Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
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Apres Le Deluge

13th Jul 2012
Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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My home town of Hebden Bridge has been in the news this week, inundated with surface water causing floods for the second time in a matter of weeks. As we watched a month’s rain fall in only three hours, news came through that roads were closed and that even properties on the hillsides were awash.

I turned to Twitter for real time news of the sad developments. Three features of the torrent of tweets, matched only by the real torrents in the streets, struck me as being relevant from the perspective of training and learning.
The first surprised me. It was the palpable emotion in many of the 140 character posts.   Despite the necessary brevity of the communications there was a real heartfelt shock which came through the urgent commentary. The pictures and links to videos on YouTube prompted responses of genuine sadness, anger and dismay. Emotional responses extended to outrage at some of the posts. Hebden Bridge is known as a town with a significant Lesbian community. Those who could not resist the crass jokes involving dykes were given short shrift from those who had the sense to understand the seriousness of the events. The comments of the Bishop of Carlisle explaining that the floods were God’s judgment on Gay marriage was treated as the only worthwhile joke of the exchange.
The second was the misinformation. With things moving quickly and the details sketchy some mistakes were, I guess, inevitable. This was Chinese whispers on a grand scale. (Although it seems unfair to blame the Chinese for these errors. We need a new term, I think. Perhaps we can call distortions and half-truths perpetrated on social media sites Zuckerbergs). I’m sure that much of the misreporting of dams having burst and the like were genuine errors. One picture of a dam actually bursting was re-tweeted often. The fact that the dam wasn’t even in Yorkshire and the burst in the photo happened some time ago was acknowledged later by the original poster. But did the re-tweeters also post his retraction? I doubt it. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, in climate related tragedy lies are half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on. 
An authoritative figure, such as the West Yorkshire Police, used twitter really well. They gave travel advice and let those making the journey home from work know which roads were blocked, which routes to avoid and asked people not to come into town unless absolutely necessary.
My third observation was about the ability to mobilise people to do something. A proportion of those tweeting were talking about clear up campaigns, helping householders and shop keepers to deal with the immediate issues and the aftermath.  The subsequent efforts to clear the mud and rubble which had washed down the valley was impressive.  Many local community activists did sterling work – feeding people, cleaning up and getting the town back on its feet. The claim has been made that this was because of social media – a Facebook page as well as the twitter feeds I was following. I’m not so sure. I know many of the people involved. They are community minded and would have helped out regardless of what appeared on various social media sites. Were more people involved than would have been? Possibly and I guess if one more mop was wielded as a result of the Facebook page then all to the good.  
What I think happened was that those who were minded to pitch in were more efficiently communicated with and efforts were more easily coordinated because of social media. The big issue is that these additional communications channels worked because of the strong sense of community not as a vehicle for its creation. For the bulk of tweeters and those following #hebdenbridge as it trended in cyberspace, re-tweeting a request for help was enough. They lifted a finger but not much else. As the clean-up swung into action it was clear that activism and clicktivism are different.
So, from an organisational learning perspective what have we learned? Unquestionably, many have argued that twitter and its rapid dissemination of ideas, links to resources and a lack of barriers as to who contributes, when and from where, represents a step change in how we access information and how we learn new things.
But I think my three observations are relevant and raise questions if one is to use twitter and other instant information tools as part of the learning mix. 
  1. How do you generate that emotion or desire to be involved? A flood, some other breaking news story, talent show or sporting fixture is not the same as your new HR policy. Why would people get so passionate about your in-company policies, procedures and developments (unless they were under threat of losing their jobs)? How do you ensure that the passionate are at the forefront of the communications? How do you generate the excitement required to drive the information flow?
  2. How do you deal with misinformation? For the most part the misinformation in this instance were innocent mistakes, but the lack of barriers to involvement mean it is pretty easy to spread malicious disinformation should one wish. How does an organisation build its credibility and ensure that news from official sources – like the Police in this example – are properly checked out and posted appropriately? Who manages this and monitors the information – correcting errors and limiting the spread of rumour and half-truths? From a user generated process which is more efficient and requires fewer resources have we moved to a situation where a whole new set of skills, protocols and, potentially, staff are required?
  3. How do we ensure that something happens once people have the information? Promulgating information is not enough for something to be described as learning. If social media in learning is merely about speeding up and bringing new dimensions to our communications then that’s fine, but let’s understand that that is what it does. If it is about changing behaviour and enabling people to do things differently and do different things (surely what training is about) then let’s also recognise where it falls short and needs the back up of other interventions. The main lesson from this dreadful experience in my community was that it was the existence of that strong community, bolstered by real connections in the analogue world, which made the digital mobilisation work.
Robin’s book – Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement will be published by Kogan Page in May 2013.
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