Is There a Better Way to Social Learning?

April 29, 2015 Dawn Poulos

Last week, I had the good fortune to speak with George Siemens for an upcoming Xyleme Voices podcast. The opportunity to speak one-on-one with so many industry luminaries is easily the best part of my job given the lively debates that often flow from these discussions. My conversation with George was no exception as we spoke at length about Connectivism, social learning networks, and the future of current learning technologies (LMS, LCMS, etc.) in light of social media. It was this last point where our discussion got quite animated.

While there are countless articles about the future of the LMS, it was arguably George’s blog post titled Future of learning: LMS or SNS? which kicked this discussion into high gear. So, I was not going to let the opportunity to debate this topic pass me by.

George believes that the future of both the LMS and the LCMS is quite strong, the obvious point being that there will always be a need for structured content and reporting to meet regulatory and legal obligations. However, those vendors who rely solely on this argument are very likely to find themselves quickly marginalized. To stay relevant, George believes training vendors should do two things:

  1. Stop talking “learning” and start talking “capacity” and “execution” like the rest of the C-suite.
  2. Augment their systems with components that provide opportunities for people to interact in social systems for informal learning.

By doing this, George argues that vendors (LMS in particular), and the organizations they sell to, will begin to see their product no longer as simply an event-based tool for learning, but rather as a process-based tool for capacity planning and workplace effectiveness. When this happens, the LMS will move past somewhat of a marginalized view to something that is more systemic and more broadly leveraged across the organization.

The problem lies not in this goal, but how learning vendors are choosing to get there. Dan Pontefract, in his most excellent post The Standalone LMS is Dead makes the following argument:

“Set up your ‘Facebook for the organization’ by embedding an LMS (or LMS like features) into your enterprise-wide collaboration platform. Coaches, mentors, online buddies need to coexist within the wiki’s, blogs, discussion forums, webcam meetings, online presence, etc. which needs to coexist within the list of formal classroom and eLearning offerings which needs to coexist with your documents, knowledge management, videos, podcasts, which needs to coexist with the profiles, skills, and recent activity-feed happenings of all employees. Blow up your LMS. Find a way to integrate it into your collaboration platform.

This argument, while spot-on, has fallen on deaf ears. Instead of partnering with social media vendors who are already firmly entrenched in the enterprise and integrating their own best-of-breed LMS features into these platforms, we are instead watching LMS and some LCMS vendors develop their own set of social media functionality. Here is why I believe this strategy will not only fail but risk further marginalizing L&D:

1. Companies will choose best-of-breed social business software vendors for enterprise social learning deployments, not niche players

Below is Gartner’s 2009 Magic Quadrant for Social Software in the Workplace, G00171792 [see note at end of post]. This is a list of roughly the top 35 or so social media vendors providing a broad core set of social media capabilities. You’ll see with the exception of Saba, there are no learning vendors on this list. This is due either to a lack of revenues derived from social software licenses or to having a specific industry focus, or both.

Gartner Magic Quadrant

In this report Gartner defines the main uses for these vendors’ social software tools, two of them being the following:

“Empowering communities of experts and interested parties (bonding people by specific interests, capturing best practices, disseminating lead-user innovation and providing an informal support network).”

“Accessing relevant knowledge and expertise that can be used to formulate a plan of action when decisions need to be made.”

Wow! These sound a lot like the definition of Social Learning. This poses an interesting question: If best-of-breed broad ecosystem social software vendors can meet the requirements of social learning in addition to other social functionality required within an enterprise, what sense does it make to implement the social learning solutions offered by the LMS/LCMS players?

Indeed, in this same report, Gartner makes the following observation:

“Being smaller with a specialist focus rather than broader ‘ecosystem’ players, they are struggling to demonstrate enterprise credibility and long-term viability through partnerships, alliances, integration options and examples of customer success.”

2. Learning-focused social functionality simply reinforces L&D’s status as a small, siloed organization with minimal enterprise influence.

With social media, the hard reality is that small niche players like LMS and LCMS vendors will always lag behind dedicated social business software players. Referring again the Magic Quadrant report for Social Software in the workplace, Gartner states the following:

“They (niche players) are still held back by breadth of functionality, by product road map urgency or by lack of an innovative growth strategy.”

A quick social media search also turned up a number of comments on the subject. Here is one I found interesting from @jacobboone:

“. . .I was at the CLO symposium in 2009 and eLearning vendors are coming at it from the other angle…providing collaboration platforms wrapped around their content. The problem is that this results in informal learning about formal training content only…and the usability is way behind. . .”

Despite this, Gartner does believe that niche players do have a viable growth strategy available to them by focusing on specific verticals or supporting specific activities. Obviously, this is the sweet spot for LMS/LCMS vendors offering social media functionality. However, we need to face another harsh reality posed by Gartner:

“Products from specialist vendors continued to be preferred for first and follow-on deployments, but many smaller vendors are struggling to close large enterprise-wide deals.”

This poses another interesting dilemma. George Siemens believes that LMS vendors need move past their current marginalized view by providing process-based social media tools that are systematic and leveraged broadly across the organization. But, how can L&D break out of their siloed state and exercise enterprise-wide influence when they utilize point social solutions that lack the ability (both in terms of functionality and vendor influence) to extend beyond training? I’d say they can’t.

3. In most organizations, social learning initiatives will be driven outside L&D

Back in April, I had the opportunity to chat with Ben Kiker, the Chief Marketing Officer at Jive Software at the time. Although we never hear about it in the training blogs, Jive is actually driving some of the biggest and most successful social learning projects today in terms of scope, size, adoption and engagement.

When I asked Ben who was the driving force behind these projects, his answer was not L&D, but rather the COO or General Manager of a substantial business unit. He then provided me some pretty stunning examples of social learning in action and across the enterprise. You can listen to the podcast here, but check out the stats of these two examples:

Swiss Re (global reinsurer operating in >20 countries): Internal Collaboration – The goal here was the efficient exchange of subject matter expertise across worldwide business units, locations, and time zones. Within seven weeks of implementing their social network:

  • The adoption rate surpassed 60%
  • 2,200 people created profiles and/or joined groups
  • >1,000 people engaged in discussions
  • >600 users were creating content

CSC (92K employees in >90 countries): Expertise Location – The goal was to quickly located experts and relevant assets for rapid turnaround and effective communication with key accounts. Within 20 weeks of implementing their social network:

  • Adoption surpassed 25K users
  • Over 2,100 groups were formed across practices, communities of interest, competencies, etc.
  • Activity was robust with over 1million page views and >150 actions per month

So, social learning is happening and it’s happening in a major way with vendors who provide a broad range of capabilities, not the niche LMS/LCMS social media players. Social learning doesn’t work unless it permeates the enterprise and this cannot happen on the departmental level. So perhaps it’s time for learning vendors to rethink their social learning strategies. L&D shouldn’t be thought of as an island in a social world. It needs to be part of an overall enterprise content development and delivery strategy.


The Gartner Magic Quadrant for Social Learning in the Workplace report was provided free by Jive Software at

The Gartner Report(s) described herein, (the “Gartner Report(s)”) represent(s) data, research opinion or viewpoints published, as part of a syndicated subscription service, by Gartner, Inc. (“Gartner”), and are not representations of fact. Each Gartner Report speaks as of its original publication date (and not as of the date of this Prospectus) and the opinions expressed in the Gartner Report(s) are subject to change without notice.

About the Author

Dawn Poulos

Dawn is the main contributor to the Dawn of Learning blog and her writing is behind its success, driving readers back time and again. She is a proud vegan and health enthusiast and lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter. She is an accomplished speaker and writer, having written numerous white papers and trade articles and speaking yearly at numerous tradeshows on the popular subjects of personalized learning experiences, cloud learning, content strategy, single source and XML.

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