Bottom-up learning will happen to some extent regardless of the efforts put in by the employer to smooth the process. It’s natural for an employee to take the initiative if they don’t know how to complete a task, because they want to do a good job. It will surely be the exception rather than the rule for someone to simply sit down, fold their arms and wait to be told. However, it’s the role of managers – and the l&d specialists who support them – to do more than just leave things to chance. Bottom-up learning can be positively encouraged, by ensuring employees have the means, the opportunity and the motive to contribute to each other’s learning.
Let’s start with the means and in particular the software tools that can provide the infrastructure to support bottom-up learning:
Blogs provide employees with the ability to reflect on their work experiences and to share those reflections with others who have similar work interests. Where an employee has many peers within the organisation, the blogging software can be made available inside the firewall, which has the added benefit of keeping the content away from the prying eyes of competitors. Where an employee works as a specialist and has few internal peers, they may be encouraged to blog on the World Wide Web where they can benefit from the expertise of similar specialists around the world. Assuming they are not critical of the employer – and you would need a policy to cover this – an external blog may even have a positive PR benefit for the organisation, demonstrating thought leadership in a particular discipline.
Search engines are an essential component in any bottom-up learning infrastructure. We all know the power of Google to help us hunt down information and, for any organisation which has an intranet or a substantial collection of online documents, a similarly powerful search facility behind the firewall is essential.
Yellow pages or their software equivalent, allow employees to seek out experts who may be able to help them solve a current problem. If you don’t have the software to do this in a structured fashion, you can always provide a simple list of who to call for what type of information, on the intranet or in hard copy on a notice board. Once an employee has identified the right expert to contact, they need the right communications medium to put forward their question, whether that’s the telephone, email, instant messaging, web conferencing, SMS messaging or some other format. With this proliferation of communication media, organisations might consider issuing some guidelines to help employees choose the right medium for each particular situation.
Forums (or message boards or bulletin boards, as they are sometimes called) provide a simple way for employees to post questions online, with the hope that somewhere in the community another employee will be able to provide a helpful response. Where forums can let you down is when you are depending on other users to visit the forum site in order to see the latest questions. Some element of ‘push’ is required to alert users to new questions, whether that’s email notifications, RSS feeds or lists of recent postings that appear on the intranet home page.
Wikis provide a way for employees to collaborate in creating content that can be of use to the whole community. Although subject experts and l&d professionals may prime a wiki with content, the ability of all employees to make contributions based on their own particular experiences, makes a wiki much more than a simple reference manual.
Learning management systems (LMSs) can help employees to find e-learning content that is available for open access on an ‘as needs’ basis. It’s important to keep the barriers between the employee and the content to a minimum. Ideally employees should not have to log in separately to the LMS; the available content should be sensibly categorised; the content should be tagged so it can be easily found using the LMS’s own search facilities; the registration/sign-up process should be minimal; and employees should be allowed to rate content, so the most popular and useful content is clearly visible.
Social networking is usually seen as an out-of-work activity, where people use software such as Facebook, MySpace or Bebo to maintain their network of contacts for purely social reasons. However, in just a few years, social networking has grown so quickly, and exerted such a powerful influence on its users that many organisations are now looking for ways to achieve similar benefits inside the firewall. An organisation’s own social network could be used to allow employees to connect with others who have similar needs and interests, to find sources of expertise, to form communities of practice and to keep up-to-date on developments in their particular fields.
Of course, tools are not enough in themselves; employees also need the skills to use them. Although many of the tools listed above are extremely easy to use and many employees will be familiar with their use outside work, there is room here for top-down initiatives to ensure all employees know which tool to use in which circumstance and have the confidence to become active users.
In his ‘How to save the world’ blog, Dave Pollard lists a number of ways in which organisations can achieve quick wins with bottom-up knowledge management initiatives, by skilling up employees to make better use of the tools at their disposal:
“Help people manage the content and organisation of their desktop: Most people are hopeless at personal content management but don’t want to admit it. Provide them with a desktop search tool and show them how to use it effectively.
Help people identify and use the most appropriate communication tool: Give them a one-page cheat sheet on when not to use e-mail and why not, and what to use instead. Create a simple ‘tool-chooser’ or decision tree with links to where they can learn more about each tool available.
Teach people how to do research, not just search: If people are going to do their own research, they need to learn how to do it competently. Most of the people I know can’t.”
Coming next in chapter 6: Then they need the opportunity
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