Deja Vu

March 3, 2010

There is some interesting conversation going on in the elearning world this week.  Respected voices such as Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, Jay Cross, Jane Bozarth have been tossing around terms like “Social Snake Oil” and “Informal Snake Oil” as they discuss how Social and Informal Learning are being latched onto by software vendors and being sold simply as “out of the box” software solutions; ignoring the difficult, but valuable,cultural and process changes these powerful approaches can bring to an organization.

The more things change…

I think they are quite right in their concerns; and I think it is something that we’ve all seen coming for quite awhile.  In fact, it’s a discouragingly familiar, if predictable scenario.

A few months ago, some familiar themes starting showing up in articles and blogs and they jogged my memory.  I went into my files and pulled up some old emails and notes from the 1990s when I was debating the potential of Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) with some colleagues.   What was interesting to see was the similarity of how things played out over a decade ago to the current discussions regarding Social and Informal Learning.  Back then there were the thought leaders who could see all the promise, potential and pitfalls of CSCW.  But, as a growing circle of practitioners picked up on the message, there was a tendency of some to focus on the promise of CSCW, without systematically addressing  the complexities of implementing it in real world situations.  Then there were the businesses who were looking for a “quick win”, and for whom it was easy to get caught up in the optimism and not deeply evaluate if the “Business Solution of the Month” would address their goals and work in their culture.    Then there were the software companies who created impressively functional (for the era) CSCW tools, but who marketed them as solutions rather than as tools to facilitate business practices.  It’s easier to pitch a quick fix than to create and implement change.

It’s a pretty universal story.  From CSCW, to ERP, to Social and Informal Learning, the pattern remains the same.   Always a great concept, that along the way gets filtered down and over-simplified to the point where it’s pitched as a mere software solution.  Then all too often the huge investment fails to deliver on the promise.  The new process is good; the business objective is good; the software is good; but the whole process of selection and implementation was all wrong.   The net result is that repeated failures of technologically supported process/cultural changes leave people cynical about future innovation and initiatives.

But there is good news…

The reality is that the Social Learning communities already have the solution to this long running problem of failed initiatives.  We have the tools to get people out of their functional silos; we have the expertise and motivation to get thought leaders, practitioners, business leaders and software companies talking  (Dare we say, Collaborating?, Engaging in Social Learning?)  so that the right problems are being addressed in the right way.    There are a large number of professionals more than willing to engage with business leaders, ready to learn what we don’t know about their realities; we want to practice what we preach.   And maybe just this once we’ll have an initiative that doesn’t get binned as a failure, but actually delivers on its potential.

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