in Management

The joy – and commercial value – of social learning

How do we get better at what we do?

Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen taught other craftsmen. There were guilds and apprenticeships – a community and a structure based on the craft. That helped people to develop their skills and become experts.

But today, how do private bankers become better private bankers? Or client service reps become better reps? Or IT developers become better developers?

We’ve lost touch with the simple idea of social learning. In our overly mechanical view of the firm, we’ve made learning a department.

Today, all the knowledge workers in our firms – “our most important asset” – get a standard orientation and some courses from a catalog. Then they’re largely set adrift. “If you have any questions, ask your manager.”

There’s a better way.

Communities of Practice

Books by Etienne Wenger inspired us to implement communities of practice at our firm. (If you want to learn how to build, grow, and sustain such communities, read this. If you want more about the theory of social learning, including a beautifully-written, in-depth example, read this.)

We started by creating role-based communities – people who do similar work organized to learn and measurably improve how they perform that work. And we slowly figured out how to balance structure, incentives, and other factors so both the members and the firm got value.

These communities, now with thousands of members, are becoming a standard way to learn across more and more of the firm.

But we have a long way to go before we master the art of community, and we needed help.

2 days with Etienne Wenger + Bev Trayner

2 people who love learning, love what they do, and love each other. (This is their wedding photo.)

At a conference last year, I talked with community strategist Lauren Klein who recommended I work with Etienne and Bev. That led to a 2-day workshop in London this past week.

I was expecting an academic discourse on social learning and maybe a few high-level ideas. But we got so much more.

After they reviewed everything we’d done and hoped to do, Etienne and Bev worked closely with our community managers, gave us dozens of specific adjustments to make, and slogged through detailed planning sessions with our entire team.

In a few days, we had a multi-year plan that will help us broaden what we do while accelerating how we realize the benefits.

The commercial value of social learning

Throughout the workshop, we spent a lot of time on how to measure the value of our communities. We know the individual members benefit by learning. And by shaping their reputation in a public way that can unlock access to opportunities.

That’s important. But it’s measurable commercial value for the firm that’s the key to making these communities sustainable in an enterprise.

Etienne told a story about the “blue book” at Shell – a systematic way of collecting value stories. In one area, the thing everyone wanted to avoid was drilling a well that didn’t produce oil. A dry well could cost the firm $20 million. Their systematic review showed that, even with very conservative accounting, Shell’s communities avoided 6 dry wells each year.

$120 million saved by taking a social approach to learning. Now that’s value.

What’s your “dry well”?

The very next day, I spoke to some investment bankers. After giving them my elevator pitch about our collaboration platform, we talked mostly about how client service teams could be more effective.

“Great.” I said. “But what’s the value of that?”

There was an awkward pause.

Then I told them the Shell story. “What’s your dry well”? I asked.

“Oh,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “It’s cross-selling.”

Of course. For decades, large financial firms have tried to connect their people and products so they could add more value for existing clients. Most firms already have systems to track such opportunities, usually involving a virtual currency and some specialist roles. But they all know there’s much more they can do.

Now, armed with insights about social learning and communities, we think we can readily discover more opportunities. In just a few minutes talking with the bankers, we came up with 4 new ideas we want to pursue.

How much is it worth?

Etienne and Bev are such smart, lovely people, that we started a friendship as well as a plan to work together more, including participating in their fantastic retreats in California.

They taught us how to improve and extend our communities of practice. And they taught us how we could apply their social learning concepts more broadly, giving us an extremely valuable new lens to look at old problems like cross-selling.

How many more deals will we do? How much more value will a social approach to learning realize for our customers and our firm?

We’re going to find out.