How can Social Learning scale massively? Lesson from World of Warcraft…


Much fuss is made of class-size effects in schools, but I often get blank stares when I talk about the dangers of putting 10,000 people together in an online learning environment. This might be OK in an environment with no social interaction, but what about where we are trying to foster Social Learning?

Increasingly, the call is going out for some sort form of Social Learning to be a part of our online learning initiatives. Quite right, too. We’re well aware of evidence linking Social Context and long-term learning retention. We know how important Social Comparison is to our lives. We see the opportunities of the web 2.0 to create both a push and pull of knowledge throughout our organisations. But we’ve also got vast numbers of people to include in these processes if we are to make Social Learning a full part of our workplaces.

One of my chief concerns about the implementation of Social Learning within the enterprise is how we can ensure that the benefits of Social Learning scales to meet the thousands of employees that we might have as an audience. For me, there is a mix up between the power of Social Learning and the power of Crowdsourcing. The latter theory suggests that the more people we throw at a problem, the easier that problem is to solve. The former is more concerned with meaningful relationships which we build with other people and how they help to provide the context for our learning. Social Media is a tool which sits at the confluence of these two ideas; articulate your ideas using Social Media and they have the power to not only influence your close followers, but also the wider world.

Robin Dunbar theorised Dunbar’s number; a limit to the number of other people with whom one can maintain a relationship. The number is said to be 150, give or take a little. Dunbar based his findings not on observations of our daily lives but on an evolutionary perspective to account for the optimal number of relationships an individual should have in order to thrive.

Other studies, like those conducted by McCarty et al, have sought to estimate network size empirically. These methods have yielded higher numbers than Dunbar’s; a mean of 291 was found in the McCarty study. However, even these measurements have their flaws. Most notably, the McCarty study relied on people to estimate their own network size. People are generally poor at estimating various aspects of their own lives, so we must take this finding with a pinch of salt.

Facebook is rapidly becoming a better measure in my opinion; 130 would be the average number of ‘friend’ relationships a person has on the platform. It would be fair to say this number is conservative at the moment; not everyone is on Facebook and many people keep a separation of their friends, family and co-workers which means their complete network is not accounted for by the number. However, this number is also likely to be skewed by the number of “non-friend” friends we tend to have on Facebook; mostly old school acquaintances, who we might like to spy on for Social Comparison reasons, but wouldn’t otherwise count as friends.

Of course, the real answer here is that there is no single number to succinctly articulate how big a social network will be; the number will be slightly different according to our behaviours and situation. But, whatever that number is, it is probably in the low hundreds.

It is important to remember that we’ve already got a lot of relationships before we set foot in a Social Learning environment. Our capacity to make more meaningful relationships is going to be limited by the number of these relationships which already exist. In other words, we’ve probably only got a few slots left open. So when you are faced with a room of 10,000 people, where will you start focussing your effort in order to start building these few new meaningful relationships without wasting your time?

The answer is you probably won’t. Most people don’t. Less than 1 in 5000 visitors to Wikipedia actually makes an edit each month. I’ve built a community platform full of social features with over 3,000 registered members. No one contributes. If the room was vastly smaller, say 10 people, you could fairly easily meet each person and make an assessment as to whether a relationship is mutually convenient. When we run smaller classes of 15 or so people on the 3,000 member community platform the social interaction flows readily. But it is impossible to do this on a grander scale whilst fostering true relationships. Sure, people contribute to large news websites with comments, but that’s more about Glory than it is building relationships.

So, what can we do to address this issue? Certainly, just putting a social media type facility on your learning platform and expecting relationships to flourish isn’t going to work. I often say that there is nothing sadder than an empty forum and God knows I’ve seen enough of them in the various back alleys of company intranets and LMS’s to last a lifetime. The answer, for me, lies in breaking down the whole population into smaller parts on an autonomous basis. And I would model this answer on Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s), like World of Warcraft.

WoW has millions of players entering into its world every day. Players choose a realm to play within when they enter the game. Each realm is an individual copy of the game, perhaps characterised by being run in a different language (French realms instead of English, for example). Within each realm is a series of playable areas that take the form of continents; these can be explored autonomously and alone, with players taking on challenges that exist within them as they go. However, many of the more complex challenges that exist within each realm require a team effort to complete. This is where things get interesting. Small groups of players, banded together autonomously as “Guilds”, get together to take on the bigger challenges.

Of course, you don’t want to get together to take on a challenge and find some other group already in the dungeon (how often does that happen at work), so each challenge has the ability to provide a unique instance of itself for your group. This instance is a copy of the same challenge others can take, but only your group has access to it. This way many groups can take on the same challenge at the same time. Each person within the Guild needs to be engaged in order to tackle the challenge; there is rarely room for freeloaders as the challenges are often limited in terms of the number of players who can be in the group. Everyone contributes.

Guilds are often fairly tight-knit groups. Some of the more serious ones go on to meet each in real-life and many Guild participants would readily accept that some of their relationship slots are occupied by those which they play games online with. In addition, there has emerged a huge community of Guilds talking with each other; sometimes on friendly terms, sometimes more competitively. But the ability to showcase skill and discuss tactics with other Guilds is one of the biggest drivers of online communities outside of the actual game environment.

I believe this model can help to overcome the scalability issues that Social Learning often faces. Asking people to make an impact on the world as a whole is difficult, but it’s easy to be influential within your group. Hiding in the big wide world is easy, but it is difficult within a smaller group. Making meaningful relationships with everyone in your organisation is beyond the realm of possibility, but you can select a few people from which to learn within a smaller group.

In short, the answer lies in breaking down the enormous mass of your workforce into smaller groups, working together to improve both themselves and the organisation. The limitation in this approach is in the crowdsourcing approach to problem solving. If people work in groups separate from each other, how can we mitigate the silo effect and make sure we capture all of the learning on a collective basis?

Well, firstly I would suggest that silo effects can be countered by simple measures to ensure the groups are diverse in nature; only a certain number of people per department in each group for instance. Secondly, I wouldn’t stop any one being members of different groups for different topics, allowing insights to spread virally between groups. And thirdly, I would look to the groups to curate the best content to be pooled into a single, enterprise-wide access area. Instead of trying to aggregate everyone together on every topic, have groups nominate their best insights to be part of the company’s best insights and use a voting system within the realm to showcase the very best content.

There’s a lot more work to be done in this area and at the moment I’m looking to talk to those who have implemented social learning initiatives within their organisations to research deeper on what the ‘ideal number’ might be. Please do get in touch through the comments if you are interested in taking this further. But for now, let me suggest 5 lessons from WoW to help your Social Learning initiatives scale massively:

• Break down online social interactions into smaller realms and instances for groups.
• Make sure everyone in a group needs to contribute in order for the group to succeed.
• Create areas for groups to interact with other groups.
• Don’t allow groups to match up identically with organisational structure – diversify!
• Curate the best bits of each group to deliver real insight back to the rest of the organisation.

- Ben

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