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Drive engagement and retention using social platforms

John DiGennaro, Director of Distance Learning, Educational Technology and Information Services at Baldwin-Wallace College

If you’re a manager of a large business, you know the challenges involved in retaining talented people, guiding their progress toward important objectives, and having them feel a deep sense of engagement with the organization. It might not have occurred to you that these problems are just as challenging to those of us working in higher education, trying to hold on to good students and help them achieve their goals. At Baldwin-Wallace University (formerly Baldwin-Wallace College), we’ve invested in a social media solution over the past several years and have seen it make a very positive difference. Perhaps a version of it could work for your organization too.

The challenge we faced is an old one: Young people arriving on campuses must take charge of their lives to a degree most never have in the past. They may arrive with goals, and they certainly have access to many resources, but there are many options and much ambiguity as to the path they take. Both they and we have a large stake in how well they connect to their college community and how successfully they realize their potential.

For some time, Baldwin-Wallace has offered a freshman course called College 101 to help. In 2005, having witnessed the advent of social media, my colleagues and I saw a new way to support the connections and self-management skills that course cultivates. We worked with software vendor Learning Objects to create a proprietary online space where students could publish the Action Plans they develop and continuously update them in “wiki” fashion. It is useful to them to track in one place all their related coursework, internships, community activity, and other activities — but even more key to the site’s value is that this organized and growing record of their progress can be shared with mentors and others, at their discretion.

The results have been gratifying. Five years into the program, we took stock and discovered that retention rates for College 101 students had risen 15%. A survey of six universities in our Carnegie Class (peer group) found BW students to have the higher overall satisfaction with their school and higher levels of out-of-class engagement. We found more College 101 students than before earning GPAs above 3.0. What accounts for the success? I think our initiative has had a number of important things going for it.

Strategic intent. It’s easy enough to encourage social media use by students. After all, Facebook had its start on campuses, leveraging already very robust social networks. In some organizations, it might be enough of a goal simply to allow new staff to connect with one another. But in this effort, we were trying to use it to engage them strategically. It was important to identify up front what we hoped to accomplish. We put the focus on connecting young people with mentors and looked for improvements in retention.

A simple, solid framework
. Your solution may need to be a custom created application, or it could be as simple as a private group on any number of popular social networking sites. A simple blog might do. Regardless of your technology framework, don’t make the tool or the interaction overly complex or artificial. In selecting a framework, it’s vital that the interface be so simple to use that connecting with one another is effortless. This is where the clear articulation of your intent pays off. With the focus on the primary function the tool is supposed to perform, it’s easier to resist the temptation to “overbuild” the application or go feature crazy.

Incentives. The success of our solution depended on students being sufficiently motivated to update their pages, whether noting their decision about a major or linking to an extracurricular project. Without that, neither they nor their mentors and advisors would benefit from a rich view of how they were progressing on their Action Plans. Most effective in keeping the process going is having mentors in the habit of personally responding to the updates. The occasional mentor-mentee event can reinforce the value of the activity. (Perhaps in a business setting this would be a group lunch with the CEO.) The point is that incentives don’t have to be elaborate. Just talk to some typical users and the managers who will champion the process to discover what will motivate participation, and showcase the incentives in newsletters and emails.

Continuous improvement. Any system has the potential to serve people better if you are willing to measure, follow up, adapt, and innovate. We get feedback from all levels to determine what is and what isn’t working and try to understand the reasons for both. Once you’ve launched your solution, use the framework to link up your own staff and maximize their exposure to how it is being used. Where are the connections being made, what groups are taking off, and what success stories are emerging? Meanwhile stay abreast of social networking trends in the broader world and be willing to revisit your technology framework if necessary. These keys to success might not strike many IT professionals as surprising. Whether in a business or higher-education setting,new information and communications systems present similar challenges. But perhaps managers in the two sectors have deeper interests in common when it comes to social solutions. Both constantly bring new people into settings full of social and organizational ambiguity, expect them to take initiative, and need them to fulfill their potential. Both benefit when those people develop a strong sense of connection to the institution, not only for the years they are there but also for the many years later that they spend in its network.

Social media often lures people away from their work, but it can also connect them in valuable ways. As employers increasingly recognize the importance of talent development and make efforts to deepen engagement, social networking most certainly can play a part. Social media allows for robust but seamless connections, where people can even use their smartphones to provide suggestions, solicit ideas, share interesting articles and news, or plan events. Be it a wiki, blog, private Facebook page, Google site, or Twitter feed, a social media solution can increase a sense of connection, promote progress, and instill loyalty not just in students but also in all knowledge workers.

For more articles like this one, download the Harvard Business Review report: Putting Social Media to Work.

*Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review.

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