A client of mine is closing in on his 61st
birthday – He’s a baby boomer. He’s also embarking on an amazing career journey, leaving a sort-of safe corporate job to jump back into the start-up pool. Risky? You bet. But informing his decision is the knowledge that he is a constant learner. His participation in several online communities, including Khan Academy
and P2PU, the online peer-to-peer university, is helping him sharpen technical skills he hasn’t used recently. This work is undertaken on his own time and driven by his curiosity and the pragmatic recognition that he must do more than keep up to compete with younger generations with recent degrees. His skills as a software development manager are what helped him land the new gig, but even more important is his ability to lead and his innate sense of how to nurture and build organizational culture – online and offline.
He’s also ahead of the game in recognizing the importance of online social learning communities, both for boomers and college students and every generation in between. As we discussed his new role, he shared his belief that community, more than any other factor, will transform the role of leaders and influence the development of workplace culture. The power of online learning communities is more visible in lean-running start-ups where skills must shift quickly, but I think their effect will be more profound in established companies on a global scale. Online social learning communities are redrawing the lines between leaders, employees, brands and culture. To ignore this force is to cede advantage to competitors. Being “social online” has real business value.
Online learning social communities exist which cater to all learning styles, all skill sets and personalities, native abilities and educational needs. Available to employees on-demand as well as via mobile devices and tablets, online learning communities remove barriers dear to the hearts of brick-and-mortar universities and companies. The best are built to allow people to forge relationships with others as well as ‘faculty’ ‘experts’ ‘leaders’ who may or may not be professional educators. Of course there are still reasons to participate in classroom training, for ex: when you’re studying for skills requiring certification. Nonetheless we are seeing the beginnings of an online social movement which will enhance traditional classroom education and breathe new life into the world of work. A degree from a Twitter Chat – Really? One never knows. I’m smiling.
must be ready to manage the shift as they face (at least) five profound ways in which online learning communities are changing cultures and challenging our notions of leadership and engaging your talent and your culture:
1) Online learning communities are challenging the value of academic ‘brands’. Yes, it’s still huge to have a degree from an Ivy or other top-ranked university, but what you do after you get the sheepskin is more important to your career. Most employees understand this but have been constrained in their quest for advanced coursework by expense, time, even the admissions process. MIT’s leadership with its OpenCourseWare initiative changed the balance of power in big-business EDU, and also created an opening for communities of interest to morph into communities of learning.
2) Online learning communities have leveled the financial playing field and advantaged learners, not purveyors of degrees. As we’ve discussed here before fewer employers are willing to foot the bill for coursework and training. The unintended consequence of failure to invest in people is people investing in themselves, which puts strain on ties of loyalty already work thin by layoffs, downsizing or whatever label organizations have put on workforce restructuring. As employees turn to online learning communities to reinforce old skills and learn new ones they are gaining confidence eroded by years of organizational neglect. Not convinced? Just look at the emphasis many leaders are putting on talent retention, then do a quick search on how much it costs to recruit, retain and retrain than to hire talent from the outside.
3) Online learners are empowered, and they will change your culture. There’s never an exact power balance between employer and employee. One needs a paycheck and one has the checkbook. This structural imbalance is at the heart of most corporate cultures, whether leaders are paternalistic, micromanagers or matrix-management buffs. We do what we can to improve culture but employees who are empowered by their own quest for betterment will upset the balance. To manage culture, get on board with online learning communities at the same time as – or before – your employees do.
4) Leaders are born and made. You may think, because you carry the mantle of leadership, that you are untouchable. Maybe you’re a native leader, or you’ve climbed the ranks the good old fashioned way. But beware – this thinking is narrow and about as hip as a desk calculator. You know which skills you need to keep your business relevant – help your employees help you by building, or working with, an online learning community. Make your next generation of leaders awesome. If you can spot a natural-born leader tell them so or better yet, empower your employees to turn themselves into leaders.
5) Online social learning communities are changing the value of employer brands. Think you own your brand? Think again. Connected and influential employees, especially those involved with online social learning communities, can co-opt your brand in a heartbeat. Online communities may not have a direct link to your brand but they’re online, as are the learners. As your employees chalk up accomplishments and credits in online communities their peers will take notice. This may seem like a small data point but it’s not – it reflects on your employer brand. Be part of the process, not a bystander, to protect the value of your leadership and employer brand.
Online social learning communities are still young. They’re not completely proven. But if leaders ignore or wait to see what happens they’ll have missed the wave. Be present, be a leader, protect your social and workplace culture. And empower your employees to learn, participate and grow. Sponsor a community. Learn again, yourself, what it means to learn, and bring the whole organization with you. It will be quite a ride. Join in on the fun!
The Power of WE is just beginning.
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