Learning & Development

Getting started with social learning

social learning

In this article we help you make sense of social learning and provide a simple and effective approach to creating great social learning experiences.

What is social learning?

It depends who you talk to. There is no one definition. There are a range of theories that help explain it and Bandura’s Social Learning Theory1 is a good place to start. Take a look at the research as it frames learning as a socially mediated process. Other models such as 70:20:10 have grown out of this research, putting the focus on learning at work as a more social endeavour.

Rather than asking what social learning is, employers could ask a better question: what should social learning look like in my organisation in 2019 and beyond? By exploring this question, you can bypass all the noise in the market about what it should be and focus on what it can be for your organisation.

So what can it be? Our pragmatic approach is this:

Social learning is learning from and with each other.

This is about helping colleagues learn from each other and with each other.


Why does social learning matter?

To answer this question, think about who in your organisation has the ‘smarts’. Who has expert skills and knowledge? Who has experience that really matters to the organisation? Who has market insights and intelligence? Who knows what customers want? Who knows what colleagues want? Who knows how to get things done?

You know that there are people in your organisation who have these smarts. The challenge for most organisations is to identify them and extract that information for the benefit of the whole organisation.

This is becoming more of an issue as organisations look to adapt and reinvent themselves in line with technological advances and market forces and the added complexity this brings. Creativity and innovation, key factors in driving change, exist within organisations but many are unable to identify and cultivate it.

That is why social learning is so important. It is an approach to learning that can tap into that knowledge, those skills and that insight so that colleagues can learn from it.

The good news is that employees want to do what we are describing. In its benchmark of nearly 5,000 learners2, learning industry benchmarking organisation Towards Maturity found that the social connections employees find most useful for learning are collaboration with team members (86%), general conversation and meetings (82%), support from coach/mentor (58%), internal networks and communities (42%) and

external professional networks (38% ).

The research is unequivocal: employees like to and want to share with each other and learn from each other.

Employers should be in no doubt about their colleagues’ motivation to want to learn from and with each other. The Towards Maturity research shows that:

  • 80% are willing to share what they know with peers (20% are doing this regularly and 18% need help getting started)
  • 61% are motivated by using technologies that allow them to network and
  • learn with others
  • 63% know how to build a personal network to help them learn
  • 70% curate content that is relevant to them.

A practical approach to social learning

So far, so good? Maybe not, because many organisations are grappling with how to make social learning work for them. Taken at face value it seems inconceivable that it wouldn’t work. Research shows that employees are motivated to share and learn from each other and we know from research that humans are social learners. 

The problem is that for many organisations the conditions required for social learning to flourish simply do not exist. Instead current conditions are a hindrance. Let’s look at those conditions:

  • There is a cultural legacy of classroom training – a form of broadcast training that is based on one expert telling everyone else what they know. This lives on as schools and universities continue the tradition. It has a cache still.

  • There is a legacy of top down, hierarchical organisational cultures. That means learning has been pushed down to the workforce from on high.

  • Knowledge has been power and a form of control. That means people have been rewarded for what they know, which means they have been incentivised to hold that knowledge rather than share it. Not having access to knowledge has acted as a barrier to people ‘getting above their station’.

We could go on, but you get the point. There are organisational forces at play that – wittingly or unwittingly – are acting as barriers to social learning. Indeed, Towards Maturity shows that whilst 82% of employees know what they need to learn to do their job, 63% of L&D professionals believe their staff lack skills to manage their own learning.


How can organisations make social learning work?

The barriers we have outlined above are not insurmountable and are already being broken down. Technology has changed the game as employees have the tools to share. They also have 24/7 access to information and each other. Organisations are waking up to the fact that they need more transparency, to trust their employees more and to build their own trust and confidence in the fact that learning from and with each other can work.

Where attempts at social learning fail for organisations is when the barriers outlined above remain in place.

If you are operating in this kind of environment, then you need to create a space where you have the conditions in which people can learn from and with each other.

Remember that employees are motivated to do this. What you need to do is understand their purpose. That means understanding the ‘why’. Why do people need to know something? This maybe a business or performance issue that needs improving, for example.

You then need to think about what Nick Shackleton-Jones, ‎Director, Learning & Performance Innovation at PA, calls the 4 Rs of social learning3.

  1. Relevance – people will flock to content that really delivers, and delivers at the point of need. Think context first, then content
  2. Rich – ensuring a constant flow of engaging, surprising and easy-to-consume content
  3. Rewards – people like to be recognised. How can you recognise their contributions?
  4. Real – allow space for people to have real conversations. They need to feel free to say what they think.

Note that you need to allow the space for people to feel free to say what they think.  Managers and peers need to support and encourage this. The minute they don’t, the conversation and sharing will stop. This is one of the main reasons why internal social networks fail in organisations. Employees do not feel they can speak openly and freely.


Sparking social learning

In order to succeed at creating social learning experiences you need to focus on the content as the spark for discussion. Think about this social experience as being defined by content, conversation and connection4. The content mediates the conversation as people respond to it. Employees then connect with the ideas in the content and with other colleagues through the conversation.

Coming back to Shackleton-Jones’ 4 Rs, you need to identify the learning and performance need. That provides the purpose to engage and then generate highly relevant content which can be created and/or curated. Make sure this content is easy to access and easy to consume.

Sitting alongside the content, there needs to be a place for people to reflect on what they have read or watched. This is where the social connection is made. Organisations can provoke conversation around content by posing a question to reflect on. 

This enables social learning to happen. Highly relevant content aligned to performance need sparks conversation which acts as an invitation to start sharing. At this point organisations gain critical insights into many things:

  • The relevance of the content – users will share how relevant the content is at helping them with their performance need
  • Who knows what – answers to questions will reveal subject experts and those who might need more support
  • Business insights – employees will share information that will be useful to the organisation – this could be internal insights and/or external market insights
  • Sharing of new ideas related to the performance need – this social learning experience has been designed around specific performance needs so the content will provoke conversation and reflection focused on those needs only. These spaces create focused conversation rather than general chat.

To ensure you have useful learning conversations you need to ask the right kinds of questions. Avoid closed questions that will give a yes or no answer, for example, ‘Was the person in the video right to act in a certain way?’ Make sure you ask questions that require employees to think about how they would act in a situation or how what they have seen would help them do their job better. 

The Towards Maturity research we mentioned earlier shows that 80% of employees are willing to share what they know with peers but only 20% are doing this regularly and 18% need help getting started. This statistic should be the catalyst for change. Your employees want to learn and share from each other. Is your organisation enabling that or getting in the way?



1 Social learning theory, Albert Bandura


2 The Learner Voice Part 3, Towards Maturity


3 The 4 “R”s: things that work in social learning


4 Martin Couzins and Sam Burrough designed a number of successful massive, open, online courses (MOOCs), including one on social learning, using the 3C approach – content, conversation and connection.

Further reading

Is all learning social?


On Social Learning

Paragogy and Heutagogy

Social learning is not something you make other people do


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