Social learning: What can your staff teach you?

The days of didactic learning are numbered. Staff can connect with each other in an instant and learn without being in a classroom – it’s L&D, but not as we know it

Until recently, developing new skills in the workplace invariably meant an in-house training course, hosted by either an organisational or external expert (and probably featuring a weird ‘trust’ exercise as a warm-up). But today, while a more traditional model still has its place, L&D is undergoing a quiet transformation.

In a working landscape where the answer to any question is only a few clicks away, and where you can hold a Skype conversation with an expert on the other side of the world in seconds, the concept of waiting for allotted ‘learning’ slots looks increasingly anachronistic. People are absorbing knowledge in new ways, and social learning – a product of this development, and by some measures the most exciting advance in workplace learning for some time – is rapidly altering how we develop and share knowledge at work.

The definition of social learning depends on who you ask, but broadly speaking it is about connecting people to each other (we’re social animals, after all) to find answers to specific questions or meet broader developmental needs. That could mean putting people in contact inside your organisation – recognising the huge expertise you have sitting untapped within your own four walls – or opening their eyes to external information that might help them.

“Social learning is the semi-formal layer that surrounds formal learning,” says author and consultant Julian Stodd. “Formal learning occurs in a defined time and place, with a story owned by an organisation. A face-to-face course is formal learning, but a conversation between colleagues about that course is social learning, where the same information is communicated through different channels.”

Imagine you’re an L&D professional in an engineering business. A staff member is having trouble operating a specialist piece of machinery. You could call in an expert (which will cost money and delay workflow), but you might find that there is someone inside the organisation who has the answer. And if you can capture what they have to offer and turn it into a wiki, their thoughts will be immediately available to anyone with the same problem in future, and can be added to by others.

Perhaps your managers have a problem dealing with difficult reports. You could put them through a formal programme that might help alter their behaviour, but it could take months and might only impact a small number of people. It could be much more effective to source online videos offering role-play scenarios and create a simple, informal course of video study that could be shared internally (or, better still, invite one of your more competent managers to host a lunchtime talk on the topic and film it for use on your internal social network).

The shift away from a top-down model comes partly in response to changing business landscapes. The popularity of flexible working means employees can now go weeks without setting foot on the office floor, and the increasingly youthful workforce is hooked on new technologies. The CIPD Learning and development 2015 report showed that L&D professionals anticipate an increased use of user-generated content – learning materials such as blogs and videos, collaborative technologies or even sharing ideas in ‘lunch and learn’ sessions – over the next few years.

“Learning does not simply equate to training or education,” says Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies and a prominent social learning blogger and author. “The majority of social learning happens through social collaboration – working with your colleagues in your organisation – and now it is frequently underpinned by social technologies.”

The centrality of technology to both business and personal life has played a fundamental role in the growth of social learning. According to the CIPD survey, three-fifths of L&D professionals expect their use of e-learning courses to grow, while more than 30 per cent see their use of virtual classrooms and webinars rising, and a further 25 per cent predict an increase in mobile device-based learning in the near future.

But social learning is not synonymous with digital culture, or social media. Instead, technology acts as a facilitator: anyone in possession of a smartphone is now capable of learning at a time and place that suits them. Employers can use the tools available through smart devices to create self-sustaining platforms of learning, and connect workforces spread across industries, working environments and skillsets. Having this connection, and space for collaboration, is crucial to confronting global workforce challenges.

“Interaction has always been part of the learning process,” says Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development at the CIPD. “Cavemen and women learned to make fire through social interaction, and children learn largely through social processes. Part of L&D’s role in the future will be to act as a connector, finding communities and plugging into them.”

In the Middle East, one of the biggest challenges facing training departments is cost. “It’s going to be a difficult year for businesses in the region because of the falling oil prices – budgets are being cut and this is one of the reasons that people are turning to online learning solutions,” says Paul Michael Gledhill, founder of Dubai-based XpertLearning. “But e-learning and social learning can’t just be introduced with the sole intent of saving money; if you think of it that way, it will never be successfully implemented.”

Companies that rely on foreign talent find social learning can be crucial to the cross-cultural development of their workers. “The challenges of connecting global communities are huge, because when you deal with learning in a global sense you’re not just talking about geography, but legal, ethical and moral boundaries,” says Stodd.

Businesses can be slow to successfully adopt this culture, because social learning thrives on the breakdown of established leadership structures. As the way employees absorb knowledge changes, managers must learn to adapt the way they communicate. “When it comes to social learning, the only leadership is the type a community can afford you,” Stodd says. “To really develop social leadership, organisations must be willing to relinquish control of the conversation. If you enter a social learning space with a formal learning authority, you won’t succeed.”

Adopting a leadership role in creating these spaces can be as simple as setting up digital forums where employees can discuss issues and tackle workplace challenges, or encouraging them to take advantage of each other’s specialisations in the industry when solving problems.

“Social learning is about books, simulations and assessment,” says Gledhill. “A lot of it is validated through digital platforms, but defining it is a question of advocacy: finding materials you like and recommending them to others, having conversations about them. Then it’s about sharing things across platforms such as blogs and social media – so it becomes not just a commentary but a process of sharing content from a learning perspective with a community.”

This is where social media comes into its own, creating a global classroom where people can share and engage with learning programmes that are relevant and interesting. Organisations such as global professional services company Accenture are proactively engaging with these concepts. The company has ‘connected classrooms’ and uses a digital ‘on the go’ learning platform so that employees can connect and learn anytime, anywhere, through mobile and tablet devices.

However, the complexity of social learning means a lot of businesses, particularly at a regional level, are yet to fully engage with its demands. “It has to be about people using each other’s capabilities,” Gledhill says. “Organisations must develop a framework to explore social learning, and trainers must understand that, while social learning won’t put them out of a job, it will encourage them to rethink the way they deliver learning.”