Social learning offers the development function the opportunity to shift both practices and mindset.  

One of the great myths in the old (and still too current) model of development is the notion of the “pilot program.” We say we are piloting a new class, a new process, or a new tool. But the reality is that it’s the first run of the rollout. Why? Because we spend months and thousands of dollars to get the program ready. We pull people away from their jobs for hours or days (and these people may never return – this is their only shot.) We pay for materials, equipment, software, instructors, and classrooms. It has to work. Sure, we can make a few tweaks, but it’s pretty much baked. If it isn’t, it could be weeks or months before we can fix it. So, we’re always trying to build a sure thing.  

i4cp’s recent research in partnership with ATD, Social Learning – Developing Talent Through Connection, Contribution, and Collaboration, suggests a very different reality. Today, social learning allows development experiences can be short, individualized, done at the workplace, and easily repeated. If we grab a bit of learning and it proves unhelpful, we can quickly grab another . . .  and another. In fact, if you ask people who use YouTube training videos, most will tell you that the first one they pick is not the one they ultimately use.  

This new reality allows us to admit a great truth about what we do: The overwhelming majority of the interventions we provide are experiments. We use every bit of our science and experience to guarantee our success but ultimately, we don’t know how well things work until well afterward. In the old model, we got one shot. Now we get many. We can try something, fail, try again, get better, try again, and get even better . . . all in less time than it used to take to write a good project plan.  

That may sound scary, or even like a violation of our principles, but it is already happening. It will grow. And it works—i4cp research revealed that market leading companies are three times more likely to capture and curate social learning content than lower performers.  

The talent leaders of the future must use their expertise to help the organization maximize the leverage that can be gained from inevitable and pervasive experimentation. We need to capture and spread the best learning that users discover and create. 

When the talent function sees that an experiment has worked, it can promulgate the results and the methods that lead to them. Our teams must move nimbly across the organization and among its issues, establishing momentary alliances (with consultants, companies, universities, individuals) to meet temporary needs. We must always be thinking of multiple alternatives and assume nothing has value until after it has worked. We can help the organization move past those experiments that have the least leverage, or have outlived their utility.  

The experimenting talent function acts differently to create interventions—you do things differently when you think of them as viral, transient, and disposable. And in the open learning environment, the experimental world, we consider that we cannot control or even predict who will use our tools.  

If all talent development interventions are experiments, the talent function is organized and staffed to capitalize on social learning and we apply the experience and expertise of our team to maximize the likelihood that each experiment will succeed and those successes can be repeated.

John Coné is the former Chief Learning Officer at Dell Computers, and the Chair of i4cp’s Chief Learning & Talent Officer Board.