Marcia Conner is a partner at Altimeter Group and the co-author of "The New Social Learning." She blogs at and tweets as @marciamarcia.

The book is a good read for anyone interested in learning more about how companies can leverage social technologies and tools to become, well, better companies. I asked Marcia a few questions to go deeper into some of the topics on the book, and here's what she kindly had to say.

1. If social learning is truly a competitive advantage, how can companies that are late to the game differentiate and compete?

The competitive advantage doesn’t come from the technologies themselves associated with social learning. It comes from the expertise and perspective your people have today that’s often never shared with anyone or put to use in the organization. Social media tools can provide venues for people to connect in ways they hadn’t before, differentiating an organization by the quality and brainpower of their people who now can build new approaches together that they couldn’t before.

2. In today's culture of sharing, does it make sense for companies to publicly display real-time information about how they are performing and how consumers are talking about them on the social web?

Customer perception — heck, even employee perspective— has been posted on bulletin boards and user group meetings for years. If you don’t believe that, google your company then read 10 or even 20 pages into the search results to see all of the places where you’re talked about now. The trouble with many of those venues is that they are only from a narrow slice of your customers, often without additional insights from people within your organization who have additional information. By engaging with those people in those spaces… or better yet, creating venues for a healthy conversation about what you are doing right and what you need to improve upon, you are far more likely to learn from people’s experiences and correct misperceptions and give people with alternative (and possible more favorable) views a chance to weigh in too.

3. What is needed to inspire and create change at companies with an "anti-social" culture?

I’ve worked with many organizations who consider themselves anti-social because their work is either solitary or senior leadership is very button up… or because middle-management has instilled a sense of fear in the ranks that talking with one another is grounds for dismissal. Each of these needs to be addressed slightly differently.

In the first situation, find bright spots where people are working together and learning from one another despite their individual paths. Use these as exemplars to find more opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas and build relationships between shifts, in common areas, or across online communities where people can congregate in the little moments between other tasks.

If senior leaders are modeling behavior that doesn’t appear to be social, and yet they are interested in fostering a more socially oriented culture, ask them to demonstrate some of the relationship work they do behind the scenes. Perhaps they are active in a community organization where they show a different side of their personality. Encourage them to participate in online social networks where they can be their introverted selves but in a more open and engaging way. Find ways to help them show a side that is committed to working in different ways.

And in the last situation, where there is a fear-based culture because people in the middle feel social is contradictory to productivity, work with senior management to reiterate the disconnect with the larger vision of a more social culture. Actively eliminate roadblocks in people’s path to work together by publicly changing rules and policies that stymie collaboration—and adopting ways of working that more accurately support people’s natural tendencies to learn from one another. You might not, at first, get the buy in or support of people who have been silenced for a long time but you will get newer hires to work in engaging ways, and that alone has the power to shift culture in less time than forcing people to work in ways they don’t believe will be well received.

I’ve conducted collaborative culture audits with dozens of organizations and almost all of them at first showed an inclination to distrust anyone overly social or relationship oriented. Over time, with specific steps and activities, often with the assistance of easy to use and mobile social technologies, they each became more mindful of what social really means (interacting to get work done) and saw it as an opportunity rather than something to avoid.

4. From SharePoint and LotusLive to SocialText and SocialCast, enterprise collaboration platforms within the firewall are getting quite advanced. What key elements are important when considering these and which do you think is the leading product today?

Each enterprise collaboration tools you mention has pros and cons, environments where they are better suited than one of their competitors, so it would be shortsighted to say one is the leading product today. Having said that, though, I believe it’s important for organizations to carefully consider their culture, their resources, their objectives, and the gaps they are trying to bridge when making a decision on the right tools for their environment. Are they looking for an on premise solution because they have the people to manage the systems? Would a SaaS implementation free people up to focus on business processes and making strides in workforce productivity? Do workers expect one interface where they can access every type of information flow or will they be comfortable using different tools for different activities? These are the types of questions organizations should consider when discerning what’s best for them.

5. What role do executives have in social learning? Do they only provide direction or should they lead by example?

Executives are learning today socially whether they recognize that or not. They learn from their management teams, from fellow executives in other companies, and from being active members of the world around them. While they provide direction to others, if they don’t demonstrate to those that work with them and for them that learning and relationship-building are important, they can undermine their guidance and miss a critical opportunity for people to learn from them too.

6. There are many monitoring tools out there, but they often lack in engagement, social CRM, and analytics capabilities. Do you think they will expand into these areas or will the industry remain fragmented for a while?

Organizations are often so trapped in their fear that relationship-building is anti-productive that they haven’t even begun to consider some analysis of the payoff from those engagements might prove otherwise. This becomes a chicken and the egg dilemma. Organizations are expecting analytics and useful measures of the gains made by working together… and because that level of monitoring isn’t yet widely available, leaders continue to focus on what they fear will happen. Until social technology vendors, on their own, deliver measurement capabilities (and ways to put those metrics into context that proves meaningful, not just numbers for counting’s sake) and up the conversation about the deep change these tools can create, the industry will remain fragmented and there will always be an err of mystery about the value of these tools.

7. In terms of Social Analytics, what should companies with social presences be measuring?

Organizations using social technology to connect people within their ecosystem should, at the least, measure four things:

1) Initiative (how many people logged in)

2) Persistence (how many people came back, presumably because they found value)

3) Connection (how the network expanded)

4) Technology Transition (fewer documents sent across email, for instance).

These four measures will demonstrate to those needing numbers to perceive value that change is underway. It will also begin to create conversations about the usefulness of legacy practices and the multiplier effects of expanding relationships.

The transparent nature of social media makes it easier to measure what’s going on because it can be observed and tracked. For instance, you can analyze what people are searching for and map what they find. You can analyze not only where people go with their social tools, but also how they get there, how long they stay, and what they do when they are there. Although this does not verify the transfer of knowledge or skills, it is a pretty good indication.

The next level of measurement look at functional outcomes rather than simply asking, “Did they engage?” There is little value to the organization if people don’t apply what they take in—put into practice what they learn and how their decisions have been informed. The best measures go the next step to connect using new skills and knowledge with how they affect measures such as the bottom line.

8. By 2014, aprox half of the workforce will be Millenials. Many such Millenials have grown up with video games like Halo, Counter Strike and World of Warcraft. How can companies introduce gaming mechanisms to encourage collaboration and learning?

Children and animals don’t play because they have free time. They play to move through developmental stages and to learn from one another how to interact and how to grow strong. With that knowledge, organizations can introduce more playful practices — be it pool tables in break rooms or races to see which team can come up with more novel ideas to vexing organizational problems. Video games can be introduced in leadership development, customer service training, and even program bug hunts to extend those practices and connect with young workers who enjoy games. Just don’t convince yourself that video games are required to engage a young workforce. Playful, interesting, meaningful work, where people can learn new things and connect with people around topics that matter to them will retain them for a long time.

9. It seems "immersive environments" like Second Life have lost some of the appeal from some years ago. Why is that?

Social tools these days are getting lighter and more mobile, being used to augment work, not as the activity itself. Many of the virtual immersive environments still require a great deal of processing power and big displays that don’t fit easily in a purse or a pocket. This means that the tools providers are either going to need to create an even more captivating and compelling reason to use their tools—or they are going to need to find ways to miniaturize the experience or find ways to take it with you through projection or augmented environments.

10. Should social learning be led by cross-division teams or should it be "owned" by a specific division/group?

The idea any group or cross-division team can own social learning is like asking one department to be responsible for organizational health. The only people who can own social learning are the individuals who themselves are learning each day, from one another, based on their work and in the flow of work. One department can set strategy and review tools, and even document and advertise healthy social learning practices, but at the point when they give the impression it is their responsibility to manage the learning, they step back in time to an age when we thought training (or knowledge management, or human capital development, or..) was a discreet set of activities and events that could be turned on and off like a light switch. Rather, learning and collaboration are ongoing actions taken by individuals in concert with one another to produce something greater than anyone alone could create. And that is owned by (and directed by) every individual all of the time. Remove the obstacles in people’s paths to do what is hardwired into their DNA—to learn together to grow strong—and you’ll find it creates healthy organizations where social learning is their lifeblood.

Copyright © Esteban Contreras. All rights reserved.