't agree with that policy but it is one extreme end of a learning and development strategy. I think they suffer for many ways and I'm sure we can point out lots of reasons why that's a bad idea but it’s up to the organisation to make its decision.

JB: There's actually I think a very real risk at the moment in the current climate as well, particularly if you get the balance between organisational learning and individual learning wrong because it’s really hard to demonstrate ROI or benefit from an individual learning which makes it a very soft target and actually if the finance director gets hold of that or whoever and the cuts are made the impact isn’t felt for quite some time and regaining the position also takes a considerable amount of time. So there's a real short term risk I think.

JM: And I think that one of the heartening things for me at this conference has been the amount of focus that practitioners are putting on evaluation and impact which I haven't seen before and maybe it is about bad times increasing people’s tendency to look at those issues of effectiveness but I think that's absolutely critical and it’s a real issue that we need to challenge the L & D community to make sure they’re integrating that into what they do.

PL: Well it is a fascinating subject. Sadly we are out of time but many thanks to my guests today, John Baker, Charles, Elvin, Clive Hutchinson and John McGurk.

To find out more about the speakers you've been hearing or indeed to read up on the CIPD’s own research into learning and development take a look at the show notes for this podcast, you'll find those at

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