The Digital Spring of Talent Development | | HQ Asia Reply

One of the hottest topics of recent years has been social media. While countless professionals have adopted Facebook and Twitter for personal communication, the role that social media plays within an organisation seems less obvious. However, employee communications and talent development are emerging as the most beneficial and measurable arenas in which we use enterprise communications.

Using social media within a corporation context, what MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee calls ‘enterprise 2.0,’ is not a new idea. Enterprise 2.0 solutions enable conversation, collaboration and sharing in real time. To illustrate, in 2006 National Semiconductor in the USA gave iPods to employees in order to deliver training materials and promote real-time communications. Employees could download learning modules as needed. Capital One Financial Corp started podcasting for similar reasons, and embarked on a leadership development series targeting high performers. Companies can deliver important content via channels already adopted by employees.

While there are many advantages to using popular channels such as iTunes, other organisations might prefer to keep discussions behind a secure corporate firewall. Xerox decided to adopt Adobe Connect – an enterprise solution for online meetings and eLearning – because it functions as an internal social network, supporting customers and employees around the globe. Benefits, says Joann Halle, VP USA of Learning and Development, include a reduction in time-consuming classroom-based training, along with the associated travel costs. In fact, the system saved CAN$150,000 in travel expenses for one event in Canada, while travels costs in Europe were reduced by 10%. The system also improved knowledge sharing, enabled service staff to interact directly with customers, and solve problems more quickly. The combined savings have allowed Xerox to achieve its ROI with Adobe Connect in only three months.

Digital Channels Decentralise

Digital channels are well suited for people development; the conversation-rich characteristic of enterprise 2.0 can be an important part of many development programmes. In order to realise these benefits, organisations must first understand what enterprise 2.0 does so well: it decentralises communications and networks people.

Classroom-based development programmes are often highly centralised. The corporate university, for example, typically design courses, which then become part of an employee’s development programme. Consequently, the company can show each employee what development plans are on the horizon. HR can also deliver numbers showing how many people were trained, how happy employees were when they finished the programme, etc. These numbers are routinely emphasised during budgeting season.

Successfully employing enterprise 2.0 for leadership development, however, requires that we expand our thinking. Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to excel when activities are decentralised and placed in the hands of learners. A group of high potentials being groomed for leadership positions, for example, might take ownership of the communication channels (a wiki, discussion forum, etc) and discuss the issues important to them. This is a highly participant-centred model.

Wikipedia is a great example of participant-centred activity. Wikipedia’s administrators laid down a few ground rules, and then got out of the way so people passionate about a topic could share. No content expert with a PhD was required; so long as a contributor makes the page better, the change is allowed. Importing this concept to the corporate setting, anyone should be allowed to contribute to their own development so long as they are solving the challenges of that particular development community.

Peer-to-peer learning can be a powerful experience, and it works well when decentralised. Enterprise communications are also particularly good at connecting people with people. Once connected, the network offers unprecedented opportunity to harness insights, collaborate and execute a task more quickly.

McKinsey Quarterly released a four-year study titled ‘Rise of the Networked Enterprise: Web 2.0 Finds its Payday’, in which they argued that companies in this study use “collaborative Web 2.0 technologies intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and extend the organisations’ reach to customers, partners, and suppliers.” Here are the top three benefits described in the report.

  • For internal purposes and working externally with vendors and suppliers, companies increased the speed with which they accessed knowledge (77% and 57%, respectively).
  • Companies also reduced their communication costs, both internally and externally.
  • For internal purposes and working externally with vendors and suppliers, companies increased the speed with which they accessed internal experts (52%) and external experts (45%).

Digital Channels Provide Access to Information

An important part of developing leaders should be giving them access to the needed insights as the job demands. TATA Communications harnesses digital channels such as telepresence and Yammer (an enterprise microblog similar to Twitter) as well as more traditional approaches to create a new product launch in record time. The speed can be replicated in talent development programmes. Whether launching a new product or developing future leaders, digital channels give employees access to experts, and do so at a reduced cost.

The Challenges of Running Digital Channels

Social networks are not one-way streets. Networks must be grown and actively maintained, and there are challenges when it comes to helping young professionals learn how to grow and benefit from their networks.

Helping them find the confidence to openly discuss and solve problems can be a steep curve. A colleague who openly shares ideas within the walled garden of Facebook may suddenly become shy and reticent when discussing a co-worker’s ideas over an enterprise wiki or discussion forum. A measurable portion of the author’s students at Singapore Management University displayed precisely this behaviour. They revealed that it feels risky to critique or update a colleague’s work within a collaborative workspace that everyone can see. Their feedback might cause a peer to lose face.

This culturally rooted concern for saving face will not be limited to university students. Numerous professionals have privately expressed their reservations about open knowledge sharing, problem solving and personal development. Yet given time and guidance, most of them have adapted and succeeded with enterprise 2.0.

Organisations cannot simply adopt digital channels in precisely the same way that other cultures have, as mimicking without localising could potentially delay talent online development programmes. A company’s culture must be factored into the planning, and unique ways to highlight the benefits of open networking and sharing should be found.

A Three-Pronged Strategy

How can one apply these insights to talent and leadership development?

  • HR and development staff must learn to share control with the learners, which may be difficult for those with a high need to control development programmes. But networks are decentralised, and good things can happen when we create an opportunity and then step out of the way.
  • Learners within the organisation need to become more confident and open to collaborating. In many cases, good ideas are important but are not the most difficult part of a project. Instead, execution is the greater challenge. When it comes to enterprise 2.0 and collaborative workspaces, having the confidence to open up and share insights can help everyone overcome the execution challenge. Sharing can help everyone perform his or her work more effectively; withholding information for some perceived personal benefit becomes counterproductive. Therefore, participants in these online programmes must also develop a mindset appropriate to open collaboration.
  • Everyone should keep the larger business goal in sight. Enterprise 2.0, when used wisely, creates that fertile ground in which learners can grow. These channels give them the opportunity to participate in their own development, interact with like-minded people, provide access to experts, and remain up to date on the latest business insights. In the online sphere all these activities are measurable and quantifiable.

Talent development is emerging as the most beneficial arena in which we use enterprise communications.

Enterprise 2.0 will never be a complete replacement for traditional approaches. However, as the research base grows, it is becoming increasingly clear that organisations can help their employees grow – and more rapidly – by including enterprise 2.0 as part of their development programmes. Enterprise 2.0 has different ground rules, though: organisations need to willingly share control with learners, encourage them to overcome reservations about open sharing, and do so with business objectives in sight. Considering the speed with which digital technologies are permeating every aspect of contemporary life, these opportunities should be pursued sooner rather than later.


Dr. Michael Netzley teaches at Singapore Management University. His research interests include Corporate Reputation, Leadership and Social Media.

How do digital channels impact talent development? The article here presents my thoughts and appears in the latest issue of HQ Asia magazine. Any ideas for extending and improving the conversation are most welcome. I hope you enjoy reading.

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