Let’s start with defining our terms – what is Social Learning? Put simply, Social Learning is learning with and from others – usually in an informal way. Now, with that out of the way let’s look at why it’s important and how HR and Learning professionals can benefit from deploying it.

We’ve been surrounded by social learning for years – we just didn’t know it was called that!

The challenge for learning professionals is how can they provide the structure for Social Learning to flourish while allowing the natural and organic user-driven sharing to occur that provides the energy and engagement so often missing in corporate learning?

Deployed well, social learning can make a real impact on employee engagement and be an additional weapon in your corporate learning armory.

Social Learning is happening already around us. For years we’ve been following the example of experienced colleagues, working through challenges or issues over a coffee or after work. Alex Bandura first analyzed this process in 1977.

So, what’s new in Social Learning and how can organizations benefit from it?

Demystifying the Modern Learner

How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

Why be social?

HR professionals are familiar with the 70-20-10 model, first proposed by McCall, Eichinger and Lombardo in the 1980s. Their argument is that learning at work happens in three ways:

  • 70% from experience gained on the job
  • 20% from work relationships, including coaching and mentoring,
  • 10% from formal courses and learning intervention

Subsequent experts have questioned the precision of the numbers, but the basic principle is widely accepted.

Social Learning can immediately be seen to be squarely in the 20% ‘work relationships’ area. However, it also has a strong effect on the 70% ‘on the job’ area.

By adapting business culture and harnessing the latest social media technology, organizations are making more systematic use of this informal learning than before. Deployed well, social learning can make a real impact on employee engagement and be an additional weapon in your corporate learning armory.

What can HR professionals do?

At one level social media can help spread best practice within your organization. Wiki-style information produced by the employees can create a useful best practice repository.

But is this true social learning?

The key principles that make such interaction a learning process are:

  • Users actively engage. It’s not just about reading someone else’s content.
  • Users collaborate in learning and in helping each other.
  • Users organize their learning to suit their own situation and requirements.
  • Users are able to make more of their creativity to solve problems and devise new ways of working

Further reading

How Digital Tools Enhance the Learner Experience

Implementing Video-Based Training – The Definitive Guide

Whatsapp: Your New Secret Weapon to Foster Social Learning in Your Organization

Deployed well, social learning can make a real impact on employee engagement and be an additional weapon in your corporate learning armory.

For many Millennials, this is a normal way of communicating and learning. As Jimmy Rohampton highlighted in a Forbes article, Millennials are already the biggest and most influential group in today’s workforce. And if they aren’t happy with their work environment, they won’t stay.

So, HR and Learning professionals need to supply the easy-to-use and appealing technical platform, provide some guidance and kick start the project with content.  Support from up top is always helpful – the more that employees see this as being the ‘new way to learn’ the more chances it will have of succeeding.

Demystifying the Modern Learner

How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

How to make social learning work

Technology is plentiful. It is relatively easy to set up discussion boards, team areas, wikis, image sharing systems and other collaboration tools. It’s also easy to allow access to the same resources outside the corporate bubble.

Deployed well, social learning can make a real impact on employee engagement and be an additional weapon in your corporate learning armory.

But this isn’t a technology problem – it’s about organizational culture. The difficulty is finding the balance between something that is completely free-ranging and barely relevant, and a process that is tightly controlled and constrained in a more traditional way.

The best Social Learning systems have very little in the way of traditional control mechanisms. Users must be allowed to find their own learning path.

Most of us already possess most of the skills needed to engage in Social Learning. If you use web forums or discussion groups for personal interest, you are already engaging. You are already assessing the other users, such as who has the best knowledge, who has the skills, who is the comedian, who likes to start fights and who is just making noise.

This shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for all traditional learning methods, but rather a supplement that blends with them. Some aspects of learning, especially critical or safety-dependent skills, will still need more formal teaching. Even with automation, most of us would still prefer our airline pilots or surgeons to have had extensive formal training.

The need to seed

The ideal is to have very little ‘official’ content and instead inspire the users to generate as much as possible.

At the start, it may need kick-starting. Users will join in where there is already lively discussion and lots of activity. But they won’t be keen to take part if they find an empty space with tumbleweed blowing through the middle.

One way is to identify who is already good at passing on their skills and knowledge.  You can let them create the process, write some initial content, and get people enthusiastic to use the learning system from the start.

Opportunities and dangers

Of course, without care, social learning can be counter-productive. Learning from the bitter company cynic or from people embedded in a poor, low-morale environment can also reinforce a culture.

But the biggest danger is not to make use of Social Learning. The energy, knowledge, creativity and enthusiasm of your people are hugely valuable assets. Ignore or hamper them at your peril.

In a recent article, Laurie Miller of the Association for Talent Development wrote: “The strongest correlation with market performance was associated with involving users in designing engaging social learning opportunities”