Organizations are accustomed to creating formal learning programs, or closely defined interventions to achieve targeted learning outcomes, such as creating better leaders, better salespeople or managers. This training is often packaged in discrete elements and apportioned to individuals according to the needs of their role.
While these programs can be delivered in the classroom, they are increasingly being deployed socially, especially in large organizations. A simple way to view this brand of social learning is as “the semi-formal layers of learning that surround the formal.” In other words, it’s not an alternative to formal learning, but a supplement to it with many layers, each one progressively less formal.
The Need for a Moderator
In formal learning, a message is defined by the learning organization, then pushed out to the group and followed by an assessment of their ability to retain and master it.
With social learning, the learning is created by the group within a structure defined by the learning organization. The learning is neither predefined nor completely unstructured. It allows the group to develop conversations about a topic and, through moderation and support, to iterate those ideas and develop strategies for implementation.
The role of the moderator in social learning is important for two reasons. First, moderators help structure the debate and build a legacy from it. Second, as with any learning methodology, people need to explore and reflect upon the topic. But they also take practical steps based on the experience — to do things differently as a result of what they learn. The moderator helps support this.
Aspects to Consider Before Implementation
Technology and experience are two other key elements to consider in the approach to social learning. It’s all too easy to focus a lion’s share of time and money thinking about the technology, but when push comes to shove, it’s the experience that counts.
Technology facilitates experience, but it does not, by itself, deliver it. To have really great social learning experiences, people need to be engaged. This engagement will come through the learning design and an understanding of how and why people engage in these spaces.
Any organization will have to learn how social works for its specific situation. A perfect way is to identify a project suitable to try it out on. Social learning should be used for a specific purpose, not to replace the formal element of learning. In a session on leadership, for instance, the formal program would be retained, but groups would then engage in specific tasks, such as building definitions in the social discussion spaces.
Alternatively, social spaces are great for collaborative writing. Instead of building definitions, the group could jointly write an article on “When Leadership Fails” or “Key Skills for an Emerging Leader.”
It’s not the space that’s hard to generate; it’s the engagement. Asking individuals to collaborate allows them to display native behaviors of sharing knowledge and developing relationships. It’s easy to think people will want to show off or look good themselves, but research shows people often derive greater pride from supporting the achievements of others than they do in their own achievements.
There is a correlation with age at play, too. As people get older, they derive progressively more pride from the achievements of others. So any notion that social learning spaces are only attractive to the young should be reconsidered in light of this.
Challenging the Group Dynamic
The dynamic nature of social learning comes from the conversation and development of ideas. A key aspect of this is challenge, so it’s worth considering how to incorporate the challenging of ideas into the design.
Management development programs, for example, often focus on models — models for running meetings, managing conflict, coaching and so on. Considering that challenging and critically appraising new ideas are essential management skills, the program could include circulating case studies and asking the group to collaborate on providing critical feedback. Again, it’s the collaboration that is important. To take part in these conversations, people will need to use the new knowledge they have built in the formal parts of the learning experience.
When deployed correctly, social learning can transform organizational culture, creating a mindset of collaboration and sharing. But this won’t happen without making a few mistakes along the way. As organizations update their notions of control and ownership to reflect the new reality, it’s important to tread carefully to build the trust and understanding that underpins the social learning experience.
Julian Stodd is the e-learning director for GP Strategies, a global performance improvement firm based in the U.K. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.