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Can social networking technologies foster effective workplace learning? This was the question I posed to myself as a graduate student studying organizational psychology and adult development. Having prior experience in human resources, I knew about the rising trend of integrating social networking technologies into the workplace, and I wanted to explore how this particular type of technology could potentially promote workplace learning.
I chose to focus my analysis on Rypple, a social networking tool intended to facilitate feedback, not because I had any affiliation with the company or its investors, but simply because some of my HR contacts had recommended it. And though I later discovered similar web-based collaborative tools, such as Yammer, Braintrust, and WizeHive, I continued with Rypple because, by the time I learned about these other products, I was already far along with my initial research. Part product review and part musing on organizational culture, this article provides an overview of Rypple, gives recommendations for organizations seeking to use the tool, and suggests tool improvements. Though it focuses on one specific product, it is my hope that the general ideas may be valuable for all organizations considering adopting any type of social networking web tool.
Resembling popular online social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, Rypple attempts to make ongoing professional assessment easy, fun, and informal. It does this by enabling learners to submit brief (400 character) posts for four main functions:
1. Feedback. Learners ask for anonymous feedback from colleagues. The feedback seeker can follow up with individuals and the group to whom she sent the initial feedback request.
2. Kudos. Learners send kudos to colleagues publicly recognizing a job well done or privately offering constructive criticism. Learners can personalize kudos with specific designs.
3. Coach. Learners schedule one-on-one coaching sessions with colleagues, which can be held face-to-face or by phone or videoconference. Participants can record notes and action items.
4. Actions. Learners publicly post actions, or short-term goals they are committed to achieving by a specific date. Learners also have the option to keep their actions private.
These four functions closely resemble the concept of reflective practice, a process that combines reflection and action in order to increase a professional's self-awareness and, in turn, enhance her ability to grow and develop (Osterman and Kottkamp, 1993). Rypple's functions also encourage teaching, an important factor in creating an ideal educational experience (Garrison and Anderson, 2003). Any Rypple learner may also assume a teaching role, for example, by providing guidance and sharing expertise through the coaching function. By enabling employees to be both learners and teachers and by promoting feedback, coaching, and goal setting in a social and safe environment, Rypple has the potential to foster greater employee reflection, interaction, collaboration, and development. For this reason, Rypple might add value for organizations wishing to achieve any of the following goals:
Organizations adopting Rypple should carefully consider how they want to use the tool, as this will ultimately determine the extent to which Rypple promotes learning. The Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework (Wiske, 2005) offers a useful guide for organizations thinking about integrating technology into their workplaces. Let us consider how organizations may apply the key features of TfU to help employees gain the most from Rypple:
Generative Topics. Learning is likely to occur when learners explore topics meaningful to them. Organizations should consider encouraging employees to use Rypple's feedback and coach functions to discuss issues that will significantly impact their work. Organization leaders might model this process by sending feedback requests that are compelling to colleagues, that can be approached from a variety of angles, and that foster reflection.
Understanding Goals. Many organizations may adopt Rypple without first thinking carefully about what they hope to get out of it, focusing instead on keeping up with the growing corporate social networking trend. Having a publicly stated goal will help employees focus on using the tool in a manner that works towards achieving this goal. Organization leaders might also encourage individual employees to consider what they personally want to get out of Rypple and to publicly record these goals as actions within Rypple itself.
Performances of Understanding. Rypple provides space for employees to reflect on their own and their colleagues' work. While reflection is critical for learning, acting upon newly gained knowledge is also important. As a result, organizations should develop ways to extend Rypple's reflection-inducing functions so that employees can practice what they have learned in their actual jobs. For example, if an employee is working with her Rypple coach to improve her negotiation skills, the organization needs to enable her to practice those skills on the job, perhaps by assigning her a project that requires her to negotiate with business partners.
Ongoing Assessment. Rypple's feedback and coaching functions offer the means to regularly assess employee learning. It will be up to the organization leaders to use these tools to gauge levels of employee learning. They might look through the company's activity feed to see the depth of employee dialogue and to ask managers to reflect on the quality of their coaching sessions. However, it is important for organizations to keep this assessment process informal. If assessment becomes too formalized, employees may not feel comfortable disclosing weaknesses and questioning their practices.
Reflective Collaborative Communities. To make the most of Rypple's interactive and collaborative capabilities, it is necessary for learners to develop "norms that include respect, reciprocity, and commitment to cooperation on communal accomplishments, not just on the advancement or improvement of individual performances" (Wiske, 2005, p. 8). The organization that adopts Rypple may be wise to work on instilling these norms and values into its culture before attempting to integrate Rypple into regular workplace practices. Establishing a culture of self-managing teams that are responsible for executing tasks as well as monitoring and managing their team performance (Hackman, 2002) could make a product like Rypple most effective.
Organizations should also bear in mind that they may have staff with differing levels of comfort with technology. To avoid alienating employees who may be uncomfortable using a tool like Rypple, organizations may need to offer training sessions and promote Rypple strictly as an optional tool.
Rypple has many positive features. For example, it is highly accessible and is available on any electronic device with an Internet connection. It is also low cost: individuals can join for free or organizations can pay a monthly fee (starting at $20/month) in return for extra functionality and support. Rypple is highly interactive, giving learners the option to create specific groups and to interact within these groups publicly or anonymously. The company also provides training by sending new learners opt-out emails with tips on how to use its functions and by offering free webinars and articles on leadership, coaching, and feedback. Further, learners can conduct basic analytics by exporting reports on kudos, actions, coaching, and feedback activity to a spreadsheet. Finally, Rypple claims to be private and secure, using the same security technology as do bank and e-commerce websites.
Despite these positive features, however, there are several areas for improvement:
Robust search function. Rypple could better harness the collective knowledge of organizations by offering a more robust search function. For example, if a Rypple learner wants to improve her presentation skills, it might be useful if she could search for previously posted suggestions for presentation best practices. A robust search function would thus broaden Rypple from a communication and interaction tool into a knowledge-based repository that captures and organizes institutional knowledge.
Attachment feature. Another way to capture institutional knowledge might be through the creation of an attachment feature. Enabling learners to attach files to posts could expand feedback questions and deepen responses. For example, soliciting feedback on a presentation with the original slides attached could enable the feedback seeker to pose a question about a certain slide while also allowing responders to comment without having to rely on memory.
Edit/remove function. The tool might foster greater trust by providing learners with the ability to edit and remove posts. In the present version of Rypple, if a learner misspells part of her kudos there is no way for the sender to edit her mistake. Further, if a learner receives public kudos that she does not wish to appear in the company activity feed, there is no way for her to remove them. Adding these two functions might improve the level of learner trust, which would likely lead to greater disclosure and open reflection and, in turn, greater learning.
Personal profiles. Rypple could improve social presence (Garrison and Anderson, 2003) by offering learners the ability to create personal profiles and publically stating their overarching learning goals to the rest of their team.
The above suggestions are not intended to propose that Rypple become something that it is not. Rather, they provide ideas that may help Rypple better enable organizations to have greater feedback exchanges that can promote deeper learning.
Can social networking technologies foster effective workplace learning after all? After spending a semester studying Rypple, my answer, in the typical fashion of a social science graduate student, is: it depends.
The ultimate effectiveness of Rypple and any other social networking tool depends on the interactions between the tool, the context, and the learners. An organization cannot rely solely on a technological tool to foster workplace learning. Rather, the organization needs to take strategic steps to facilitate the learning process. While it may be inexpensive to adopt a social networking web tool, organizations should take into consideration the start-up costs of time and energy required for successful integration. An organization unwilling or unable to devote the time required to thoughtfully strategize how to implement the tool will be unlikely to reap the tool's benefits. On the other hand, when used by organizations that have worked to establish a base-line culture of reflection and collaboration, social networking technologies, such as Rypple, could certainly enhance workplace learning.
Chelsea Pollen, M.Ed, is a recruiting specialist at Google Inc.
Garrison, D.R. and Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Hackman, J. R. (2002). A real team. In J. R. Hackman (Ed.), Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances (pp. 37-60). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Osterman, K.F., and Kottkamp, R.B. (1993). Rethinking professional development. In Reflective practice for educators: Improving schooling through professional development (pp. 18-41). Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.
Rypple. (2010). Retrieved September 12, 2010 from http://rypple.com
Wiske, M.S. (Ed.). (2005). Chapters 1 and 2. In Teaching for understanding with technology (pp. 3-23). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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