Date: 07/03/017 | Duration: 00:18:00

Increasingly organisations are seeing learning not in terms of isolated interventions, but rather as the ongoing transfer of knowledge that comes through the everyday connections made between colleagues and within teams. This type of social learning is typically informal and self-directed, occurring as and when the need arises, often through the use of social media or similar collaborative technology. And it already takes place in almost every workplace, so how can organisations harness it's potential in their own learning and development strategies?

In this episode we chat with three social learning experts – Dr Clair Doloriert, University of Bangor, Perry Timms, People and Transformational HR, and Julian Stodd, Seasalt Learning – about what social learning might look like for organisations, the challenges and opportunities of encouraging social learning in the workplace, and what it means for the L&D professional (as well as the employee) as organisations move away from controlled, classroom-based learning environments towards self-directed learning..

Philippa Lamb: Last time we talked about how neuroscience plays into management training, especially in the classroom but what about the learning we all do all the time when we interact with other people, we use social media or just bump up against new ideas by chance? That's how we learn 80% of the new stuff we take in every day. But with all this collaborative learning going on unprompted and largely undocumented how can organisations spot it and encourage it and make the most of it?

Perry Timms is a chartered member of the CIPD and visiting fellow at Sheffield Hallam Business School and as he points out social learning it’s nothing new!

Perry Timms: We’re now seeing actually learning doesn’t always come in a box, learning doesn’t always get taken off the shelf, learning isn’t always an episodic event. It’s a naturally instinctive drive for curiosity and progress and things which spark us and get us really activated. Social bonding is almost like our most distinct underpinning primeval urge because at the time of birth we’re helpless so therefore that's the only way we get any help and protection is to bond with other people. So I think that's what’s social and collaborative learning is, it’s building on that instinct, played out in the unnatural world that is the world of work and the two have found a little bit more harmony than perhaps they have in the past.

PL: Clair Doloriert is an internationally published scholar. Her fields are organisational behaviour, organisational learning and knowledge management. For her social learning is the buzzword right now.

Clair Doloriert: We’ve been doing it in organisations ever since organisations began but what we have been doing more so recently is using social learning and using social learning technologies to enhance our social learning. So that's kind of why it’s become more popular and of interest to learning and development practitioners.

PL: And I think that's where some of the confusion has crept in because there's a sense isn’t there that social learning has to involve social media…

CD: Absolutely.

PL: …which it doesn’t.

CD: It doesn’t I mean we’ve been doing it ever since humans began and social learning predates language.

PT: Yeah I think what social media has done is it’s provided a platform that spans geographies, time zones, intellectual levels, professional disciplines and given us a natural connecting source to people but yeah I mean it isn’t just about screening.

PL: So social learning comes mostly from working together with colleagues and now that can be underpinned and embedded with social technologies but if it’s happening anyway with no input from anyone else why do L&D practitioners need to bother about it? Julian Stodd is the founder of Sea Salt Learning.

Julian Stodd: The one thing that we see for sure and which I'm exploring in a large current research project around trust is that people broadly trust formal learning spaces much less than they trust truly social learning spaces. So there's about a 30% drop off in trust between those places.

PL: So people are on their guard in a classroom is that in effect what you’re saying?

JS: Absolutely yes.

PL: And with that trust says Perry comes engagement.

PT: One of the advantages is the energy. So I think there's a different energy where learning is both self-derived and from a communal sense and that belonging is quite important rather than a sort of done to, inflicted approach. So I think in the past people were quite passive recipients of learning. In the past learning was like a bookshelf. Now learning is an entire library connected to other libraries. So I think it’s much more open. I think there's much more scope for you to experiment and I think that's the difference between the two approaches, the permission seeking and the gifted versus the grabbed and the researched and the discovered.

PL: So what does social learning actually look like then?

PT: So lots of social and collaborative learning comes from group settings. So I'm a big fan of things like open space as a facilitation technique or un-conferences or hackathons where there's no predicted outcome, people are there to learn and it’s like the learning emerges from natural social interactions with people.

PL: So there are many forms of social learning, for example Perry told me about an American Tec company where they’ve deliberately built social learning into their bedrock. It starts happening the minute a new recruit walks through the door.

PT: Their particular form of social learning is to adopt a pairing technique. So they're coders, designers, programmers so if you’re a brand new employee you probably know the coding language that you’re going to be using but you don’t know how the company does it, you don’t know the client’s work and so on and so forth but because you work in a pairing environment you’re with a more experienced colleague. Their responsibility is to jointly produce brilliant work.

So the keyboard’s likely to be given to the new person whilst the more experienced person coaches and guides them through. From cold start to within just a couple of weeks that person who’s brand new, can then act as the senior coder. Now that’s social but in a very tight environment, it’s just two people working together and so successful is that learning methodology that that company in 15 years of operating has never had a software emergency, they’ve never had to fix anything bigtime.

PL: Inevitably there's been a lot of categorisation around the terminology of collaborative and social learning, so looking at Myles self-directed learning, personal learning networks, group directed learning, can we perhaps explore some of those?

CD: All if these fall into what I call collective learning, essentially collective learning and the different types of learning that you've mentioned are forms of plural learning, so you need more than just an individual to participate in collective learning, collaborative learning is part of this.

PL: I suppose what I'm asking is if we’re thinking they necessarily and we’re talking about the sort of learning that involves a person and other people it’s not an initiative from HR, it’s not something the L&D department is telling you to do so what’s the role for L&D here?

CD: So social learning happens anyway, it’s this organic process phenomenon that happens in an organisation. What L&D practitioners and HR function are interested capturing what is done naturally and what is done well and seems to be happening very well and with good results in an organisation and embracing that and putting in the infrastructures to enable that to occur.

PL: So it’s fostering it and capturing it?

CD: Absolutely.

PL: Now this is potentially tricky for L&D, on the one hand it can feel like you’re not doing anything but if you're too involved you can easily undermine that autonomous, natural process that is social learning. So there's a bit of a balancing act needed and Julian Stodd reckons it’s time for a change anyway.

JS: Fundamentally HR as we see it today is based upon an outdated notion, it’s based upon Victorian mechanisms of power and control that relied on hierarchy, that relied on system and process. In the social age that world has changed. It’s fundamentally changed and the role of HR and indeed every other vertical entity within the organisation needs to evolve as well.

So it’s only hard if we look at it through our existing mindset. If we think about the future role that we’ll have, a role that will be facilitating, enabling, empowering, a role where we will no longer seek to control through system and process and hierarchy but will rather build organisations which are deeply fair, which have high values of trust because they’ve earnt it, then suddenly we get this insight that if we shift our mindset we make it easy.

People often talk about the analogy of an oil tanker when it’s really hard to change an organisation because it’s like an oil tanker and it’s broadly nonsense because the thing is we built the oil tanker, it’s not imposed upon us, there's nothing inherently about an organisation that will prevent it from changing except it not wanting to change.

PL: So what’s the best way of doing this?

JS: It works best when we get out of people’s way. So at the heart of what I would call a scaffolded social learning approach.

PL: Okay a scaffolded social learning approach what Julian is talking about there is a combination of two symbiotic ingredients in your L&D mix. The first are those formal elements and the second are those bubbles of social learning that just pop up and fill in the gaps. On we go.

JS: I generally look at two key things we need to consider to make it happen, the first is to consider the spaces that learning takes place within and the second is to consider the permission which exists. So the space where learning can occur can be through technology, very often it’s in global organisations, but in that case we need to consider how the technology is truly democratised which comes down to the second point which is the permission and a thing about permission is you can't, well you can give it to people but it can also be claimed. So when we say to people it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to share stories, it’s okay to do this, that's half the story. It’s whether they believe us and whether they act on it that counts.

PL: Perry reckons that intent rather than a programme is the best way to promote social learning.

PT: The benevolent dictator of, you know, you can have all this learning, kind of thing, is probably met with a bit of suspicion, it’s people kind of thinking well that sounds a little bit weird, it’s almost like I'm being directed to be free. Whereas I think if there's a sort of step back, hold the space, type of approach from a leader which says something along the lines of, “Look we recognise this stuff goes on in a number of different ways and what we’re doing is we’re going to provide the infrastructure, support, enablement and guidance to help you do that.” So it feels like people’s starting pistol moment isn’t necessarily with a programme but it’s with a philosophy and an intent.

PL: And a recent study put paid to the idea that we can be directed to use certain platforms online. In fact researchers found that our genes play a substantial role in influencing the social media we use and how we use it. Here’s Ziada Ayorech from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College London, she's talking about that to Mishal Hussain on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Ziada Ayorech: So using the twin design which compares identical twins who share 100% of their genetic material and non-identical twins who share on average 50% of the material that can differ between people, we found that genetics plays a substantial role in online media use across a host of different forms of media.

Mishal Hussain: In terms of the amount of time you spend or whether you’re choosing Snap Chat or Facebook or in terms of what?

ZA: Yes in terms of both actually – in terms of the time that you spend on all different forms of media use but also whether you spend time on educational media, entertainment, gaming online and even the social network Facebook.

MH: Right so that means it’s not necessarily addictive is it? I mean you’re just predisposed through your personality to gravitate towards certain forms of social media and react to it in a certain way?

ZA: Well actually what we’re showing here is that the consumer, the individuals who are using media are actually in the driver’s seat here and that they’re actively selecting, modifying and creating their online experiences. And these creations are based on their genetics.

PL: So a light touch is what’s needed here or as Perry neatly puts it – a tour guide.

PT: It’s like as a horse you've been allowed to run in a paddock and all of a sudden then the fences are down and you've got the entire field and I think that can be quite off-putting for some people, they can be quite scared about that and the L&D professional can kind of go, “Well come with me I’ll help you,” so they can act as a guide and a navigator and a sign poster and a connecting source.

PL: This doesn’t mean that L&D executives are pointlessly trying to crowbar themselves into a new world where they’re not actually needed; they can play a vital part in a strong social learning strategy.

PT: In the absence of any form of direction sometimes the essence of it can wither so it needs somebody to act as a galvanising force or as I call it almost like a centrifugal force to just keep it together.

PL: Clair doesn’t think that formal training is effectively dead in the water, not at all. This focus on social learning is all about complementing existing methods.

CD: Obviously there is a place for formal training in the workplace and social learning and social learning through social media isn’t a replacement for that and what social learning does is it enhances workplace learning and it enhances transfer of learning into the workplace.

PL: And often takes place after formal learning?

CD: Yes absolutely. It happens inflow, Hart refers to inflow learning, so this is learning inflow when you’re going about your daily tasks and activities, it’s this learning on the job, this instant learning.

PL: Clair referred to Jane Hart’s work there. Now Jane is the founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies and she's done a lot of work on social learning. She cites three processes that L&D needs to put in place to get social learning happening.

CD: She says that HRD practitioners need to ensure that there is appropriate scaffolding and infrastructure in the organisation for social learning to take place, that there needs to be support for autonomous individual learning within the workplace and opportunities for social learning to occur. And she also says that there needs to be a shift from the mindset that learning is about creating knowledge objects, knowledge outputs to supporting knowledge actions, so learning actions, the process of learning. It’s about the process rather than the output.

PL: So it’s happening naturally but L&D will still want to measure results to win support from the wider organisation. The trouble is it’s not as easy to measure as formal learning.

PT: We can assess how relevant the content was in a training course because people will fill in a form afterwards, okay that’s one level of assessment. But there's nothing really out there still that’s capturing the essence of somebody who’s more confident, who’s more articulate, who’s more innovative as a result of learning something. So there are lots and lots of areas which should be labelled soft skilled which I see the social learning arena bringing out strongly.

PL: But Julian’s got a different perspective.

JS: It’s actually very easy to measure the effectiveness of social and collaborative learning approaches. If we bring the right mindset to it broadly I talk about triangulated approaches so one measure is people’s personal narratives of success or failure. So one of the types of stories that we typically ask people to share is what they feel they are doing differently and what they feel they’re doing differently over time because if I say I'm going to try this, I'm interested in this, I tried this, this worked, this didn’t work, that narrative is in itself a valid form of assessment because somebody’s saying, I'm now doing something differently and these are the reasons why.

A second measure we can look at is observation of how people are performing, so either within a team or within the hierarchy of a manager looking at someone in their team and saying, “I now see these different outcomes.” So if we see people doing stuff differently that's still valid.

A third metric we can look at is the co-created stories and if you have a group of people within your organisation carrying out a learning activity around a specific subject, publishing a story saying, “This is what we feel about it,” that's also a valid measurement.

PL: And if you’re starting from scratch with this here are a few tips to get you going. First off take a look at yourself.

PT: I think they have to get into social learning themselves and if they are a little bit sort of at odds with it find somebody who they know is an advocate and join forces. Find out about what their journey is and what’s beneficial to them and start to adopt some of those principles. But does every learning professional need to suddenly become a social media expert? No. I think does every learning professional need to understand that the rules of the game are changing? Yes.

PL: And the organisation what is the best way to get people on board?

PT: If the culture is willing but not able then you can help it. If the culture’s not able and not willing you’re on a big old tricky, sticky wicket. So I think asking where you are culturally is a great start. Normally inside an organisation you'll find some people with the energy for this and if that's the case let’s use them as our sort of front guard, our advance party and let them get on with it and use them as case studies and sources of information which we can then filter down and understand how potentially beneficial this is on a wider scale.

PL: And now a final word from Julian on the hearts and minds mission lying ahead for many of you.

JS: How would I persuade an organisation to adopt social and collaborative approaches? I typically say because it gives us the ability to hear the unheard wisdom, the tacit tribal knowledge, the experience of how things really get done, most organisations already do a lot of formal learning and we can define formal learning as learning where the organisation owns the story. It blocks it up, it hands it out in parcels in a defined way at a defined time in a defined place. That's all well and good but what we’re trying to tap into is the lived experience, the knowledge that sits within the community and that for me is the most compelling reason to move to a social and collaborative model.

PL: For more on this dig into the CIPD website. You will find lots there on social learning. Drop by again next month. Remember we air a new episode on the first Tuesday of every month. Thanks for listening.