Can L&D effectively support employees with practical social learning?

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Written by Jo Cook on 19 July 2016

The Big Sponge Hangout discusses topics around learning technologies this week, including live Google Hangouts, webinars and recorded discussions available after free after registration. Julian Stodd and I were recorded in an interview discussing social learning, and here are some thoughts if you can’t get to the recording.

Social learning

For me social learning is about learning together, with other people, in some fashion or other. I love the quote from the late Jay Cross that “conversation is the most powerful learning technology ever invented” and I use this at the beginning of the all the TJ webinars to remind us that it’s not just about formal learning, conference sessions or reading on our own, but about making sense with others.

Fosway Group research from this year shows that 82 per cent of over 1,000 respondents expect their use of Social Learning to increase or stay the same.


Social learning could be within a formal class offering, where things are being discussed, especially over coffee at break for example. More likely this is going to be in someone’s everyday job, the questions you ask the person next to you, or discuss within your team.

Discussion and learning social can include using technology – so within an organisation this could be some kind of enterprise social network, such as Yammer or Skype groups or similar. This is where some of the confusion and worry about social learning can come from, as it can be seen as just implementing the right software and it will happen, which of course is false.

It’s also outside of the organisation: such as LinkedIn groups or commenting on people’s posts; it can be Twitter conversations with your network; going to conferences and having coffee or drink in the pub; or a webinar and using the chat room. So many, many options, which I think is where there is a lot of confusion, and also worry from more senior people in an organisation about what gets discussed.

Supporting employees to learn socially

The simplest way to support social learning in an organisation is probably just to acknowledge that it happens and it’s important! There seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that what looks like chatting and hanging out can be such important learning experiences.

In a conversation recently I struggled to remember the last formal training session I attended, which probably would have been 2013 – three years ago. Does that mean I haven’t learnt anything in three years? NO! I’ve just learnt in more modern ways, such as conferences, MOOCs, attending webinars, reading, blogging, doing work projects, discussing on Twitter, chatting with colleagues on Skype or friends at social gatherings to get head round something.

The challenge is that organisations want to account for time, to show learning, and it’s this structure and measurement which can get in the way.

Bring your own device

BYOD has had an impact on social learning. I was speaking yesterday to the head of a company that provides a cool e-learning platform. Their customers didn’t expect employees to learn outside of working hours, yet they did, on their mobile devices.

We have to acknowledge why BYOD is having an impact. Often it’s because people can’t access a particular way of learning from within an organisation. A lot of companies block websites such as Facebook and Twitter as they are worried about wasting time and perhaps sensitive information getting out. Completely understandable, but at the same time it that severely cuts down on the amount of ways that people can get support. It’s in those situations that people are using their own device.

Pitfalls of social learning

I think organisations get the technology mixed up with act and experience of learning.

Towards Maturity research showed that 76 per cent of people just wanted to get on and do their job better – so if organisations are creating barriers, such as poorly implemented technology or limiting access to websites like Twitter, then they can be getting in the way of this.

Various bits of research around that show how much time people waste searching for documents within their organisation, which goes back to the technology. This is when people start asking others, which can get tiresome and isn’t the positive learning with others that social should be!

Learning and 70:20:10

For me social learning fits into the 20 category, as this is all about learning with other people.

It’s important for L&D to embrace lots of different ways of learning. The key with social learning is that we have always done it and will always do it. Some L&D professionals, managers and teams are very stuck in formal training sessions and courses, and whilst they are an important part of learning solutions, they aren’t the only way to increase workplace performance.

If L&D don’t embrace social learning and other modern learning methodologies and technologies, then they will become less relevant to people and in organisations, as well as endanger their own jobs.

The future of social learning

Hopefully more people will understand the basics and build on that. It’s not scary, we do it every day.

I also hope that there are more leaders and decision maker’s that start embracing it more, in order to reduce the restrictions around this in the workplace and just let people learn and do their jobs.



The Big Sponge Hangout

Fosway Group research

Towards Maturity research


About the author

Jo Cook is deputy editor of TJ and an independent L&D specialist focusing on blended programme design and live online virtual classrooms. She can be contacted through her blog at and via Twitter: @LightbulbJo


Read more from Jo Cook

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