How is social learning changing the face of L&D?

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

Written by Mind Tools
Published 11 September 2014
How is social learning changing the face of L&D?

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 2014 review published by Learning Light, "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roles and positions, and that the person doing the work needs to conform to certain job requirements, is being superseded by a more fluid, flexible job model.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.

Find out how social learning fits within a wider range of learning, in Mind Tools' article and video on 70:20:10.

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.

"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?

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

You may also be interested in…

Are your people too busy to learn?

Is “I’m too busy to learn,” a common phrase you hear in your organization?

May 2023

Read More

10 things managers should never say - and what to say instead

Do you think before you speak? See our roundup of the top ten things managers should never say to their team members. And tips for what you should've said.

March 2023

Read More

How to create a culture of feedback

When’s the last time someone praised your work? Or shared an idea that helped you crack a problem you’d been chewing over?

February 2023

Read More