F5 Networks (FFIV) is a Seattle-based technology company. With 4,395 employees and 620 managers worldwide, we believe that strong management leads to increased employee satisfaction, increased retention and an overall stronger performance.

After completing a 12-month leadership training program for managers in early 2016, it was clear we were having an impact.  However, the program required the support of two L&D resources to develop, deliver and deploy the program to less than 50 managers worldwide. The program was cost prohibitive and not scalable. Our solution: an opt-in, social learning community.

Social learning theory has become increasingly popular recently, but the term has been around since 1977 when Albert Bandura contributed the notion that behavior can also be learned from the environment and through observation. This notion feeds into the popular framework of the 70-20-10 Model: 70 percent of learning is experiential; 20 percent of learning is through coaching, mentoring, networking and feedback; 10 percent is formal classroom learning. It is that 20 percent that social learning aspires to target.

Getting Started

We selected a SharePoint site (because it fits with our IT infrastructure) as our social learning platform customized to allow managers to search for various types of information by management topic. Imagine a spreadsheet with the topic in the top row: hiring, setting goals, coaching, providing feedback, and building team climate. And the type of resource in the first column:  processes, blog posts, classes, and articles. We also provided each community member with access to Harvard ManageMentor, a full suite of self-paced management training lessons. We included forums for discussions and blog posts. The online forum is augmented with instructor-led (virtual or in-person) classes for our core curricula. We launched the site and immediately drew wide interest into the program, but shortly thereafter, monthly access to the site decreased. By month three, only 5 percent of users accessed the site and visitors averaged less than three minutes each visit.

We’ve revised our strategy and three months in, we’re seeing five times the monthly activity and three- fold increase in the time spent on the site and membership continues to grow. Here are four key lessons learned when launching a social learning site.

1. Design for the Learners

While a significant amount of HR and L&D thinking went into the design of our original site, we neglected to usability test the site with our target audience. There are two areas where this showed up, the first being ready access to the site. Managers wanted to have the site incorporated into their daily workflow rather than needing to find it when they wanted it, or they would forget about using it.

Second, the approach of searching by topic and resource was not intuitive to our users. The lesson is that the site needs to reflect the way users think about accessing the information. For example, managers are likely to think in terms of “problem employee” or “improving team collaboration,” neither of which would have produced results using our search strategy.

 2. If you build it, they still might not come.

The next lesson involved the amount of effort it takes kick-starting a social learning program and the need for a planned communication effort. F5 is an email-driven company, which is both good and bad news. The good news is that I can reach all managers with one click of “send.”  The bad news is that with so much email, it is easy for managers to delete, ignore or postpone an email message. This means that a planned communication strategy is required.  Develop a marketing and communication plan for the target audience and for key influencers. Ours now includes a regular cadence of traditional and virtual classes, which builds momentum for the online community.

We have found that a predictable cadence in our monthly newsletter is affecting growth at a steady pace. Working closely with our HR business partners (HRBP) yielded tremendous influence on our managers. The more the HRBP are included in activities such as pilot classes, lunch and learn sessions about the direction of the program and general partnering, the more they help promote program activities. Close liaisons with HRBP’s have resulted in senior executives scheduling intact sessions for their direct reports and encouraging their teams to participate in the program.

We’re also finding success by working with executives that are passionate about learning.  We continue to calibrate communication vehicles to see what is and isn’t working.

3. Something for Everyone

Not all managers are created equally. Some manage large groups while others manage smaller groups. Some have 20 years of experience, while others have six months. Some work in the same physical space with their teams, while others manage virtual teams. While we wanted to design a program for everyone, we eventually recognized that our program was targeted at newer managers with less experience. Besides helping to develop other managers, there wasn’t much in the program for more experienced managers. However, this creates a rather limited community.

This led to the importance of sub-groups or cohorts where a manager can self-select his or her community. That is the charter for this quarter. We are holding an on-site event for “managers of managers” to learn more about their interests and to gather ideas to leverage their expertise. We also have plans to launch cohorts for new managers, sales directors and virtual managers.

4. Learners Still Need L&D

One of the biggest lessons so far is the evolving role of L&D. The topic of learning to be a better manager is broad. One could spend hours researching which skill sets are needed, then evaluating various models before finding one that would work. We’ve seen how tools and job-aids provide guidance that enables a motivated learner to ignite his or her self-guided learning. The evolving role of L&D is to provide learners with structure and guidance to help facilitate self-directed learning. Here are a few examples.

  • A self-assessment that aligns to our core curricula.  A manager can self-assess against the key skill areas, informing focus on his or her learning and determine which topics should be prioritized.
  • A monthly learning theme in which L&D provides guidance and options on self-paced learning vehicles (i.e., time frames and a variety of activities). The learner can select which activity best meets his or her learning style, learning needs and schedule.
  • A resource map of books corresponding to the core curricula for learners who prefer reading over taking a class.
  • A guide for those who would benefit from a mentor. Our Getting Started document offers suggestions on selection, roles and suggested topics for a yearlong mentoring relationship.
  • Guidelines and learning events on what to do with the results from the annual Employee Engagement Survey. The guidelines help narrow the scope, prioritize the information and help managers find ways to make actionable, the information from their survey results.

While we still design and deliver traditional classes, we are also facilitating learning in new ways such as learning labs that are lightly facilitated and offer collaboration with other managers.  Social learning is an important element that addresses certain aspects of our need for faster, better and cheaper training options while still challenging our most valuable resource: our people. By creating a social learning environment for our managers, we are implementing an efficient and scalable solution to increase employee engagement, increase retention and deliver an overall stronger performance for our company.