Given today’s pace of change, Paul Jagger FBCS argues that organisations should forgo traditional methods of learning and development and embrace agile user generated content.

Platforms such as Blogger, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, TikTok and WordPress have enabled content creators and curators to share their knowledge, skills, experience and interests with a global audience. The time has come for corporate learning and development functions to embrace the idea of allowing users to capture and share learning in the workplace.

Why enable user generated content curation and creation?

There is a paradox at the centre of workplace learning: businesses invest enormous amounts in procuring or commissioning learning content, much of which sits on the shelf and is rarely used. Corporate learning management systems and third-party content catalogues languish in low single digit consumption figures. The content is often generic, difficult to customise and lacks context to the business.

There is always more knowledge, skill and experience in a workforce than anything a business can license from a third-party content catalogue or develop in house, and that learning is already in the context of the business. So, why not capture that knowledge, those skills and that experience so that they can be shared more effectively?

What is user generated content?

User generated content (UGC) is anything that a user curates or creates, usually with the intention of making it available to others. This could be a document, a presentation, a screen recording, a video, a podcast, an infographic or even a web link.

The user may be an individual or a group who collaborate informally to produce content. The emphasis is on the user being free to decide how, when and what they produce, without the intervention of specific direction or tasking from the business. Creating UGC should always be produced of the user’s own free will. UGC tools are designed for immediate access by every user from the newest apprentice to the CEO.

How do user generated content tools support the learner?

Digital learning platforms that provide tools for creation and curation of content by learners are typically designed to be intuitive and often provide structured templates. Usually, they do not require training or specialist skills to enable rapid content capture and sharing. Generally, again, such tools enable creation or curation of a variety of content types such as:

  • Audio, such as a podcast
  • Video captured on a mobile phone
  • Simple text-based quizzes (multiple choice questions)
  • Polls
  • Presentations
  • Word documents
  • Infographics
  • Spreadsheets
  • PDF files
  • Web links (internal or external)
  • Virtual meetings (to support coaching/mentoring)
  • Livestreams

These tools do not replace the dedicated authoring environments used by eLearning content design and development teams to create and maintain rich, interactive, self-paced eLearning in SCORM/AICC or xAPI formats such as Articulate 360, Camtasia, Captivate, Easygenerator, Lectora, iSpring Suite or others. Such tools require specialist skills, and teams of content authors, media editors, quality assurance reviewers and instructional designers.

How to ensure user generated content is approved prior to publication?

The most frequent concern I hear from clients when discussing the benefits of UGC is that of ensuring the content curated, created and shared by users is relevant, up to date, accurate and most importantly safe for work. These are understandable concerns, and they reveal something about the nature of corporate learning and development functions: a belief that learning must be subjected to a process of approval before it can be released for consumption.

The desire to approve learning curated and created by learners is understandable; it is also unnecessary and unachievable.

Why unnecessary?

Users at all levels are already trusted to share knowledge, skills and experience in all manner of ways that are not in the purview of the corporate learning and development function (phone, email, MS Teams, water-cooler chat). There is no reason to believe this organic process requires the intervention of learning and development to validate that which is already being shared is relevant, up to date, accurate and safe for work.

Why unachievable?

Today, the learning and development function has no sight of most learning that takes place on the job, no means to track or examine it, and would never have the capacity to review it even if the content was all captured and submitted for review. There’s too much content arriving too quickly, from too many directions. Reviewing it all would bring the organic process to a halt.

To illustrate the difficulty of reviewing and approving information learning, take these examples:

  • What is the learning and development function’s role when a user shares knowledge with their peers on Slack?
  • What role does the learning and development function play in ensuring the quality of any product demonstration given to colleagues over MS Teams?
  • How can learning and development monitor the coaching a manager provides to their reporting employees as part of a professional development discussion?
  • How does learning and development capture the advice an account manager gives to a consultant on how best to build trust and rapport with a client on the way to our first meeting with them?

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Just because contemporary digital learning platforms enable the capture of UGC does not mean that content should be subjected to a formal review and approval process before release to other users. Doing so would slow the process to a halt, overwhelm learning and development and dissuade contribution. It would also invest the business with a culture of distrust and create backdoors to knowledge sharing outside the purview of learning and development.

What checks and balances can be put in place?

UGC is usually created using simple templates that ensure consistency of content format, structure, metadata and cataloguing. Most digital learning platforms also provide artificial intelligence capabilities that assist the user in extracting titles, descriptions, durations, language, format and other metadata from public content sources (TED Talks, articles on the web, YouTube videos and the like).

Digital learning platforms create an immutable audit trail back to the author of any user generated content, one that does not allow for anonymous posting, and ensures that authorship cannot be repudiated. Digital learning platforms usually support embargoed words and websites and will of course respect the search filtering imposed by a corporate firewall. They usually also provide the means to allow any user to report content if it is broken, out of date, misleading or not safe for work.

Ultimately every business has established HR policies and processes for dealing with situations where employees post content that is not appropriate for the workplace. User generate content does not encourage sharing of inappropriate content, but it does make the behaviours (where they exist) very easy to identify and trace back to the individual concerned.

How can user generated content capture and sharing be encouraged?

Encouraging users to become contributors is a matter of cultural change. It requires delegation of authority to the user, establishment of trust, and guidelines for contribution in addition to provision of the tooling. Some techniques that can encourage users to contribute are:

  1. Giving recognition to contributors whose content is highly rated by other users
  2. Running a quarterly competition for contributions that achieve the most consumption – perhaps with a small prize for the top three contributors
  3. Creating a contribution leader board
  4. Measuring contribution as part of the annual performance review process
  5. Highlighting key SMEs/influencers who are known for their expertise and willingness to share it
  6. Encouraging line managers to be role models as contributors.

In conclusion

Empowering users with the means to capture and share their knowledge, skills and experience fosters a culture of collaboration, it harnesses the informal learning that is already ongoing in the business, it is quicker and cheaper to develop and deliver than formal learning and is often of greater utility and immediate impact to the needs of the learner than off-the-shelf content or formally commissioned learning programmes. Go for it!