Top down implementation of social learning doesn’t work

Now that social learning is a hot topic, many organizations are beginning to consider how they can implement or operationalize it.  However, “social learning”  is a very different type of learning from traditional training, because it is natural phenomenon (that takes place when people share and collaborate with one another) rather than something that is implemented by an organization. However,  as the use of social technologies are changing the definition of social learning, the issue is rather more about how to implement tools to underpin social and collaborative learning within an organization.

The traditional way of implementing any new trend or technology – we have seen it with e-learning and the LMS – is to do this top-down.  Someone or some people decide what tools/platforms are best for use within the organization and these are then purchased, installed and set up for employees to use.  They then have to get the employees to use the tools, perhaps even train them to how to do so.

Those who are implementing social learning in this way, ask questions like this:

  • How will we get people to use the social tools?
  • How will we get people to collaborate and share?
  • How will we ensure what they share is accurate?
  • When are they going to have time in their workday to collaborate and share with their colleagues?
  • What platform can we ensure everybody uses to allow us to track every piece of social activity that takes place?

In other words, it is seen in terms of imposing social and collaboration tools on the workforce, compelling them to share and collaborate, and then controlling  and tracking what they do share.

But this approach doesn’t work well with social learning for a couple of reasons:

1.   Those that are already collaborating, sharing and learning with one another, are resisting attempts to force them to use other social tools or platforms in order to track and control what they are doing.  It only serves to push their sharing activities underground.

2.   Those that have yet to experience, understand and feel comfortable with social technologies don’t want to be forced into sharing and collaborating when they are not ready for it, and are resisting attempts to make them do so.

So it is  unsurprising that organizations that take a top-down approach to implementing social learning are reporting that it has failed; that workers are not using their social platform and that it is therefore not effective!

A more appropriate approach, therefore is to use a supportive bottom-up approach, which is more about supporting those individuals who already are sharing and collaborating with one another and encouraging others to experience the benefits of social working and learning. It is also about recognizing the fact that social learning works best when individuals and teams have a genuine purpose, need or interest to do so, e.g. to deal with a common issue or problem or to support one another – rather than because they are being told or forced to do so.

Smart organizations are therefore asking very different questions about implementing social  technologies for working and learning, e.g.

  • How can we support those who are already working and learning collaboratively?
  • How can we build on what is already happening?
  • How can we encourage those who are not already working and learning collaboratively, to do so?
  • How can we provide services to individuals and teams to help them address their learning and performance problems using collaborative approaches?

In organizations where this approach has been adopted, social learning and collaborative working is an organic process, for as more and more people recognize the value of learning from one another, they become involved, participate, share and collaborate.  It is these organizations who are reporting job and business productivity improvements, increased customer satisfaction and an improved bottom line.

There are a number of fundamental principles that underpin a supportive bottom-up approach to social learning:

1 – L&D doesn’t “own” social learning

When Marcia Conner, the author of The New Social Learning, was asked, in an interview whether social learning should be led by cross-division teams or should it be ‘owned’ by a specific division/groups, she gave the following answer:

“The idea any group or cross-division team can own social learning is like asking one department to be responsible for organizational health. The only people who can own social learning are the individuals who themselves are learning each day, from one another, based on their work and in the flow of work.

2 – Autonomy is a powerful motivator

In his  book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, Dan Pink explained how autonomy (along with mastery and purpose) is a powerful motivator.  He shows that the secret to high performance and satisfaction at work is the deeply human need to direct our own lives.  He states:

“The opposite of autonomy is control.  And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us to different destinations.  Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

3 – Better results come from “getting out the way”

Encouraging learner/worker autonomy is something that scares many organizations; and it certainly requires a culture of trust. Andy McAfee, writing in a 2010 article in Fortune Magazine, Taking the social media plunge: Learning to let gosays:

“If you want a good outcome, back off on process and get out of the way of people. Let them come together and interact as they wish, and harvest the good stuff that emerges.”

So implementing social technologies for learning therefore is not just about adding social media to the blended learning mix, but about encouraging workers to use them to share their knowledge and experiences with one another as a natural part of their daily work. .

And furthermore, the ultimate success of the use of social technologies to support collaborative learning and working doesn’t lie in the quantity of sharing that takes place which is measured in the number of posts, likes and  comments – since that just encourages people to share for sharing’s sake and ultimately leads to over-sharing and noise – but in the value that people derive from those shared experiences, which leads to improvements in job, team and organisational performance.

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Jane Hart

Jane Hart helps organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including Modern Workplace Learning 2020 as well as the resource for individuals How to become a modern Learner. Jane was the 2018 recipient of the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development award. You can contact Jane at

2 thoughts on “Top down implementation of social learning doesn’t work

  1. Dave Lee

    I totally agree with you Jane. The good news for those of use who are seeking to start, build and maintain social learning in our organizations have a great exemplar from within the social learning umbrella – Enterprise Community Managers (ECM). Over the past 15-20 years, ECMs have been dealing with the precarious balancing act that is needed between autonomy and independence and the business outcomes need by the organization. They have best practices, frameworks, worksheets, and processes that, for the most part, can work for other social learning environments. The Community Roundtable ( is a great resource.

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