22nd Mar 2011
Simeon Stewart discusses a new social technology, social search, and looks at why it might be an appropriate tool for learning and development.
Several commentators point to the challenges information overload and the increasing rate of change present to formal training, something that was referred to just recently when we interviewed Charles Jennings, ex CLO of Reuters and present MD of Duntroon Associates (watch the video clips here and here). The argument is that traditional training is about transfer of content and retention, and that given the avalanche of information being thrown at us, we should focus more on discovering ways to filter, assimilate and make sense of that content, as opposed to recording and retaining it. Shifting away from techniques that focus on knowledge acquisition and moving more towards developing the ability to access, interpret and apply relevant knowledge as and when it's needed.
"The argument is that traditional training is about transfer of content and retention, and that given the avalanche of information being thrown at us, we should focus more on discovering ways to filter, assimilate and make sense of that content, as opposed to recording and retaining it."
What's fascinating for us is that these very same problems of increasing levels of information and rate of change are what prompted us to develop help engines, albeit from a completely different perspective and background - that of web development and social search. Present search techniques are struggling to cope with the sheer weight of information being produced and advances are being made to deal with this. It's interesting therefore to explore how the solutions that are being used to solve these problems in search could also be applied to L&D, asking ourselves if these could potentially lead to new roles for training experts and new techniques for improving performance.
For those not familiar with the term 'social search', it's a generic term for involving people in the search process in an attempt to improve the relevancy, quality and ability for people to act on the results delivered. To give an idea of its importance it's being talked about as the next major evolution in internet search, and is so vital that the likes of Microsoft, Google and Facebook are building it in as key to both their product and indeed business future.
In search, as Google's Eric Schmidt points out, speed is everything. It's all about how quickly we can find the answer we need, make the correct decision and take the next step. In many ways it's similar to L&D, we're providing the necessary know-how and equipping people to make the right decisions in order to move forward. It's certainly a shared end goal - productivity.
If we look at standard search it puts the emphasis on the user to perform the search and then review, interpret and act on the resulting information that they are presented with. It's a content approach - a user needs information and is presented with relevant content, be it in a written, audio or video format, and as a content approach it fails to effectively deal with the increasing amount of information and an increasing rate of change.
There was a time when you were lucky to find one relevant page for each search but now we're presented with thousands of pages for even the simplest searches. As an example, if we use Google to search for informal learning through the use of technology we get over 425,000 search results. That's 425,000 pieces of content. Search has solved the access problem but it's only half the story. Given so much information, how do we decide what's necessary and appropriate to our decision-making process, how do we know there isn't some vital piece of information that's missing? It's rather like walking into a training session, dumping an encyclopedia on the desk and telling everyone to just get on with it. There's massive scope for improvements in search with regards to helping people interpret the data they find and enabling them to make effective decisions based on that information, and this is where social search comes in.
Social search helps us interpret and apply the information we find by introducing human input - this could be in the form of people ranking or adding opinions to results, or in the case of Bing (Microsoft's search platform) using information about what your friends 'like' on Facebook. A step on from these approaches is where people aid more directly, so instead of finding information you find people who can tell you what you need to know, a method used by the pioneering social search company Aardvark, who were recently acquired by Google. It's easy to see how this latter approach would work within many organisations, where the majority of people are online, and everyone has information stored in their head that's potentially useful to others.
"Given that L&D and search face the common problems of information overload and an increasing rate of change, can they work together to counter these challenges and increase productivity within organisations?"
Leaving the details of how social search works to one side for the moment though, lets consider what the social search approach implies, which is that technology by itself cannot provide the best solution, and that human input is needed. The very nature of social search suggests that the most effective technology for information discovery needs to involve people, and therein lies the opportunity. Given that L&D and search face the common problems of information overload and an increasing rate of change, can they work together to counter these challenges and increase productivity within organisations?
As a final thought, consider for a moment the role of a Community Manager, in some organisations the CCO (Chief Community Officer), a new role seeing significant growth that didn't exist till very recently. CM's make social technology work through encouraging people to participate. What roles might there be for L&D professionals in utilising social search technology to deliver more effective discovery, assimilation and actioning of information within the organisations they work for? How might that same technology help them enhance the training programmes and services they provide? Questions we'll explore in more detail in the next article, when we look at the different types of social search, and their potential to add value to the role L&D plays within organisations.
Simeon Stewart is co-founder of Cofacio, http://thehelpengine.com. Previous to Cofacio he spent eight years working in digital media for companies such as News International and Microsoft. He holds an MSc in Business Economics from The University of Wales and is a fellow of the RSA