Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Year in Social Learning Research - Irene Greif, former IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist

Last month I retired from IBM. I spent my last year focused on social learning, the backbone of any organization that identifies itself as a social business. Here are some thoughts about what I learned.

In a time of accelerating change, when the relationship between skills and jobs is rapidly being redefined, businesses are constantly struggling to keep their workforce informed, prepared, and engaged.   Across the globe, technological and demographic changes are challenging entrenched teaching methods.  As large organizations incorporate social technologies into their daily business, they are finding that "learning in context" follows very naturally – quite a contrast to traditional corporate training. 

At the same time, higher education is being disrupted by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are in their infancy, but as they develop they could replace college campus education as we know it today and transform the learning experience in general. Khan Academy makes educational material, and learning, available to anyone on the web. One thing is for sure, we need to find new ways to serve both the degree-oriented student and the lifelong learner looking to craft their own paths.

Striking similarities exist among the changes in the enterprise, K-12, and higher education – all are trying to address different aspects of the same problem. In business the challenge is keeping up with change, in K-12 it is enabling students to deal with change, and in higher education it is finding the right balance between academic goals and job-readiness.  We contend that all of these have common cause in social learning:  learning through peers, through project-based learning, internships and apprenticeships. 

And all can be supported by the same social technologies that are fueling both consumer-space socializing and business-oriented social business. In my own experience at IBM, I have seen many examples of this with our own research customers.
  • A multinational engineering and electronics company is now piloting Social Q&A, a system that gets you answers quickly from colleagues. It is just-in-time support for question answering and a great example of social learning -- you formulate a question, get an answer from a compatible colleague, and put the new information to use immediately, one of the best ways to internalize new information. And at the same time, you are helping build a database of answers for others.
  • A global leader in the building materials industry is using our system for “expediting expertise.” This system helps people analyze their personal skills gaps and provides learning paths to close those gaps by modeling the behavior and language of experts.  Personalized paths are created based on the individual’s distance to expertise and instrumented social software that recorded the way experts put together their own route to mastery.
  • For Boston Children’s Hospital's Open Pediatrics project, IBM created a social learning environment that supports apprenticeship, collaboration, and skills development. Experts at Children’s Hospital develop content on pediatric intensive care practices that is delivered to hospitals in remote locations. Questions can be posed at any point in the video, and experts or peers in their geography can supply answers and advice from their own experience.  The learning engages both learner and mentors and approximates face-to-face apprenticeships that would not otherwise be feasible.
Though the previous examples are all business oriented, they can be applied in an educational setting. We are currently working with PTECH in NYC and Gwinnett County Public Schools in Atlanta, Georgia - both blazing new trails in public education from K-20. And we are reaching out to education researchers, looking for the ways that they incorporate social learning to see what we can incorporate from their experience into a business setting. In January at IBM Connect 2014 we will demo several social business that involve social learning at the Innovation Lab, which runs the entire length of the Connect Conference.  In addition, we highlight these projects on our Social Business web site with accompanying blog postings exploring this relationship.

Social businesses run on social learning. Education in the 21st century has to be social.  I believe it's time to bring business and education together on this topic.