Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Social Software: What It Is And How It Impacts Individuals And Organizations - A Report By Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Part I)

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Social software is whatever software or online network that enables users to interact and share knowledge in a social dimension, emphasizing the human potential instead of the technology that makes the exchange possible.

Photo credit: Mikael Damkier

Social software is everywhere: blogs, instant messengers, wikis, collaborative editing tools are the most representative expressions of this concept. The role of these technologies has become more and more important in today's world and keeps on reshaping the way in which collaboration happens on and outside the Internet.

In a recently published video-interview with Teemu Arina, the young Finnish researcher pointed out the enormous potential of social software when it is adopted in the informal learning process and also within the new generation organizations.

In the following article we introduce to you the first excerpt of an excellent report released by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, an institution that has dedicated particular attention to the phenomenon of social software and its impact on the lives of the individuals and organizations of nowadays.

Defining social software and the scope

There are differing opinions around the exact definition of social software. For the purpose of this research, a Wikipedia definition at 28 September 2006 was applied, i.e. social software:

"...enables people to rendez-vous, connect or collaborate through computer mediated discussion and to form online communities. Broadly conceived, this term could encompass older media such as mailing lists but some would restrict its meaning to more recent software genres such as blogs and wikis."

Time magazine (December 25, 2006 / January 1, 2007) devoted its 2006 Person of the Year issue to "YOU" and explained the way social software empowers individual consumers. Time presents a map that links the ways social software empowers individuals to:

Make It - i.e. user-driven content

Name It - i.e. social bookmarking referred to as folksonomy

Work on It - i.e. mass collaboration or crowdsourcing

Find It - i.e. online product search generating the new business model, Long Tail.

In conducting this research the focus was initially a narrow band of social software technologies not yet researched by the Framework that have begun to be successfully used in the teaching and learning environment of VET. These were blogs, wikis, virtual conferencing and social bookmarking software.

The research recognized however, that the social software landscape is dynamically changing. It is likely that specific tools will be rapidly enhanced or superseded. Hence, the approach was to recognize some additional social software tools currently being used for knowledge sharing, capability development and/or teaching and learning in VET.

These were 3D or virtual worlds (eg Second Life), photo publishing (eg Flickr), digital storytelling and podcasting. A holistic view of social software was also taken with the findings applying to the use of all social software generally.

One area of social software that is burgeoning but has not been included in this research specifically is the use of social spaces such as MySpace. With the rapid growth of social software options, the future examination of the use of social software in VET would probably include looking at this rapidly expanding area.

There was some disagreement over the inclusion of virtual conferencing under the umbrella of social software. Downes considered that the development of community through users linking asymmetrically, ie the choice of who links to whom should be "in the hands of the user", is a critical element of social software. He questioned whether this happens with virtual conferencing software.

The need for boundaries around categorizing what is Social Software (or Social Networks) is discussed by Boyd (2006). A key point made by Boyd is that boundaries are needed to prevent all the latest technologies being classified as "social software" because it is "cool" as well as providing clear definitions for future research, discussion and debate.

However, because virtual conferencing is recognized across VET in Australia as playing an important role in community building and teaching and learning it remained in the scope. The researchers acknowledge though that its inclusion could be considered outside the boundaries of social software.

Although the main focus of the research was within VET, data gathered came from a much broader landscape including all educational sectors as well as corporations within and external to Australia. It was considered that lessons learnt from within and external to VET would provide much richer data to inform the practice of VET.

Characteristics of individuals, groups and organizations already engaged with social software

The individuals

The characteristics of VET practitioners already engaged in using social software fall well
within the descriptions outlined below of Rogers' (1995) innovators and early adopters and a small number fall within the early majority:

  • Innovators: Brave people - pulling the change. Innovators are very important communicators.
  • Early Adopters: Respectable people - opinion leaders, try out new ideas, but in a careful way.
  • Early Majority: Thoughtful people - careful but accepting change more quickly than the average.
  • Late Majority: Sceptical people - will use new ideas or products only when the majority is using it.
  • Laggards: Traditional people - caring for the "old ways", are critical towards new ideas and will only accept it if the new idea has become mainstream or even tradition.

Rogers' Innovation Adoption Curve identifies the different stages of adoption of innovation. (See Figure 1)


Figure 1: Rogers' Innovation Adoption Curve (1995)

Rogers identified that the five adopter categories follow a standard deviation curve: very few innovators adopt the innovation in the beginning (2.5%); early adopters make up for 13.5% a short time later; the early majority 34%; the late majority 34%; and after some time finally the laggards make up for 16%.

Rogers' Innovation Adoption Curve is useful in remembering that trying to quickly convince the mass of a new controversial idea is useless. It makes more sense to start with convincing innovators and early adopters. The categories and percentages can be used as a first draft to estimate target groups for communication purposes as well.

The characteristics of the exceptional people who start epidemics described by Gladwell in The Tipping Point (2000) are also reflected in those already engaging with social software. Gladwell refers to these people as Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. They are the messengers who spread social messages.

  • Connectors: People with a special gift for bringing the world together, people specialists, know lots of people and are able to make social connections.
  • Mavens: Information specialists and problem solvers with social skills who like to share their knowledge.
  • Salespeople: Have the skills to persuade when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing.

Gladwell applied the knowledge about how epidemics spread to devise a theory about creating
"contagious" social change. He noted that epidemics have three characteristics: contagiousness; the fact that little causes have big effects; and changes happen not gradually but at one dramatic moment.

Referring to change management theory shows us that there are always those who will take the first leap. What often drives them is an intrinsic motivation, the excitement of new challenges and a desire to make things better. The VET practitioners who have taken the leap to learn how to use these software tools have proven to be empowered, professional and extremely resourceful.

McCulloch, a Framework e-learning mentor, coach and facilitator, blogged about the reasons she perceives the second wave (the early adopters) are ready to engage with social software:

"I believe that it is the autonomy and freewill that has caught the attention of the second wave and it is their ability to "do it for themselves" that will be the sustainable feature of their ongoing elearning practices. It is the simplicity and ease of use of these social networking tools that has brought most success in the shortest amount of time during the [Framework] projects run in 2006."

It could be argued that confidence is a key characteristic of the "blogger". It takes a degree of confidence to post thoughts, ideas and arguments in a public environment. Murray, in reference to the use of the "comment" feature in The Knowledge Tree, noted:

"since The Knowledge Tree started using blog software, the comment feature has been used less by Australians than by international is a learned skill...if we want to communicate, through using blogs, we have to comment ...we have to have the confidence to 'talk' and build a profile. Commenting is a good starting point even if it is just to say 'thank you'."

The groups

The definition of "groups" has become much broader, with the use of social software blurring the meaning of groups, networks and communities. The significant factor in the use of social software is its social nature. It is the linking and the forming of networks and/or communities that evolve from its use that many find so attractive.

This concept of linking and connecting underpins Siemens' Connectivism theory and is further supported by Stuckey and Arkell (2006) who state that, "The current mantra for knowledge management is connect don't collect". (p 7)

They also note how "the importance of communities of practice and their generative knowledge building capacity" has been well argued and established by a number of people including Wenger, the initial proponent of communities of practice in organizations. Wenger posits three essential characteristics of a community of practice:

  1. The Domain - a shared interest
  2. The Community - Engaging in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information.
  3. The Practice - They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems - in short a shared practice.

White (2006) identifies three types of communities now operating within the realm of the social software blogosphere: the Single Blog/Blogger Centric Community; the Central Connecting Topic Community; and the Boundaried Community where blogs are hosted on a central site.

A key element of linking, networking and forming communities of practice is "trust". You need to have trust in the judgments of the people with whom you are connecting. Trust is the basis of all human interactions. Boone in Stuckey and Arkell (2006 p 7) states, "I don't want raw data, I don't want information, I want the judgments of people I can trust".

Purie et al (2006), in considering the value of social systems, posit that:

"Social systems would also provide trust and confidence in a world where learners are connected to each other digitally, and learning content is shared amongst learners and even co-produced. Grassroots, bottom-up, open source content has the advantage of giving access to unlimited learning content but questions can be raised about its quality, value and reliability."

The organisations

Stuckey and Arkell (2006) offer a four quadrant framework:

"for mapping the cultural emphases of knowledge sharing activities against a line of increasing personal agency or institutional compliance. "

They posit that social software supports the development of an enabling culture for knowledge sharing within organizations while a culture of compliance has inherently driven knowledge management to-date. There is a need for both cultures to co-exist and to be balanced, they argue, and "sustainable knowledge management lies in the marriage of the two".

Certainly there is evidence of individuals within VET (the innovators, early adopters and messengers) finding a way of circumventing a culture of compliance within organizations to try out new technologies to support knowledge sharing, individual learning and the learning of their students. This in itself creates tensions as they perceive the organization as stifling creativity and innovation.

What the survey said:

Organizational support for the use of social software was considered of great importance to 82% of all survey respondents, with 67% of these coming from the VET sector.

In relation to the items designed to reflect organizational support for using social software, very few VET respondents rated the support and encouragement from colleagues and the broader organization for the use of these technologies as having "applied a lot".

These items were:

  • most of my colleagues in my organization inspire me to use these technologies, I feel like I'm part of an innovative team (11% VET compared with 37% all respondents)
  • my organization actively encourages me to do professional development (both formal and informal) using social software (7% VET compared with 36% all respondents).

Evaluating how social software tools impact on and compare with other knowledge building and professional development strategies


The online survey provided the primary data on evaluation. The following question was designed to elicit current evaluation approaches;

"If you have used social software in your own or other colleagues' learning, how have you evaluated its impact on their learning? What ideas, if any, have you had about this?"

The exemplar storytellers were also asked questions designed to identify impacts of social software on knowledge sharing practices.

What the survey said:

Out of a total of 76 survey respondents, 36 commented on evaluation approaches to their own or their colleagues' learning.

Most of the comments related to the "newness" of using social software and noted that most evaluation is at the level of informal (individual or group) critical reflection about the usefulness of the different tools (i.e. product evaluation in relation to learning) often through the medium of these tools.

Respondents commented on:

  • the need for more sophisticated evaluation strategies
  • undertaking quantitative evaluation through the use of site statistics, or using social software tools such as Technorati and other tracking to determine the number of viewers, the number of quotes and references, the nature and extent of conversations generated by posts etc.
  • the use of social software tools for knowledge sharing in a collaborative and developmental fashion (as different from disseminating operational, procedural information).

Insights from the stories and other research sources

While the survey identified that little formal evaluation is occurring, the stories showed that using social software for knowledge sharing and capability development has been integral in creating new ways of working, creating and sharing knowledge and learning. Wenmoth's comments below capture the essence of the value and benefits that the storytellers perceive.

  • Ownership - Fundamental to the whole "revolution" is the fact that individuals can now 'own' their own space on the Web - moving from being consumers to becoming contributors and collaborators. Sites that allow individuals to create and maintain their own collections of photos, videos, music and bookmarks online are examples of this.
  • Personalization - the ability to customize the interface of many of these sites is an example of the personalized approach. But personalization goes a lot deeper with this, and includes the ability to actually 'construct' the way in which information is represented, where it comes from, how it is used etc.
  • Participation - the move from simply publishing or participation is another hallmark of this software. Even blogs, while being a personal publishing tool, allow for participation - at one level through the comments that can be left, and at another through the communities of interest that develop.
  • Aggregation - the availability of software that makes use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) demonstrates how information from one source can so easily be integrated into another. Sites that allow individuals to create their personal aggregations of news feeds, blog links, and other feeds, such as NetVibes and PageFlakes, are
    good examples of this. Other sites such as Technorati illustrate how easily communities of interest can be formed through the aggregation of people's blog entries.


The use of social software for knowledge sharing and capability development is very much in its infancy with little formal evaluation currently taking place. The stories show that people using social software tools for knowledge sharing and capability development are informally identifying significant benefits and value.

It is timely to now develop and promote evaluation strategies that support a more formalized approach to evaluation. This may include a toolkit of instruments that could be disseminated.

This article is an excerpt of the report originally entitled "Networks, Connections and Community: Learning with Social Software", written by Val Evans, in collaboration with Larraine J Larri. It has been republished with the kind permission of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework.

About the authors

Val Evans is the head of Val Evans Consulting and a researcher in the field of social software. The report has been written in collaboration with Larraine J Larri from Renshaw-Hitchen and Associates Pty Ltd.

About the Australian Flexible Learning Framework

The national training system's e-learning strategy, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework), funds Networks to allow teachers and trainers from across Australia to share knowledge about emerging e-learning issues. The Networks Community Forum is a place where education and training professionals can come together to increase their professional development in relation to the integration of technology in education and training. Register here. 'E-Trends' is the theme of June's online event, to be held 19-20 June. The program includes around 14 synchronous live classroom sessions and a range of asynchronous discussions.

Photo credits

Team mates: Yuri Arcurs

Livia Iacolare - Val Evans -
Reference: Australian Flexible Learning Framework [ Read more ]
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posted by on Thursday, May 17 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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