Questions about social media education and training often result in passionate discussions about the relative value of formal and informal learning when it comes to acquiring the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for effective digital engagement. Most of the participants in these discussions are early adopters who have successfully bootstrapped their own education and therefore believe that “learning by doing” is the right approach. This post revisits the question in an effort to gather current perspectives on the issue, not just from early adopters but also from folks who have just started climbing their own learning curves.
About a year ago I observed and participated in a number of debates regarding the best way for people to acquire knowledge about and develop skills related to using social media (see this post for links to some of them). Many people argued (often vociferously) that learning from experience was not just the best way to learn, it was the only way to learn – and they rejected the notion that social media skills and abilities can be developed through training. A number of people also asserted that credentials such as social media certificates are useless, and that the offerings behind them are generally worthless.
Earlier in 2011 I had done extensive benchmarking to identify current offerings in social media education and training while I was developing a social media and online communities specialization for a Master’s degree program in communication (see this post for details). There wasn’t much out there then, and not much seems to have changed in the fifteen months since. Lately, however, I’m seeing more buzz about formal offerings, and I’ve learned about two companies – one a well-established business media company, the other a technology start-up – who are making social media training a core service offering. Are we seeing a shift…?
Below I share my updated perspective on the value of a formal approach to developing and increasing not just social media expertise, but digital sophistication more broadly. I invite others to share their points of view as well, and to engage in dialogue and healthy debate.
- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD
My Initial Perspective
Here are my thoughts on some of the common objections to and concerns about social media training and education that have been raised in previous debates:
Social Media is too new. The basic argument here is that it’s too early to have created a body of knowledge and/or best practices about what social media is and how it should be leveraged. Specific platforms may be relatively new, but as I stated in my post about social media experts, the underlying technologies have been around for almost 20 years – longer if you consider some of their digital precursors. Even with respect to specific platforms, there’s a wealth of “how to” advice from experienced practitioners. And the core characteristics of social media technologies – such as user-generated content and social sharing – date back to our earliest days on the planet. Finally, when I benchmarked related offerings in 2011, I identified at least 170 ideas/topics that fall into six competency categories – clear evidence that there’s a substantial body of knowledge that can provide the focus for a variety of social media training and education programs.
Things change too quickly. Because “social media time” often seems to be moving ahead at warp speed, people believe that specific knowledge gained through formal education will become stale in short measure. That can be true with respect to specific platforms and their features, but the underlying concepts and principles don’t really change. And when the courses emphasize foundational skills that have broad applications, the training should provide a solid base for future refinements.
Certificates are meaningless. Many people are rightfully concerned that any charlatan can offer a certificate program that has no substantive value, and that naïve buyers will waste their money on them. They’re also right to be concerned that certificates alone are no definitive marker of achievement. I’d like to see us get beyond the concern over labels. Certificates may provide a credential that can help in a variety of settings, but it's the training itself that's important. Most people in a variety of professions are still social media rookies, and high-quality training can provide the kickstart they need to develop their knowledge and skills (check out this post for thoughts on how to evaluate the quality of a certificate program).
Experience – and results – are more important than training and education. Countless social media professionals, many of whom are early adopters, believe that the best way to learn how to leverage social media effectively is by jumping in and using it. But learning by doing is a time-consuming process. Given that demand for social media skills and expertise is likely to rise much faster than available supply in the near future, there's value in participating in courses that can enable people to climb their learning curves more quickly and effectively. Plus, the notion of training OR experience creates a false dichotomy. Training alone is never sufficient for developing expertise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. If we can recognize the importance of both in other disciplines (e.g., engineering, accounting, human resources), we shouldn’t unfairly bias one over the other when it comes to social media.
Continuous learning argument. Given the rate of change, many people emphasize the need to commit to learning constantly, which is as true in social media as it is in any other dynamic discipline. Those who use that argument to reject certifications and degrees seem to be assuming that they represent some kind of end state or pinnacle achievement. It is more accurate, however, to view certification as a beginning or a middle, something that can jump start lay the foundation for hands-on experience. As things continue to evolve, formal and informal learning can offer powerful complements to one another.
My Expanded Perspective
The traditional social media education and training debate has focused on professionals who need to leverage public social media platforms (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, bloggin, YouTube - and now Google+ and Pinterest) as an integral part of their jobs, which would primarily include marketing, sales, customer service and public relations folks - especially those in BtoC for-profit enterprises. Increasingly, however, Digital Era knowledge, skills and abilities are becoming a critical component of the competencies for professionals in all functional areas and all industries (see my Digital Era Competencies post for details).
But as I note in my Digital Divide post, people are not keeping pace with technological advances and the opportunities and challenges those advances create. As someone who speaks to and interacts with social media rookies regularly, I am constantly reminded that the hype surrounding social media and digital technologies overstates not only the pervasiveness of their use, but also our collective capacity to harness and leverage them to achieve our personal and professional goals and objectives. Most people are still at the very beginning of their learning curves – and for many of them, the anticipated climb seems very steep. My most popular blog post this year, for example, was 7 Simple To Dos for LinkedIn Rookies to Enhance Their Profiles, and my “how to” posts routinely drive more traffic to my website than the other pieces I write.
Given the shifts that have taken place over the past year, especially the growing digital divide, I think formal approaches to social media education and training are more important than ever - and the need for them should only increase in the foreseeable future.