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How is Social Learning Changing the Face of L&D?

Bob Little 

September 12, 2014

is_23758818_Erikona_188Talk to any L&D professional and it won’t be long before the subject of social learning crops up.

It seems that everyone wants to know how social media is changing the face of L&D, and what strategies are working best for managing and curating its use.

In fact, according to a recent review published by Learning Light (a research and market analysis firm that helps organizations using e-learning and learning technologies to improve their business performance), “social learning” – a term used exclusively in academic circles only a few years ago – has become one of the key phrases of the modern e-learning market.

Social Exchange

Explaining the significance of social learning, George Siemens (a learning theorist and creator of “Connectivism”) observed that “it’s with each other that we can make sense – and this is social. Organizations, in order to function, need to encourage social exchanges and social learning due to faster rates of business and technological changes.”

Knowledge transfer has always been augmented by dialogue and guidance, and today’s technology makes this more readily available, on demand at the point of need. Thus, the growth of technology-enabled social learning is based on the view that knowing the right people – and being able to talk to them and ask them questions – is more likely to lead to success than any amount of internally held knowledge or skill.

Management theorist F.W. Taylor’s view – set out in his 1911 book “The Principles of Scientific Management” – that there’s only one way to do a job, that knowledge is arranged vertically from a superior through subordinate roles and positions, and that the person doing the work needs to conform to certain job requirements, is being superseded by a more fluid, flexible job model. In these circumstances, social learning, at both an individual and group level, takes on a vital importance – connecting learning with work in an “on demand” way.

Social Learning and Effective Performance

Social learning happens via networks, which are key enablers of effective organizational performance. It usually happens in teams – as members share knowledge on how to improve performance – but this learning waxes and wanes as teams are formed and disbanded. It can be facilitated by technology, but, whatever the technology involved, social learning is really just people talking to each other. Moreover, learning can – and does – come in any context, from even the most unplanned, fortuitous and haphazard of interactions.

This illustrates the inability, with regard to social learning, to do the things that modern business practice so prizes: defining and measuring.

The growth of social media makes many more social interactions – and potential learning experiences – possible, with many more people than would ever have been the case in the days of purely face-to-face learning delivery. This makes it extremely complex to monitor, let alone assess and control. It’s also probably too early to state, with any certainty, which strategies are best at managing and curating the use of social media in learning, since nobody knows, or has, any way of measuring these strategies objectively.

The Future of Social Learning

Vaughan Waller, senior learning architect for Deloitte Learning Technologies, says: “Social learning is difficult to compartmentalize because it’s something that we all do in any way we want, as and when we want to do it.

“Whether or not we use technology to do it isn’t the issue. So, ‘managing social learning’ is an oxymoron. Social learning just happens – or not – as the case may be. That’s how it’s always been and probably always will be.”

Social media networks can play an important role in social learning. Tim Drewitt, online and mobile learning manager for Vodafone Group, says: “Social media is now one of the first channels many people – especially the younger generations – turn to for information and guidance; even for solutions to business problems. Water-cooler conversations are being replaced by private Twitter messages, or discussions in a LinkedIn group. Learners are staying connected after a training course via group instant messaging – sharing their post-workshop experiences, or asking for support from their fellow attendees.

“This means it’s even easier now for learners to bypass the L&D function. But some social media channels may not be of the required quality; while others should be tapped into more, due to their high-caliber material or contributors.

“Social media isn’t just about learners’ content sources, though. Trainers can now network with their peers around the world – making contact with, and learning from, people who’ve tackled similar projects before.

“One key strategy for managing/curating the use of social media in learning is for all L&D professionals to better understand social media and how it can be used as part of the mix. Unless you really understand how Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and so on work, it’s hard to determine how they might augment your learning interventions. I’d recommend looking at the curation app, Scoop.it!, which helps you get started in this important skill area.

“Of course, we mustn’t ‘force’ social media onto our learners. To help our learners learn, we should go where the conversations are already, rather than trying to engineer social media interventions. This means being the ‘guide on the side’ and facilitating discussions that are already happening.”

So, it would be a brave L&D professional or, indeed, senior organizational executive who’d presume to prescribe the types of social interaction and the delivery channels that are “acceptable” for social learning use – and those that are not. If people are doing a responsible job, they need to be given the responsibility – and be empowered – to determine the social learning that they need to do.

Then, they need to be allowed to do that social learning in the most efficient and effective way for them. The only valid measure of the effectiveness of the resulting social learning must be their subsequent job performance.

What are your experiences with social media and learning? Does it have a future in L&D?

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One comment on “How is Social Learning Changing the Face of L&D?”:

  1. Michael Ranft wrote:

    I find it astonishing that this way of exchange is seen as part of a strategic learning approach.
    If social learning is the dark web of learning there are good reasons to keep it that way. Rightly the objective of monitoring professional development and ROE is close to impossible. L&D has always had the responsibility to inspire, challenge as promote a learning culture. Social learning seems to be an important part. I would challenge its impact on business processes and organisational development but believe companies need to more to encourage an open source platform that is NOT monitored.
    Coaching and mentoring are also very successful because they enable progress within your own parameters and not as a component of an LMS based construct.