I’ve been thinking all week of the contrast between organization-centric and network-centric organizations and realizing that I haven’t actually experienced a social media supported network-centric organization. While my current organization is highly connected using a variety of social media tools, we’re using them most as planning, organization and information-sharing devices rather than for collaboration and learning. My former organization was thoroughly organization-centric. I’ve actually contacted some former colleagues there to find out if they’ve opened up at all; it should be interesting to find if and how they’ve changed.
But as I re-read the characteristics of coordination and transparency in the Working Wikily article, I realized I’d seen them often – before the advent of social media. Informal learning, I believe, doesn’t require a network connection at all. One example – from the early 1990s – was a very large academic medical practice that was losing millions of dollars because of large scale billing errors due mostly to inaccurate patient registration. With 13 departments doing registration in the same billing system, there was huge inconsistency in the way bills were sent to insurance companies. We formed several small task groups across the 13 departments to examine the problem and make recommendations to improve accuracy. For the first time, people were working across departmental boundaries to solve an organizational problem. Skilled facilitators insured that everyone was heard and that notes were taken; the notes were eventually compiled into the “Red Book” that was recognized by the whole organization as one of the main factors that led to vastly improved revenue. But the more important aspect of this for us is the huge amount of informal learning that went on in those meetings – and afterward. Job aids and “cheat sheets” developed by the individual departments were brought into the whole group, phone numbers and email addresses helpful insurance company personnel were shared. There were no teachers, learning objectives, lectures, activities or assessments, just people intent on reaching a common goal, building trust, sharing information more openly than before and learning from each other. The process would have been faster and perhaps more thorough with social media, but transparency and coordination were both happening without it. Today, this organization does use social media to support informal learning and I believe the Red Book is now a wiki – albeit a heavily monitored one.
It’s exciting to learn the myriad ways that social media tools can support informal learning. But informal learning happens when people connect with others, care about helping them learn, and have the means to share. Social media facilitates this, but isn’t the only way.