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Learning & Development Blog


Strengthening Social Learning In the Workplace

The training industry has seen plenty of debate around whether or not organizations can and should take steps to strengthen social learning in the workplace. Everyone agrees that social learning is important and that somewhere between 70% and 80% of all learning is done socially and/or informally. Many believe social learning is something that happens spontaneously and continuously, and that any attempt by an organization to capture, share or strengthen these critical informal learning processes instantly formalizes them.

I just don’t buy it.

Harold Jarche defines social learning as “the lubricant of networked, collaborative work.” I love that definition! But Harold, Peter Isackson and Jay Cross go on to argue that the fundamental key to the success of [social learning] is the notion of “self-organized groups who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to teach them, entrusting the groups with this task.”


I believe Harold and Jay are missing the point. Why focus so much on the non-invasiveness of learning instead of analyzing the most effective types of learning for different scenarios? Harold, Peter and Jay go on to suggest that educational gurus (which I'll choose to think of as training facilitators) should refrain from outlining touch points ahead of training, but they should challenge these self-organized groups “to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it.”

What’s wrong with giving a piece of direction to trainees from the beginning? Does it really stifle learning? Would providing guidance take away from learning’s social nature? Does a warning sign illuminate indicating training has become formalized, followed immediately by glazed eyes and nap time?

Dashe & Thomson has found a niche creating custom training for large software deployments. Like most areas of enterprise learning, IT user adoption is moving away from the classical “push” approach towards more effective "pull" learning styles, including performance support and social learning. If we decided, for the purity of social learning, to have end users separate into self-organized groups and begin discussing how to use a new piece of software that most of them have never seen before, it would be a complete waste of time. But if we provided some direction from the beginning and offer participant guides, screen shots, and simulations for the groups to discuss and learn from as a collective, I believe it could be a huge success.

Some topics are so complex or so new that trainees cannot be relied upon to learn the material from each other right off the bat. In these cases, why not leverage trainers to create a “head-start”? You could even train subject matter experts to act as group mentors/facilitators.

It’s time we stop debating what social learning is and is not, and start brainstorming ways to leverage our social tendencies to change behavior. 

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