We’re all social learners. Each of us has learned to walk, talk and undertake many other complex tasks by observing and learning from, and with, other people. Stanford University professor and psychologist Albert Bandura championed this idea of ‘social learning’, claiming that behaviour is learned primarily by observing and imitating the actions of others.
In today’s organisations, social learning has a different connotation. The growth of social media and social networking has created more opportunities for learners to connect with, and learn from, each other. The informal learning that derives from this is now widely regarded as social learning.
Jay Cross, the informal learning guru who is also credited with coining the term e-learning, makes a nice distinction between formal and informal learning. He says social learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the route and the speed.
The great benefit of connecting and collaborating with others, through social media tools, is the ability to gain insights from the wider group by sharing everyone’s skills, knowledge, advice and recommendations. IBM claims that socially-networked organisations – where employees, partners and customers network with one another – are the next step in the evolution of business because collaboration and collective intelligence provide a platform for innovation.
So the benefits of social learning are clear, but here are our top five pitfalls you might want to avoid on your way to more collaborative and informal learning:
1. Don’t leave it to chance.
Put a strategy in place to support social learning. You can’t force people to be social but you can encourage them to share and collaborate by creating networks, forums and opportunities for them to do so. Identify champions with in the business that can evangelise and help employees to recognise the value of informal learning. Make it easy for people to share their initiatives and experiences.
2. Don’t try to control it.
The advent of social networks in the workplace led to all kinds of control-freakery and naval-gazing about how to stop people using them for the wrong things. The concept of social learning is that people gain value from helping each other. If you try to engineer or manipulate the process, there’s a danger that employees will become sceptical about using it. So moderate by all means but don’t control: the challenges are to create the opportunities for people to collaborate, to open up access to your experts and resources and then to step back and let people manage the activity themselves.
3. Don’t imagine that you have to reinvent the wheel.
Even if you don’t want to use public forums like Facebook and YouTube there are a host of off-the-shelf platforms that will let your people share learning content and videos online in a ‘walled garden’ environment. It doesn’t have to be complicated: social learning can be as simple as letting people add their comments and experiences to a formal training resource.
4. Don’t ignore the importance of L&D.
Social learning isn’t about getting rid of the L&D team but it might accelerate a change in their role. Savvy L&D teams see social learning as an opportunity to undertake a more proactive role in curating content: sifting through and passing on information, articles and content that will be useful in helping individuals acquire the skills and competencies they need to work more collaboratively in the organisation. See Clive Shepherd’s thoughts on the emerging role of the trainer for more on this.
5. Don’t feel overwhelmed!
There are some great resources around to get you started – even if it’s just small steps to begin with. For example, the Social Learning Centre, managed by Jane Hart, has advice on How to use Facebook for social learning and How to use Twitter for social learning. Social learning is a great opportunity to harness the knowledge, experience and skills of your people. The best way forward is simply to start doing it.