Forrester has a new book coming out soon entitled Empowered written by two Forrester analysts. Its focus is on the power of social technologies in the hands of the general public and what this means for businesses. Although the book concentrates on sales and marketing, the implications for learning are huge. Empowered challenges businesses to give their employees the power of social technologies to respond quickly to customer needs. No one knows the customers better than the employees who work with them daily so “unleash” these employees from the established process and boundaries and encourage them to come up with solutions to customer problems, to issues in the work environment, and even to learning topics. The book’s vivid examples show the dangers of remaining in a status quo mode. It also profiles innovative company employees (called HEROes) who have generated approaches using technologies that have made a major difference in their companies’ ability to communicate quickly and successfully with customers. The message of the book: To succeed with empowered customers, you must empower your employees to solve customer problems.

One of the HEROes in this book is Rob Sharpe, the director of sales training for Stanley Black & Decker. For years Rob’s program involved onsite workshop instruction and carefully planned, well-produced PowerPoint presentations for online learning to enable the sales force to sell products. The problem was that no mechanism existed to capture and share the sales employees’ good selling ideas, their experiences with customers that informed the selling process, or information they learned from attending events and demonstrations — except informally by word-of-mouth. Rob “unleashed” the sales staff to become producers of learning content. He gave them Flip video cameras to use in the field to capture experiences that could benefit others. Using Windows Movie Maker, a free editing tool, sales employees edited their videos into short five-minute learning segments. Rob gets about 15 to 20 videos a month. He reviews content and posts them to the Stanley Black & Decker learning Website where they become just-in-time learning bites. Easy? No. Rob had to get support from his boss and he had to do some convincing of IT to get server space for the videos and address some security concerns. Now other departments see the value of using short employee-developed videos for training with assessments.

Seldom do companies think about employees as a viable source for creating learning content and if they do, they are uncertain how to capture this learning. Informal learning represents about 80% of employee learning at work such as conversations about a winning selling approach, solutions to a particular challenge, best practices around implementation, etc. Only 20% of learning comes from the formal approach that most people envision when they think about corporate learning. Informal learning is a different learning paradigm from thinking of learning as the purview of learning experts who have the authority to create learning content for employees to consume. Learning departments need to have a site where employees can share their knowledge through YouTube-type videos, blogs, wikis, communities of practice, forums, etc. and allow interaction around that content. Try this approach on a pilot basis targeting a group that will benefit most by sharing learning around work challenges and solutions, marketing ideas, insights from special projects, etc. The learning department needs to be a partner and a consultant to encourage and support learner-generated content. With the power that learners have using social technologies today, we are just beginning to glimpse the possibilities. Learning organizations need to be open to supporting these HEROes. Provide opportunities and nurture those ideas that may seem outlandish at first. You may have a HERO who can make a big difference in employee learning and energize others to real-world learning content.