On our previous blog we discussed the importance of diagnosing a learning organization and understanding how to design one based on certain criteria along the framework shared. Once that information is gathered, the next steps would be to design the system interactions and tools the organization should have in place to foster an optimal learning environment fitted for the culture change and based on new objectives. Learning evolves in different forms and for this blog we will look at how enterprise social networks, or ESNs, enable many of the learning requirements that will help share knowledge throughout an organization.

In his book Knowledge Management in Organizations: A Critical Introduction, Donald Hislop defines knowledge sharing as:

“…an umbrella term which refers to any deliberate efforts to manage the knowledge of an organization’s workforce, which can be achieved via a wide range of methods including directly, through the use of particular types of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), or more indirectly through the management of social processes, the structuring of organizations in particular ways or via the use of particular culture and people management practices.”

From his definition, I assume that ESNs could represent a type of ICT tool that an organization could leverage for learning purposes. It has both the system aspect to reach many individuals across different business units and locations; and the social one to promote the development of interactions and sustainability of relationships.  Some of the ‘learning systems’ an ESN tool should enable, link to or incorporate as part of its overall design:

  • Professional Profile pages with detailed information regarding background and expertise that could potentially serve as Transactive Memory System (TMSs) where subject matter experts are identified for the organization to help guide other employees or code knowledge and make it explicit for the benefit of the organization. Organizations could potentially enable real time Q&A sessions with experts. These interactions generate a space to respond to questions, issues or opportunities employees are facing in their areas. It could also promote interaction from members of different areas that impact the same process.
  • Specialized (Open or Closed) Groups by leveraging the concepts of Communities of Practice (CoP). The organization could create formal (i.e. Women Initiative, Latin Forums) and informal (i.e. those that arise organically in different business levels, units or groups) forums where the knowledge and ideas are shared and discussed amongst individuals with similar values and interests to promote networking and collaboration with the goal of (individual and/or operational) improvement and innovation.
  • Management Training Programs or Cohort Groups (i.e. GE’s Financial Management Program) by leveraging the concept of Communities of Inquiry (CoI) where individuals could gain new skills or further their expertise as required by the organization. The courses could be led by instructors and generate a space for employees to engage in social learning. Combining an online learning portion together with a presence one will help reduce organizational costs (i.e. travel and activity expenses) and employees will still be able to develop lasting relationships with their peers through both methods of learning.

Through ESNs, organizations can provide a social digital environment where there is coded knowledge (i.e. Standard Operating Procedures, OSHA Manuals, FDA Quality Requirements) available for everyone but most importantly there is a space or place where employees can communicate, share and openly discuss ideas. The richness of this environment relies on the quality of interactions among individuals from the different business units (i.e. cross-communities) and locations, with various levels of experience (i.e. based on tenure or role) and expertise (i.e. finance vs engineering).

Besides the cultural aspects of change management that should take place when implementing a new methodology like LEAN, I argue that through digital social interactions, employees become aware of new or proven ideas that potentially lead to questioning the status quo. With empowerment from the organization, they could engage in defining better ways of doing things, being more effective and efficient, and improving their own processes (less variable, more flexible). LEAN continuous improvement efforts and tools can also benefit from ESNs, some of the tools could leverage the social dynamics that arise within the network:

  • Value Stream Maps – process maps to document and improve the flow of products, service or materials in a process highlighting the value and non-value added activities from the customer’s perspective. It could leverage ESNs to:
    • create a live map for processes that touch different units by engaging in a collective effort where people across various business units engage in cross-community exchanges for its creation,
    • designate process owners and participants to engage in forum discussions to come up with potential Kaizen (see below) ideas, having different people that are not necessarily involve in the day to day process could help identify more opportunities, and
    • further help to enable a ‘customer centric’ mentality, since the process is mapped and assessed from their journey standpoint.
  • Kaizen (Japanese word for ‘change for better’) – events where representatives from different functions join efforts to resolve an issue with the goal of improving the process. It could leverage ESNs to:
    • meet event participants and research their credentials ahead of time,
    • engage in and document brainstorming ideas prior to the physical encounter,
    • share the documented face to face discussion agreements,
    • track performance after the event to ensure agreed goals are met, and
    • incorporate or share with management to communicate event specifics (before, during and after the event).
  • 5S (Sort, Store, Shine, Standardize, Sustain) – a workplace organization method where employees: (1) sort workplace objects, keeping valuable items and disposing of unnecessary ones, (2) arrange materials for easy access and prevent loses throughout the process, (3) clean the areas and maintain equipment, (4) standardize organization and storing process across areas, and (5) establish procedures for sustainability of changes. It could leverage ESNs to:
    • promote and share 5S best practices,
    • engage business units in a healthy competition (or apply gaming strategies) for the most 5S compliant unit, and
    • facilitate and communicate management expectations of area maintenance requirements and specifications.

Finally, ESNs help organizations communicate faster and clearly with employees, key when there is a change in process being piloted or rolled out. Leaders could leverage the platform and enable a continuous improvement environment by publicly sharing and recognizing the efforts, ‘small wins’ and success stories where best practices were leveraged or processes were improved as a result of these digital social interactions. I believe that as employees learn the benefits of leveraging the ESN they will become more invested and engaged in using the tool. It is also important because it shows that management is vested in the tool and takes an active role on promoting engagement for its sustainability.