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What Universities Must Learn About Social Networks

Co-written with Chris Sessums | Director of Educational Research, Internet Time Lab

Increasingly, businesses are looking to more social approaches to employee learning and development. Higher education institutions must capitalize on this shift.

The issue is not whether you are going to become a socially networked university but how soon.

Businesses are being transformed into social businesses.

Social business is the flavor of the day in the C-suites of the Fortune 500. A social business is one where all the members of the corporate ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, and customers) network with one another to delight their customers

IBM describes socially networked corporations as the next step in the overall evolution of business. Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Fast Company say collaboration and collective intelligence are the engines of innovation. The first question from new hires, accustomed to doing their homework and living their lives with friends on their networks is “Where’s the social network? Where do I post my profile? How do I search for information?”

Networks are the glue that connects us. No one works alone. It takes a team to get things done. No one learns alone either. Others show us the way, share their know-how, and help us make meaning of the world. We rely on colleagues and social networks to separate the signal from the noise; their advice makes our experiential learning productive. Collaboration is the key to success in both working and learning; they usually take place simultaneously.

The social business bandwagon has arrived and companies are installing Chatter, Jive, Connections, Socialcast, Yammer, Socialtext, Sharepoint, HootSuite, and more to replace outmoded intranets and improve the way they transact business. McKinsey & Company reports that implementing social business creates:

  • Improved business performance (profit, productivity, margins, etc)
  • Increased operational efficiency
  • Stronger outcomes from knowledge intensive work
  • Easier methods of capturing and retaining institutional knowledge
  • Better awareness about business opportunities and colleagues needing help
  • Richer cross-department contamination and collaboration
  • Reduced email traffic and information overload
  • Cheaper and quicker mechanisms to connect colleagues, find and reuse knowledge
  • Improved cross-departmental communication
  • Reduced travel expenses
  • Facilitating the emergence of collective social capital and limiting duplication of effort
  • Stronger employee engagement and motivation
  • Increased satisfaction of partners and suppliers
  • Reduced supply chain costs
  • Lower on-boarding and talent retention costs
  • New levels of business agility and faster cycle times

Social and informal learning are the hottest trends in corporation learning and development. Social networks empower workers to engage in self-determined “pull” learning. People learn their jobs while doing their jobs. They learn more in the coffeeroom that in the classroom. Some training departments see this as learning being out of control; workers flock to it for the same reason.

Many companies rely on Facebook, Twitter, and other consumer applications to connect their people. Others will never do that for reasons of security, lack of the ability to customize, limited feature sets, or the risk of relying on a wildcard like Mark Zuckerberg.

The question you have to face is not whether or not the university needs to provide the social networks that can supplement our educational offering whille at the same time bringing us together to operate more effectively.

Universities have a mandate. Most students, faculty, and administraters use social networks extensively outside of school. They will use them with your blessing or without it. Mobile devices route around IT; amateurs can bid software slaves do their will.

Some schools are comfortable encouraging students, faculty, and adminstratoin to use consumer apps on the open web. Most universities we’ve talked with are concerned about their responsibilities protecting students. But beyond making alternative social network connections available, a school with no internal networks is pushing its consitutents out into the street. It’s like hosting a teenage party. You don’t enjoy being chaperone for a messy event but if you don’t like the thought of the kids partying down at the beach on their own.

A handful of universities have adopted some aspects of web 2.0 but none have taken it all the way. Students everywhere joke about pre-historic systems. What universities need to do is make up their minds about the inevitable and get on with it.

Universities will transmogrify into networked universities.

Students, faculty, and staff share numerous benefits of social networks. Furthermore, universities need to become networked to meet the needs of businesses seeking training. Their employees already know how to use the networks and will adapt better to the learning experience.

By introducing social networks, corporate students will be able to organize study groups, share notes, and better prepare for exams and projects by using these networks to foster peer-to-peer collaboration.

It isn’t just to the benefit of students, though. Faculty use social networks to support communication and information sharing among committees, teams, and research projects. Institutional staff use social software to improve communication with students for both recruitment and retention purposes. Development offices use social networks to stay in touch with alumni and support them with news, information, and networking opportunities.

Each of these areas of the university may benefit from sharing next practices, facilitating cross-department collaboration, facilitating collaboration among departments or teams, streamlining business processes, building support for strategic initiatives, and reducing internal email.

Practical considerations.

Universities face many of the same pressures to embrace social networks as corporations. It simplifies and streamlines the transactional aspects of administration, it encourages open communication and shared decision-making, and it provides a learning ecosystem that enables students to co-learn in order to supplement the formal aspects of their education.

If you’re with us thus far, you next question is “Now what?” You have four or five options for turning on your social network.

Here are some suggestions that draw on Chris’s experience developing and purchasing university-level educational software and Jay’s work with corporations using social networks to implement experiential learning.

Don’t boil the ocean. Start with one team, unit, or department with a crying need and potential social network champions. Build on that success to inspire other groups to join the effort.

While institutions could get help from their LMS vendor, we advise they don’t. Social networks do different jobs than a Learning Management System (LMS). As social learning began to create a buzz, LMS vendors have responded by tacking blogs and microblogs (tweet streams) onto their registration and delivery systems. A bloated LMS suffers the same downside as a Swiss Army Knife. It may be handy to carry a leather punch and Phillips screwdriver in your pocket, but if you plan to do a lot of cutting, you’ll be better off with a single-purpose knife.

While it may be easy to develop a rudimentary social networking system in-house, it is advisable for higher education institutions to bring in a contractor who can develop a specific type of network and protect its security and growth.

Beware of any supplier who is not dedicated to building social networks. The tools of the social web are in constant flux. It takes a dedicated software provider to keep up with evolving user interface conventions and emerging technologies. Activity streams, a “river of news,” are the lifeblood of today’s social networks. Activity streams were virtually unknown until Twitter popularized the format a few years ago. “Favoriting” popular content so the cream can rise to the top caught on after Facebook made it de rigeur. In the last six months, mobile access has become essential. Six months hence, HTML5 will be an absolute requirement. Keeping up is a nightmare unless network software is your primary line of business.

Don’t use software developed by a faculty member (unless you’re Carnegie Mellon, Duke, or maybe Stanford.) The ease of assembling software applications from plug-and-play modules and checkboxes has led numerous faculty members to build social network systems in-house. This is like building a factory with Erector Set. Relying on such “free” software is penny-wise and pound foolish. Homebrew software is difficult to maintain, and often breaks when volumes increase. Keeping everything humming may require access to the author.

Choose the tool/application based on the types of relations/relationships you want to foster and build, not on the features of the tool. Prepare simple guidelines for implementation so that participants know what’s expected of them.

Very much like the continuous changes in social network software, network security is a day to day concern. Security experts work 24/7 to keep a step ahead of crackers trying to crack into their systems. Student and faculty privacy are sacrosanct. It’s vital to have pros lock the doors shut and be ever vigilant. We’re amazed when we find elegant software written by faculty that misses something so fundamental as privacy protection.

You have to weigh the values and culture of your institution to decide whether to provide a protective “walled garden” or the rough-and-tumble of the social internet.

Generally, we suggest: Design for short and long term goals. Measure gap closings, not simply engagement. Define clear objectives. Solve nagging problems. Pay attention to relationships. Get leaders involved. Create rewards and incentives for participation.

Where do you turn for your in-house net?

Sign up for one of the commercial social networks solutions like Jive, Connections, Socialcast, Yammer. Downsides: can be very pricey. Also, someone’s going to have to map your terminology and ways of doing things. These packages generally start life as a blank canvas. Do a pilot test with a moneyback guarantee to get a feel for things. Pick an area where communication has been a major stumbling block and there are enthusiastic

Several groups are preparing social networks built particularly for universities with academic and administrative starter kits already on board. these are start-up companies, so you have to put up with some rough edges but in return you can probably make a good deal. one of the more mature efforts, San Francisco-based GoingOn, has installations in this area, that area, whatever. A lot more of these will be popping up.

We both understand Moore’s Law: everthing gets faster, better, and cheaper at an exponential rate. If it hasn’t fully sunk in, Moore’s Law is what made you feel stupid when you recently bought a computing gadget, only to find a faster model for less money a short while after.

Open source “social network in a box” software is under development that will cost less than a nice learther sofa. That’s a one-time fee, not a subscription. Just as you shouldn’t avoid buying new technology, because there will always be a better and less costly alternative on the market in the future, don’t hold off experimenting today. You might as well start reaping benefits now.

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