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Most L&D and HR people are familiar with social and collaborative learning, but the question on everyone’s mind is – does it actually work? You’ve probably witnessed discussion boards with a token question and no comments anywhere to be seen, or perhaps you don’t post on Facebook much and think it must only be for the extraverts who love to share what they’ve been up to.

But at the same time, the argument for digital peer learning is compelling. We know that top-down, force fed learning and transformation programmes don’t work: to get buy in and momentum for cultural change, it has to come from the individual, and their peers, from the bottom up. And scaling face-to-face programmes becomes cost prohibitive.

The Godfather of social learning, Bandura, researched how we learn from our family and peers through observation and role modelling back in the 1970s. We also see this happening in organisations everyday.

Now, technology can foster and scale collaboration, connecting people across boundaries and breaking down silos to unlock innovation, cost savings and high performance as people share knowledge with one another.

But anyone who has implemented a new technology platform will know that just because you build it, there is no guarantee they will come. Experts suggest that the amount of participation you can expect in social learning technologies is slim – so is it worth even trying?

My answer is yes! It takes work, but seeing a movement come alive in your organisation and the business value that comes from it is highly rewarding. Here is some useful theory to benchmark your success, and how you can overcome the barriers to create a peer learning culture.

How much sharing should you expect?

Jakob Nielsen, a consumer online community consultant, tells us that in online communities we often see participation inequality, known as the 90-9-1 rule (2006). This suggests that 90% of people are ‘lurkers’ (we prefer ‘readers’), 9% are commentators who comment on other people’s content and 1% are creators who create their own content.

Schneider (2011) did his own analysis and found an average of 70-20-10 to be more applicable. We believe this is a better benchmark for the purpose of learning, reinforced by Towards Maturity’s 2009 case study of BT’s Dare2Share programme, which suggested that 5-10% was a realistic target for content creators, with the rest being passive consumers.

The 70-20-10 model is a good benchmark to start, but shouldn’t we aim higher in today’s social and collaborative world?

So how do we do that? The ‘Reader to Leader’ framework from Preece & Schneiderman (2011) is useful because it shows that people’s behaviour online is not static and can progress into more collaborative behaviours in the right conditions – as first followers and influencers demonstrate sharing, people start to join in.

Through a combination of a positive user experience, an encouraging context in the group and a clear purpose for collaboration, people can move along the spectrum from reader (passively consuming content) to leader (using groups to create a movement and mentoring others).

Enabling a culture of sharing over 3 years

We saw this shift occur in one of our clients who had a conservative culture where people were reluctant to share. The Head of Digital Learning knew that the culture would make using social learning technology difficult (and it hadn’t worked in the past). Instead of saying, ‘Our people won’t share digitally’, he asked, ‘What are the conditions that will make people share?’

They moved from having just over half of people passively consuming content as readers in the first year, to having just 5% of people reading without proactively contributing by year 3. In setting success measures, it’s important to be realistic about the current culture, and once you know the base rate celebrate progress.

The diagram below shows the shift in cohort behaviour over a three year period, by experimenting and iterating with our approach to engaging people in content and conversation.

We have learned that with time, shifting behaviour on a social platform is not only possible but can change the culture more broadly, as people practice ‘paying it forward’ by sharing what they have learned with others, ‘working out loud’ and asking for help both digitally and in person.

9 top tips for creating a peer learning culture digitally

1. Have a clear purpose for the group with guidelines on how to contribute. Define the value proposition: why should people go there? How does sharing help them be more effective in their roles? How does it link to the broader programme and organisational objectives?

2. Embed your digital platform in face to face events – get speakers or facilitators to constantly reference continuing the conversation online. Ideally arrange a face to face onboarding session where people play with the technology and ask them how they would like to get the most out of it so they are driving it.

3. Create a first positive experience – get sponsors involved in conversations so that when people arrive there is a party atmosphere: conversations are already happening. It’s easier to get on the dance floor when you’re not the only one… Psychological safety is a key one too – communicate the importance of and role model positive and encouraging behaviours.

4. Make it easy to share – polls are a great progression into commenting as not only do they offer the reward of seeing what your peers think but they get people using the technology. Once someone has used the technology or contributed even in a small way they get a confidence boost to do it again. So if you can get people uploading something or completing a live poll at your launch event that can do wonders for future engagement.

5. Get senior leader endorsement and build champions and first followers -you may or may not choose to have senior leaders in your group (depending on the purpose), but having senior leaders who understand the business case for collaborating and are willing to role model and champion it is a key driver of success and engagement. In order to start a movement, focus on creating a group of active first followers who see the value of what you are doing and the behaviours will catch on. Research has shown that you only need a tipping point of 25% of people to create the change you want to see. See the lessons from the Dancing Guy in the video below.

6. Align content to themes that are important to participants – if you’re using a blended approach, collect themes that came up in the room and post content on that – people will instantly connect with it because they brought it up initially. Otherwise, ensure you use polls, surveys or interviews to ask participants what they want to hear more or less about, or use your HR or business calendar as a guide.

7. Post content to drive conversation – you want to create a culture of user generated content, but we have found that starts by posting regular, relevant content first so that people have something interesting to talk about. Once you gain momentum, you won’t need to post as much as others will be sharing third party resources.

8. Use data to learn and iterate what works and what doesn’t – analyse the spikes in engagement and the plateaus and do more of what works. Create a recipe for success which is unique to the culture of your organisation and each group.

9. Let the magic happen – focus on creating the right environment for sharing but don’t force it. Ask people to share and they will freeze up (especially if you are not sharing!). The best approach is to find your first followers and influencers to role model or share the value that your team is getting from it, and let them learn from each other and see the potential – that is the essence of peer learning in action!

It’s clear that peer learning can be powerful, but technology alone will not make it work.

As with any cultural change, having a clear purpose and value proposition, making it easy for people, creating psychological safety, role modelling from champions and rewarding the right behaviours are the key to effecting change. As we saw with our client, cultural change is often a 3 year journey, so be patient, experiment and keep at it.

Online community benchmarks help us to be realistic about people’s participation, but they are also there to be exceeded – which can happen if you continually learn and iterate your approach to add increasing value in your peer learning platform.

If you’d like to swap ideas on how you can encourage sharing and activate peer learning in your organisation, get in touch:

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