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Just about every business today has the tools and technology at their fingertips to build cultures teeming with social activity, with more and more of it focused on "social learning," or strategies and practices designed to boost collaboration, productivity and build cultures that constantly engage. While the concept has been around for decades, the social media explosion of the last few years has brought tons of renewed interest to social learning -- and equal amounts of hype and confusion. 

A fast-growing array of new applications is designed to help companies build cultures of continuous learning, including our recently announced Cornerstone for Salesforce, which embeds learning management directly into the Salesforce platform. But before taking the plunge, we wanted to provide a clear way to think about the true purpose and potential of social learning. (First rule of thumb here: social media is not social learning.) 

In their book The New Social Learning, authors Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham define social learning as something that results in "people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge."

Formal learning is the stuff we do in the classroom or the training center (or via a structured online class). It’s been reported (by smart folks like Jay Cross) that organizations spend up to 80% of their learning budgets on formal training, even though fully 80% of what people actually learn is on the job, by the water cooler, on a project team – in other words: social.

Got it? Good. With the basic definition out of the way, here are three insights to consider when getting started with social learning:

Understanding Today's Employees as Social Creatures

Learning from others is nothing new. That said, how and when and where we learn is always changing, and managers who want to create a culture of engagement should know that the cloud, social media and mobile can be your allies if leveraged correctly.

Today’s workers are often resistant to delayed learning. They want informal learning situations and solutions—Conrad Gottrfredson puts it well here in his description of the nature of today’s learners: "They are self-directed, adaptive, and collaborative in their approach to learning. They will ultimately abandon outright our formal learning solutions if what we provide them fails to efficiently prepare them to effectively perform at their moments of 'Apply.' Why? Because when facing a traditional course that fails to do this, today's learners are predisposed to simply walk away and look elsewhere for the shortest path to successful performance."

We couldn’t agree more. Indeed, the marriage between the social and learning is contingent on the employee. The way employees learn today is certainly different than it was even five years ago -- interaction and purpose are tantamount. We've outlined some specific steps, on top of appropriate applications, that managers can use to implement a high-performing social learning environment in the workplace. As always, the key for managers is to know their audience.

Use Storytelling to Activate Knowledge

Social learning can still be as powerful and effective in a classroom setting as it is using the latest apps on enterprise social networks. Introducing employees to a new idea is much easier when they have a context to reference. For example, if you're trying to engage a group of sales folks at a new training class, provide them with an anecdote that will allow them to make an appropriate connection. This could include best and worst-case scenarios.

With relatable examples, employees are able to start a conversation around the new training as it relates to experiences they have had. This is likely to spark discussion outside the class/training session -- whether it is in a cafeteria or on an internal social network.

Keep It Simple

Start small: don't try to tackle a broad issue all at once. Small learning groups focused on finite topics help employees grasp ideas better. For example, rather than hiring a specialist to come in and speak to your entire company on a particular issue, such as how to interact with customers or how to win new clients, allow employees to engage with YouTube and share videos with one another on the same subject. 

Sharing videos over an internal social network can usually ignite a thread of comments and create a dialogue around the information. Instead of the singular experience of listening to an expert, employees get to be active participants in sharing insights. This empowers the employee, while also allowing them to learn from their peers in a meaningful way that will promote overall productivity in the long run.

There you have it – three ways to shape your thinking about social learning. If you’d like to learn more, check out our recent blog post on how social business can boost employee retention.