How can social learning be successfully implemented in your company?

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Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 16 September 2015

The crux of social learning is simply about people learning from each other, but within the business world, and the L&D context in particular, social learning is undergoing something of a revolution.  

Social media is certainly one of the driving forces behind this shift; everyday people are sharing their ideas, discoveries and insights with peers both known and unknown.  It has allowed a new generation of experts to find their voice, and is shrinking the gap between those who are experts and those who are novices.  With the dawn of this new technology, and other alternative methods of learning, experts in the field are beginning to wonder how these seemingly disparate ideas one looking at the essence of human interaction, the other exploring the exciting world of technological advances can be unified to create a more holistic social learning experience.

How to harness this in your company

Technology and social media is certainly going to be a major focus when implementing a culture of social learning, but it’s not simply a case of starting a team Facebook page. In order to facilitate a successful social learning pathway it’s important to empower staff to take control of it themselves. 

The purpose of social learning is to promote collaboration and peer to peer learning outside of a formal setting, and feeling like it’s just another thing they ‘have’ to do because the boss says so, is unlikely to foster the best attitude. Instead it may be wise to hold open forums about the potential development of informal digital learning environments, to discuss how this might take shape, explore your employees’ feeling about it and to begin to develop some guidelines around how it would work for them. 

It’s also important that managers first assess whether their workforce is ready for such an evolution, and don’t leap into any drastic changes without thinking through how it might impact the business. Once the decision has been made and the process has begun, ideally you will want to maintain a degree of control whilst still offering autonomy to your staff in the way it develops. It is important that organisations make the policies regarding intellectual property clear and provide explicit guidelines on what is expected and what is acceptable. A decision also needs to be made as to whether the forum will be an open or closed community. 

One idea may be to set up an online forum for employees that is dedicated to work related issues. This ensures a more controlled environment, allowing for monitoring and evaluation, but still enables employees to discuss work outside of the formal office setting to facilitate more collaborative and organic learning.  Another suggestion might be to set up a private YouTube channel where staff are encouraged to produce videos sharing their knowledge and expertise, helping to engage those who may learn better via visual methods.  Due to the fact these videos can only be accessed by those invited to view them, it helps ensure that businesses can maintain their company privacy while still embracing a new way of learning.

It’s not all about social media

But while social media is likely going to play a key role, it’s important to remember that social media is not the same as social learning. Social learning in its purest form has been part of business since its conception.  But that doesn’t mean that the way it is used hasn’t changed. With an increasingly diverse and agile workforce, the focus is no longer on direct observation and imitation of peers’ behaviour unless a specific skill is being learnt. However it remains important that employees are supported in learning directly from one another, even if it is not to learn a specific task, but to better understand the overarching vision of the business, or to simply feel more involved in the team as a whole. 

Methods such as buddy systems for new starters are therefore vital, as are continual mentoring and coaching between staff. But the most important thing is for companies to embrace a culture of social learning within your workplace.  Staff should be actively encouraged to spend time with people they don’t work directly with, including management, to help with their own development, and to progress the business as a whole. 

Similar to the digital approach, informal meetings and regular open events where staff can raise concerns and share ideas is an ideal way to improve team work and develop individual learning.  This may be particularly useful if there are specific projects being undertaken, and within the early stages Think Tanks can be a wonderful way to promote creative thought sharing. 

Be wary

While social learning is a great, and natural, approach to staff development, it also carries certain disadvantages; primarily the possibility that employees may learn negative behaviours from their peers instead of, or as well as, positive ones.  

Whether intentional or not, negative views and unhelpful behaviours can easily be assimilated into a team and have a severe impact on overall productivity and team morale. It is thus important that managers and the business on the whole work to foster a positive culture within the workforce to prevent social learning becoming a weapon used against them, rather than being the force of good it has the potential to be.

However, with a well implemented plan and a clear vision, the use of social learning is an excellent tool to help create a well-bonded team which will help improve productivity and enhance learning for all, benefiting both individual employees and the business as a whole. 


About the author

Lyndon Wingrove, Director of Capabilities, Thales Learning & Development