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Learning & Development Blog

How (Not) To Structure Social Learning

A lot of commentators writing about social learning today stress the importance of keeping it free from rules or overarching control. Key considerations associated with this idea include some or all of the following:

  • Give everyone the opportunity to teach and learn whatever they know, whenever they have the time.
  • Give everyone the opportunity to learn what they want to know. Self-directed learning is the best.
  • Avoid being hung up on job description or hierarchy; everyone should be able to share with everyone.
  • Provide tools that allow for the rapid dissemination of thought, such as wikis, internal chat, blogs, etc.
  • Avoid the temptation to impose structure.

Central to these tenets of social learning is the importance of keeping things unfettered. The problem is that in some cases, this call has risen to the level of dogma.

“Don’t direct learning at all.”



Once resources have been provided, the job of the instructor (itself a dirty word) is done, and anything more can only serve to taint the natural learning process. It reminds me of that famous line from the ‘60s about not trusting anyone over 30. Authority by its very nature has a stunting effect on creativity and the natural learning process.


The argument behind this line of thinking appears to be that the gigantic upheaval we’re going through in the sphere of communications and social interaction is so revolutionary that all previous ways of doing thing are outmoded. C-level executives who don’t recognize the wave of corporate democracy that has emerged with the revolution face the business equivalent of the fates of Louis XVI or Nicholas II.

We’ve heard that before though.

Social learning is not new. Anytime you’ve asked a question of a colleague, it’s social learning. In the centuries that humans have been using this technique, it’s always managed to coexist with structured learning. While new tools of communication, unparalleled access to information, and an ever-more-tightly woven world offer amazing opportunities for personal and organizational growth and development, there is still a role for structure and control.

For example, while there is no doubt that self-directed, self-motivated learning is the purest and most productive style of learning, it is not by itself sufficient to address all learning needs. Why? Because simply put, sometimes learners don’t know what they need to know, even if they think they do. And that is where someone has to step in and instruct them, even if they don’t entirely understand why. 


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