How to Establish the ROI of Social Learning

A good deal of my time is spent providing workshops and conference presentations on social learning and the use of social media to support and extend social learning in the workplace. In every session, it seems, someone comes just to challenge me to “prove” that all this isn’t a waste of time, that there is performance-enhancing value in social connections and interactions, particularly of the online variety.

They usually want some magic metric, some formula like, “two hours on LinkedIn + four comments in groups = tangible outcomes for the organization.” It doesn’t work that way. A great deal depends on how the worker chooses to spend that time in social channels, how well he filters and curates information, how she chooses the people with whom she’s interacting.

The quality of those interactions depends in turn on many other issues, including trust, a willingness to ask for and offer help, and time invested in developing ties deeper than those purely at the surface. Likewise, a worker expected to improve performance and support organizational goals must know what the expectations are around that.

Value creation

Etienne Wenger (of Cultivating Communities of Practice fame), Beverly Traynor, and Maarten De Laat have recently published a new conceptual framework for understanding and assessing value in such interactions. It includes a nice overview chart (Figure 1, below) that I’ve found helpful in addressing concerns of my audience members.

Figure 1: Wenger, E., B. Traynor, and M. De Laat. Chart from Assessing Value Creation for Communities of Practice and Networks: A Conceptual Framework. Used with permission.

Immediate value

I’ll use myself as an example of how the chart helps shine light on real activity and outcomes. I spend a lot of time on Twitter because there are so very many smart people there, who at any hour of the day or night are talking about something I often didn’t even know I wanted to talk about.

I mostly follow learning, training, and eLearning people, but I also like some fiction authors and a few experts in other fields. Those people who only talk about what their cats had for breakfast? I don’t follow them. But it’s important to note: I am very active on Twitter. I engage, and talk, and interact with people. I drop in on several live Twitter chats a month. I try to contribute as much as I take. I like to think I help.

So in looking at Wenger et al’s first column: I feel I get immediate value from the quality of interaction and reciprocity, I am given food for thought that I do reflect on, and I make it no secret that I am having fun.

Potential value

Moving across the chart to the second column: From my participation, what is the potential value? I’ve certainly developed a lot of connections, many in other parts of the world who offer

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very diverse viewpoints. I find I’m often inspired to read up on a new area or check out a new app or other tool. My views on learning have shifted considerably over the past five years as I’ve recognized firsthand the power and potential of increased support for social learning in the workplace.

Applied value

Now, moving to the third column, we look to see whether dots are connecting. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, I make a lot of connections, I read about things that interest me. But am I getting applied value? Do I leverage those connections? Have I engaged enough with my personal learning network so that, if I ask for help, some people might respond?

Let’s revisit an example I used in a previous column, one spurred by a phone call from one of our agencies.

I tweeted this (Figure 2):

Figure 2: Leveraging connections on Twitter: original tweet asking for help
In two minutes’ time I had several responses, including this one (Figure 3):

Figure 3: One of the many immediate responses

I found the document, scanned it to see if it seemed okay, and sent it on to the agency. They said it was just what they needed. This amounted to a four-minute interruption in my day.

So you tell me: Is there applied value? Am I using my connections and implementing advice?

Realized value

Moving to the next column on the chart from Wenger et al, “Realized value.” I gave the customer a good response in four minutes. Is that a reflection on my personal performance? How about my organization’s reputation? Let me ask it another way: when’s the last time you called a government agency and got a good answer in four minutes?

Reframing value

In terms of the last column of Figure 1, “Reframing value”: I don’t know that I’ve changed my institution (yet), but I’ve influenced ideas around new ways of working. And while I’m not asked for evidence that I am effective, whenever I get a solution or innovative idea via one of my social channels, I take a screenshot or write a quick note and send it on to management anyway.

So, in looking for value in online interactions, try to get past the idea of a magic metric. I can’t tell you that my spending x hours on LinkedIn and tweeting y times per day will get you the result I got in the example above. I can tell you that my choice of when, with whom, and how to engage is what helped drive that result.

So what can we do? Help workers begin to articulate the ways in which interactions have solved a problem, reflected on their personal performance, or reflected on the organization’s reputation or performance. Start asking, “What did you learn today/this week? How has that affected your performance? How does it help the organization?”

Help connect dots between social interaction and access to expertise, and between those connections and new tools and reframing ways of working. And please do review the full text of the piece by Wenger, Traynor, and De Laat, available at

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

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