Social Media as an “Other” in Social Learning

The first time Siri told me that she was not just my best friend but my BFF (best friend for life) I found myself bemused. Firstly, by Siri’s emphatic confident response, then by the notion of Siri as my highly esteemed confidant until a chance encounter with an intern forced me to reimagine what social media as a credible “other” could mean for social learning within organisations.

Most definitions of social learning within organisations are centred around how people within organisations learn from and with each other or one another. I have always assumed this to include information and knowledge sharing tools within the organisation.

So when my colleague, an intern asked me a question relating to my area of expertise then opted to search on google for an answer instead, my thoughts on who or what “other” meant changed.

Changing “each other” to “others” when exploring social learning at a strategic level within organisations allows organisations to include how people learn from other sources.

At present research shows that Google, YouTube and LinkedIn are the most significant “others” in learning within organisations. Bersin’s Research Bulletin, Meet the Modern Learner published in Nov 2014 also showed that 70% of modern learners turn to search engines for answers to on the job questions.

Does this make them a credible alternative to asking a colleague? Yes, and no depending on what is being learnt and the accessibility to an alternative source when the knowledge is required. Google, YouTube and LinkedIn provide information at the point of need. And The truth is most of us will sooner go to Google, YouTube or LinkedIn before we ask a friend or colleague because they offer a much easier ‘ask’. They are familiar, accessible, easy to use and requires little or no psychological risk to credibility or self-esteem to.  There is also the diversity of their multiple sources and content to either support or present an alternative view.

So what does this mean for learning within organisations? In social psychology context and the presence of an “other” are considered strong determinants of behaviour and outcomes. Search engines and social media are a significant “other” in learning within any organisation. Organisations now need to reimagine the content of search engines and social media sites as a significant and credible source of learning and knowledge within the organisation. And extend the scope of their social learning strategy to accommodate them.

One of the key areas that Google, YouTube and LinkedIn will continue to have a significant impact on social learning within organisations and practice is in the area of “just in time learning” and authenticating practice. This has its benefits but it is not without risk: information and learning from social media may fall outside agreed policy and practices within the organisation. This risk is arguably always present in varying degrees each time people within organisations apply learning from social media to their practice.

Encouraging the use of social media as a credible “other” encourages employees to see what they learn on social media as an acceptable part of their development journey. Things as simple as watching a YouTube video becomes an authenticated learning experience that will positively impact on the organisation’s learning culture.

Social media as an “other” way the organisation does learning can also ensure that the knowledge economy is set within a global context and validated as the wider context in which the organisation works and learns.

So where do organisations start? Looking at how individuals within the organisation use social media and as well as its part in existing processes, procedures and knowledge sharing tools is important. Weighing up its benefits and risk specific to the organisation and agreeing a position on governance all make a good starting point for a truly transformative social learning strategy.

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Maureen Gwam

Maureen Gwam works as a principal consultant at Social Learning Associates helping organisations implement social learning strategically. Maureen is passionate about working with organisations to co-create learning and learning strategy from an understanding of how the organisational context and the actual, imagined, or implied presence of “others” within the organisation impacts on learning, culture and behavior change. Maureen has worked in communication and as a Learning and Development Consultant across a variety of sectors and last served as a subject matter expert in Social and Collaborative Learning within GlaxoSmithKline. Maureen holds an MSc in Social Psychology.

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