The dawn of a new generation

User-generated content (UGC) is not a novel concept, but most of us in the corporate sector have barely scratched its surface.

Beyond enterprise social networks – which are hardly universal and face substantial challenges of their own – UGC in the broader sense is beset by concerns about content quality, accountability, organisational culture, job security and power dynamics.

And yet… the world is changing.

Notwithstanding either the validity or the importance of our concerns with UGC, the traditional training model is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the modern workplace. And besides, I think most of our concerns can be addressed by a change in mindset, a little imagination, a dash of trust, and a collective commitment to make it work.

To explore the practicalities of user-generated content, the Learning Cafe sponsored a webinar entitled Learner Generated Learning Content – Possibilities, mechanics and chaos? The event was hosted by Jeevan Joshi and presented by myself, Andrew Mazurkiewicz and Cheryle Walker.

My part comprised a proposed solution to a fictional case. Both the case and the transcript of my proposal are outlined below…

Office workers in cubicles

The case

Ron is the manager for a 250 seat contact centre at an insurance company in 3 locations. Ron has made sure that there is a comprehensive training program to cover all aspects of the job. However in the past 6 months improvements have plateaued despite improving the content and structure of the training workshops. Ron did an analysis of contact centre data and concluded that further improvements were only possible if practical knowledge and better practices known to the team were shared in the team.

Denise, a team leader suggested that operators would be keen to share how they dealt with difficult or complex calls using the web cam on the PC and post it on the intranet. Ron was concerned that recording may be a distraction and may be perceived by some as monitoring performance. Kit, the Learning Consultant insisted the videos should be loaded on the LMS so that the time spent and results could be tracked. There were also concerns that inappropriate videos may be posted. Denise was however convinced that it was a good idea and the only way to improve further performance. What should Ron do?

My proposal

Formal training

Well firstly I think Ron should retain his formal training program. It’s important for the organisation to cover off its “must know” knowledge and skills, and formal training can be a quick and efficient way of doing that. Besides, moving away too radically from formal training would probably be a culture shock for the company, and thus counter-productive. So in this case I suggest it would be best to build on the foundation of the training program.

Training is the front end of an employee’s learning & development. I know from first-hand experience that there is a lot for contact centre staff to take in, and they can’t possibly be expected to remember it all. So the formal training needs to be sustained, and a powerful way of doing that is with an informal learning environment.

Formal training complemented by a content repository

A key component of the informal learning environment is the content repository – such as an intranet or a wiki – that contains content that the employee can search or explore at their discretion. The logical place to start with this content is with the existing training collateral. Now, I don’t mean simply uploading the user guides, but extracting the information and re-purposing it in a structured and meaningful way on-screen.

If Denise knows operators who are keen to generate content, then I would certainly welcome that. These people are the SMEs – they live and breathe the subject matter every day – so they are the obvious choice to add value.

However, I’m not sure if web cams are necessarily the way to go. In the case of dealing with difficult calls, audio would be a more authentic choice; visuals wouldn’t add anything to the learning experience – in fact, they’d probably be distracting. The operator could request a particular recording from the quality system and write up in text how they handled the call. And if they used a tool like Audacity, they could easily cut and edit the audio file as they see fit.

Another way of generating content – especially for process and system training – might include Captivate or Camtasia, which are really easy to use to produce handy tutorials.

An important point to remember is that the operator on the phone might need to look up something quickly. For example, if they have an angry or abusive caller on the other end of the line, they won’t have the luxury of wading through reams of text or listening to a 7-minute model call. So it’s important that the practical knowledge be provided in the form of job aids – such as a template or a checklist – that the operator can use on-the-job, just-in-time.

I don’t agree with Kit that this content should be put on the LMS. Frankly, no one will go in there – and in my opinion, that’s not what an LMS is for. By definition, an LMS is a Learning Management System – so use it to manage learning. It makes sense to use the LMS for the formal training program – for things like registrations, grading, transcripts, reporting etc. In contrast, what we’re talking about here is the act of learning – not its management. The operator needs a resource that is easy to access, easy to navigate, to learn what they need to do their job in the moment.

We must remember that the point of learning is performance – so the focus of our measurement and evaluation energies should be on the performance stats. The employees would have been thoroughly assessed during the formal training program, so now is not the time to go loading the LMS with more stuff just for the sake of tracking it. The real tracking now should be done with the business scorecard.

Formal training complemented by a content repository, which in turn is complemented by a social forum.

OK, a missing link in this solution is a social forum.

If an operator can’t find what they need, a social forum enables them to ask their crowd of peers. And again, because these peers are themselves SMEs, someone is likely to have the answer. Not only does this approach service the operator with the information they need, but other operators can see the interaction and learn from it as well.

Also, by keeping tabs on the discussions in the forum, the L&D professional can identify gaps in the solution, and review the content that is evidently unclear or difficult to find.

So in summary, my solution for Ron is an integrated solution comprising his formal training program, complemented by an informal learning environment including a structured content repository, which in turn is complemented by a social forum.

Those among us who like the 70:20:10 model will see each component represented in this solution.

Formal training (10) complemented by a content repository (70), which in turn is complemented by a social forum (20).

Do you agree with my integrated solution? What else would you recommend, or what would you propose instead?

Are we witnessing the dawn of a new generation? Can user-generated content be a core component of the corporate L&D strategy? Or is it just a pipe dream?

16 thoughts on “The dawn of a new generation

  1. As I read your scenario I was drawn back to a similar solution I proposed for a previous organization that too had a call center Ryan. Your approach was spot on and I couldn’t agree more about the role of formal learning and the shift to learning and performing with support. The only thing I’d add is that (overtime) the fluid sharing of solutions in tacit knowledge sharing could be articulated into something more explicit and serve to inform new or update older job aids and maybe the formal training itself. A social network encourages some-level of ownership of an organization that typically has high turnover. The ability to contribute and define new process and approaches is motivating. I think making the cycle of tacit to explicit more obvious would help reinforce continuous learning.

  2. Good point, Mark. Call centres typically experience high turnover, which makes them vulnerable to the loss of tacit knowledge. Making the tacit organisational knowledge explicit is critical to its sustainability.

    But getting the knowledge “out there” is only the first hurdle. As you point out, collateral falls out of date, and so the next hurdle is keeping it current. This begs some sort of governance strategy, which I suggest would involve the assignment of owners or custodians to content or topics. Accountability could be strict (connected to KPIs) or loose (relying on the community to identify inaccuracies). And of course the system could/should be continually monitored and regularly audited.

    Your observation that “the ability to contribute and define new process and approaches is motivating” has prompted me to look at this kind of solution through the lens of innovation. Explicating knowledge may be considered a form of working out loud. Once we know what the process is, we can consider ways of improving it.

  3. Love your article – thought-provoking! I love the idea of the LMS as the store for “official” learning.

    In the context of workplace learning, the Content Repository might be better off as a moderated, regulated area in which users are allowed to create content and propose for that content to be accepted in the repository. Content tags and expiration dates are also useful to keep content from growing stale and un-useful. When you have masses of content being created by people who don’t collaborate, there is a good chance for duplication and wasted effort.

    As for the social forum, I recommend companies move this outside of their website or community. Pass this work along to online communities such as Stack Overflow (for programming). Stack Overflow is a well-defined community, with strict rules for engagement. Also, if you set up your community on your website, it gives the impression that you’re listening and watching what’s going on, even if that is physically impossible.

  4. Thanks JG.

    Indeed, especially in its early incarnations, the content repository may need to be regulated. This leans towards stricter accountability on the shoulders of the selected regulators, but as you say, it would address problems with currency and duplication.

    Content tags and expiration dates are also an excellent idea. I’ve seen the latter in action whereby the system automatically sends an expiration notice to the content owner; however I’ve also seen this functionality rendered redundant through a lack of accountability – ie the content owner simply ignores the notification without bearing any consequences.

    An externally facing social forum is a fascinating idea. Brilliant for brand marketing and for engaging your target audience in your workflow. However I also see the need for a walled garden, as some interactions between colleagues are inappropriate for public viewing. Having said that, there’s no reason why a company couldn’t do both!

  5. Great post Ryan – the scenario described is very similar to what we are increasingly encountering with our clients, and your solution – formal courses wrapped with learning resources/job aids inside a social platform to enable collaboration and feedback – is spot-on.

    An element that this post doesn’t cover is curation, which might require an extra ‘C’ in UGC – User Generated/*Curated* Content! Every organisation has its SMEs, and they are a vital resource, but they can soon become overtaxed if they are relied upon as the ‘go to’ person who smooths over everybody else’s challenges and knowledge- or skill-gaps.

    Being identified as an SME can be a huge boon to one’s personal standing of course, but it can also become a straitjacket the individual Expert will soon come to resent.

    The way knowledge moves in today’s economy means it’s easy for an SME’s expertise to go out of date, or for priorities to switch direction, making that individual’s knowledge obsolete. And what if the SME leaves the organisation? Can you really recruit a replacement whose expertise matches up perfectly?

    Maybe the ideal solution – and maybe it’s not as impossible to implement as it first sounds – is to work towards a culture where *everyone* becomes the expert! A means of empowering them to do that is through curation. In effect, you say to the learner: ‘You go find the solution,’ in the knowledge that today there is probably a guide to best practice for this topic lurking on Youtube or elsewhere online. If there isn’t a readymade resource for the challenge lurking out there, they can discuss the problem in the social forum and hash it out as a team. They find or develop the solution themselves, bring it back, share it for critique and validation.

    If the community thinks that the offered solution is valuable, it can be curated as an ‘official’ resource or guide and naturally percolate through the organisation until it becomes ‘normal’ (aka ‘best’!) practice.

  6. Excellent addition, tesello.

    Bearing in mind the difference between general and specific knowledge, there’s no point reinventing the wheel when someone else’s wheel will do just fine.

    Traditionally (if content curation may be considered traditional!) the role of curator fell to the L&D pro or perhaps the SME. However, as you say, there is so much more potential for everyone to curate content.

    “If there isn’t a readymade resource for the challenge lurking out there, they can discuss the problem in the social forum and hash it out as a team. They find or develop the solution themselves, bring it back, share it for critique and validation.” — I think this is very important; just because they found it doesn't make it "right". However if the context is participatory, then the "right" stuff can be approved by the custodian and added into the official repository.

    So, in short, I agree. Let’s combine user-generated content (UGC) with user-sourced content (USC)!

  7. In my experience letting users produce (and use) spontaneously learning content is subject to several difficulties until both people and organization are really ready to support this process. A good solution may be to initially involve internal SMEs in the formal training, with the tutoring and coordination of the HR and L&D personnel. In the past two years I followed a project involving 162 employees in the production of 23 elearning courses, then made availble to the whole company (over 8.000 users). Being aknowledged as experts, the partecipation and motivation of the SMEs was incredible. On the other side, also the partecipation to the online courses has been massive.

    The engagement of users in the continuous training and knowledge management processes is definetly a need for modern organizations, maybe the key will be introducing someone that acts as a mediator to facilitate the emerging and sharing of the hidden knowledge.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience, Alberto. A mediator sounds like a good idea – a role for the L&D pro?

  9. Ryan, thanks for an interesting blog post. I have tried using a similar setup for one of our training requirements earlier.
    One thing which I had done was to get a set of different tools together to create this learning environment. I am curious to know if the situation has changed. Do you see any tool or system which provides all these requirements?

  10. Thanks Poonam. I expect there are plenty of all-in-one systems out there that provide all the requirements for this kind of integrated solution, and LMSs appear to be heading down that road. SharePoint springs to mind as a popular platform in the corporate sector that can act as a content repository and provides social collaboration tools.

    Having said that, I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with stringing different tools together. In fact, if they are fit for purpose, why not? In such a case, what would probably be needed is a central springboard to all the tools, so that they are easily accessed by their intended users.

  11. Ryan, I really connected with this post. Partially because I’ve written about a small part of it before, but mostly because I’ve seen it work so well.

    In a call center environment, I think you’ve got the perfect solution here. I’ve seen a wiki be a huge success for a Microsoft Exchange hosting company who shared knowledge between call centers in California and Russia, plus another office full of marketing and executives in New York.

    I think the only piece of the puzzle which was missing in that scenario was the solution for social which was somewhat provided for in Lync, although and ESN would have probably been even more successful.

    I saw this solution as also being a possible success in the current industry I’m in (healthcare) where it’s sometimes hard to get people on the floor to participate in knowledge sharing (they are very busy). Motivating them and giving them the opportunity to share with others would be invaluable.

    I wrote about this on a blog post late last year but I didn’t write about it as completely as you did ( I think you really completed my thoughts and gave an all around holistic solution.

  12. Thanks for saying so, Nick. In this post, I have the luxury of responding to a hypothetical caselet; your post is about a real-life solution replete with restrictions and other challenges!

    I’m a big fan of wikis and am surprised that they are not more commonly used in the corporate sector. In my last comment I mentioned SharePoint — this I find is quite a good platform, but publishing content does require an extra bit of know-how (it’s not completely intuitive) and it requires special editing rights. A wiki I think would be more open, but of course that inherits issues of governance etc.

    Above all of that however, as you point out, are the thorny problems of busyness and motivation. These hold back UGC regardless of the technology that is deployed.

  13. I love that the landscape of eLearning is seeing that change is on the horizon.

    @Poonam The startup I work for, Friye (Friend In Your Ear), is a new-world platform which I believe fills the 90% gap Ryan has outlined here. Our site:

    It’s worth a look – the idea started a little over a year ago, and we have been building our team and doing application development over the past few months. We just launched a Kickstarter and the videos do tell a lot about how we see the shift in How-To/eLearning into the 21st century.

    Can’t wait to launch! We are expecting mid 2015.

    @Ryan THANK YOU! for this great article – I am very grateful and sharing with in my networks.

  14. Great article and lots of valuable tips in the discussion thread. One challenge I am grappling with in my org is encouraging people to use the ESN for asking questions, sharing tips and the like when they currently do this face to face, on the phone or via email. Getting this happening on ESN would allow others to participate and learn, but it’s a behaviour shift that can be less convenient than current methods people use. What have others done to achieve this shift?

  15. Thanks Michelle. The lack of active participation on the ESN is something I find incredibly disappointing, especially in the shadow of the hive of activity on Facebook etc. It’s something I contemplate in “They’re not like us” and I’m afraid to admit I’m resigning myself to the 90:9:1 principle.

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