Four myths of Social Learning

In the last couple of years, I have spoken to many corporate Learning and Development practitioners about how they may support and enable opportunities for their workforce to learn collaboratively with each other in and during the flow of their every day work. That is, “social learning’.

During these conversations, I noticed that there were some myths about social learning that I would like to dispel.

Myth 1: Social Learning is a New Fad

In fact, social learning has always been around.

Ever since cavemen drew pictures of their hunts on cave walls, people have sought out opportunities to connect, share stories and learn from each other.

It is a natural human instinct.

However, one cannot help but notice many articles and references online from people espousing the value and benefits of social learning and linking it to technology platforms. Some of these posts come from learning management system vendors or from people who have not demonstrated an interest or expertise in social learning previously.

Despite the interest in social learning, unfortunately Learning and Development are still in the dark trying to understand how to incorporate it into their organisational learning strategy.

Type ‘social learning’ into Google and it yields over 44 million search results.

No wonder there is confusion. Where do you start?

There’s a saying by Abby Adams who said, ‘Nature is what wins in the end’ and I believe that this is what is happening with social learning in organisations.

Years of structured, formalised education and training programs that were imposed by management and rolled out by teams of instructional designers, trainers and learning consultants may have worked well in the past. However, in a world where people now have information at their fingertips, who talk to each other in networks and who easily find what they’re looking for to do their job, forcing them to learn in a classroom or complete an online course that has no meaning, relevancy or context – or even build relationships in their work – is not a solution anymore.

Treating social learning as a new fad and then hastily adding it to your organisational strategy is short-sighted. So too is forcing your people to interact in an online discussion forum devoid of any context to any business problem just so that you can say your learning strategy is ‘social’.

Social learning is a game changer. It not only changes the way people work, connect, interact and learn from each other currently in organisations, it will entirely change the role of learning and development function as we know it.

Depending on how you look at it, this could mean exciting new things for Learning and Development.

Myth 2: Social Learning Means Only One Thing

Social learning means different things to different people because depending on who you speak to, they will have their own interpretations.

For example, a not-for-profit may view it as learning for community with social impact. An academic in education may focus on the specific definition of social learning theories, whereas someone in the learning and development field would focus on how to enable their workforce to learn, collaborate and co-operate within daily work.

Similarly, when you throw into the mix terms such as ‘guided social learning’, ‘communities of practice’, ‘networked learning’, ‘personal learning networks’, ‘communities of inquiry’, ‘community management’, ‘enterprise social networks’ and ‘social media’, social learning starts to become muddy as people struggle to not only define what it is, but what it looks like.

Others may even try to figure out by creating their own definition of what it should be and then control, package and measure it like any other training event.

After all, they ask, “is social learning a program, course, behaviour, tool, platform, system or a process?”

As Jane Hart mentions in her book, Social Learning Handbook 2014, “Social learning is about people connecting, conversing, collaborating and learning from and with, one another on a daily basis at work”.

While some people rejoice at the opportunity to be able to do this openly and without the need for having it mandated, packaged and pushed out by their internal training or learning and development teams, those within these teams start to question their value.

After all, if the control of learning is in the hands of their workforce, what does this mean for the new role of Learning and Development?

Myth 3: You Don’t Have to Be Social to Get Social

One of the biggest challenges I have seen for some Learning and Development departments in creating a social learning strategy or, designing social learning experiences is that they’re not doing it for themselves. That is, taking the opportunity to learn with others, through others themselves.

They’ve not participated in online forums, shared their own learning journeys though sense making activities such as blogging or working out loud. Many have not used their own enterprise social networks.

Undertaking a Google search on how to create a social learning strategy is not enough.

Nor is tasking your Learning Management System manager to create the strategy for you because it’s not about technology – it’s about people.

In order to understand the impact of social learning, the learning and development professional will need to have gone through the personal learning journey themselves.

They need to be social themselves.

This means that they are already incorporating new skills such as social collaboration, network building, knowledge sharing, working out loud, content curation and publishing, community building and sense making into their own work.

Only then, would Learning and Development be able to role model and guide their organisation through the same journey.

So Learning and Development’s new role will be less about managing and more about supporting and encouraging learning to happen through work.

Myth 4: Social Learning is About Forcing Your People to Use Your New Social Learning Platform

So you’ve implemented your new social learning platform that has discussion boards, curates resources from the web, allows viewers to rate and comment on resources, enables them to build and share content – but your workforce is not using it.

If you’re asking “how do we get our people to use our social learning system?” you’re asking the wrong question.

In the book, The New Social Learning, Marcia Conner says, “If we forget social and collaboration are 90 percent people and 10 percent technology, its easy to focus on what we can control, at the cost of what we can’t (and shouldn’t try to), sidestepping those things we need to influence most: people, culture, communication patterns and traditions. Social Learning is about people working and learning together.”

So instead of focusing on your social learning system, consider how your people are searching, finding and sharing information currently and helping them to improve this.

Look at where they are having conversations and where their connections occur within their workplace.

Your social learning system may be one of many tools, media and platforms (both public and enterprise) that your people are currently using to access information, content, knowledge and networks to help them do their job – but it will not be the only one.

So these are four myths that learning and development teams need to dispel about social learning. Knowing these will help you understand that there’s other considerations to take into account when you’re developing your learning strategy so that you can support your organisation.

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Helen Blunden

Helen Blunden has over 24 years experience in learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in workforce social learning and collaboration, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom through networks and communities that drive collaboration, co-operation and meaning within their organisation. She uses social and informal learning through effective use of enterprise social networking and collaboration tools and platforms and is an advocate of "working out loud" on her blog.

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2 thoughts on “Four myths of Social Learning

  1. Julian Elve

    Helen, a useful summary

    In my experience (as an advocate of social learning, even though my jobrole is about the technology) I wholeheartedly agree with point 4, however in my experience people will usually use criticism of the technology as an excuse for not engaging.

    Why, do you suppose, people will happily type into a box on a website for Twitter, FB etc, but if you ask them to do the same in the intersts of sharing what they know, then suddenly the technology is a barrier?

  2. Helen Blunden

    Thanks for your comment Julian, I’m glad to read that you found the article useful. Like you, I have asked the same question and written about it on various blog posts.

    In my experience, those who use technology as a “convenient excuse” especially when they have the skills and social media accounts and share openly in other ways highlights to me that there is an underlying reason that goes beyond the technology use and is possibly around culture, fear or controlling or restricting the amount of engagement and sharing within a team because of the perception of others. I saw this tweet yesterday that outlines some reasons.

    I also use the Mager and Pipe’s approach when it comes to exploring this. As it’s not a knowledge or skill deficiency, it means that them performing this task is considered punishing, it’s non-rewarding for them or there are obstacles (eg fear of more work; fear of working out loud; culture; perception of wasting time; etc). As L&D professionals, it’s up to us to explore the underlying reason why they may be using it as an excuse and then focus on solving the real problem. Hope this helps!

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