In the past several years, in the area of “social” tools and technologies, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of various related concepts and terms, both in the Learning and Development industry and in the business world more broadly. By “rise and fall,” I don’t mean to imply that the popular early terms were in some way incorrect — they are still valid concepts and still get used when appropriate. Rather, I’m referring to the evolution of what we as an industry are comfortable talking about, and what we feel best captures the points we are trying to make at that moment. Let me spell out how I’ve experienced this over the past four years, and see if you’ve seen the same trends. Then, let’s speculate about what might come next and why.

Several years ago, learning professionals followed the broader trend and adopted the term Web 2.0 to describe Internet technologies that provided for much greater two-way interaction, collaboration, knowledge sharing, and so on. There had always been some of this on the Internet (e.g., discussion boards, newsgroups, guestbooks, and so on), but as blogs, wikis, modern discussion forums, and eventually social networking sites and social messaging services (e.g., Twitter) arose to great prominence, the term “Web 2.0″ became a crucial concept — and at times, an over-used buzzword.

But “Web 2.0″ as a term had a few problems for those not at the forefront of this trend. For one thing, on its own it doesn’t convey its meaning in a transparent way: the “2.0″ just indicates some sort of evolution or change from the past, but what has changed exactly? After all, during the same time that things like blogs and wikis arose, e-commerce continued to grow rapidly–so someone not in the know might wonder if “Web 2.0″ was referring to e-commerce rather than collaborative, social technologies. Further, “Web 2.0″ has a certain awkwardness to it when trying to describe the use of these kinds of collaborative technologies used privately, inside an organization. In such cases, you typically are using the same underlying tools as the public counterparts (a web browser, HTML, etc.), but you are accessing forums and blogs and so on that are on an internal network. Therefore, the use of “Web” in “Web 2.0″ can for some be a bit confusing.

For these and other reasons, many started to refer to these technologies more often as social media rather than “Web 2.0.” This was clearer on both counts mentioned above: the word “social” captures the direction of the technological evolution, and it was less awkward when describing internal technology use.

Our terminology evolved further as many in the industry started to notice that this evolution was potentially an even bigger change than initially considered. The concept of Enterprise 2.0 is used to capture this notion: the use of social media, whether internal or public, can radically alter many if not all aspects of modern enterprise organizations. Some of the changes will be unexpected; some will be hard to manage. But the effects will be far-reaching–and have been so at many organizations that are at the forefront of implementing the cultural changes and new tools that “Enterprise 2.0″ involves.

More narrowly, in the Learning and Development field, we naturally wanted to consider “social media for learning and development” contexts. That is too wordy to bandy about very often, so for a while we suffered through the temporary use of Learning 2.0 as an industry term. Thankfully, we seem to have quickly evolved beyond that to the now popular term social learning.

There are two new and powerful books in this area that use these terms in line with my evolutionary story here. The first is Social Media for Trainers, by Jane Bozarth. Here Bozarth is specifically considering the use of social media technologies (internal and external to the organization) in the context of training. Hence the term “social media” makes the most sense in her title.

The other is The New Social Learning, by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner. Here the authors correctly note that “social learning” as a concept is broader than, and pre-dates, the use of social media tools to enable learning, but that what is “new” is just how powerful the use of the new tools is in this regard. Hence they present it as the “New Social Learning.” Simple and clean, and right on target. In the diagram below, it is the intersection that represents the “new” social learning:

I suspect that the term “social learning” — whether properly defined as Bingham and Conner do, or more loosely used to refer to the use of social media in learning and development contexts — will be a concept and term we will be using for many years to come. It has legs, and represents an important trend in our industry, not a mere fad.

That said, I wonder if this terminology evolution will continue, and what will the next terms be? Here are some candidates. I’m specifically wondering if leadership in organizations, the C-suite and the finance folks, will not always “get” the value of “social learning,” and consider it too flimsy and vague of a term. If they refuse to fund the important shift to greater informal and social learning, then the learning and development professionals who believe in the powerful value of social media and social learning will need, to some degree, to “re-brand” what they are recommending the organization adopt. They could fall back on “Enterprise 2.0″, which has the advantage of being broader than L&D, but this has the same lack of clarity in direct meaning  “Web 2.0″ suffers.

Another approach would be to accept that “learning” is not the ultimate goal. Keep the term “social,” but replace “learning” with concepts that better capture the real goal, such as “social performance improvement” perhaps?

I’ve also heard industry experts suggest that with some leaders you may need to swap out “social” for another term, such as “collaborative,” “collective,” or “shared.” So then we might evolve to “collaborative performance improvement” (although CPI in the USA is already a common acronym, for Consumer Price Index!).

What do you think? Have you had success recommending “social learning” or “Enterprise 2.0″ as important initiatives in your organization? Or have you evolved your terminology to something else that is more attractive to your leadership? If not “social performance improvement,” what do you see as the next–more ultimate-ends and results-focused–term we’ll all be using?


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