“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn” (anonymous).

The most powerful learning happens outside formal training sessions. In fact, the majority of what employees learn in the workplace occurs through observation and imitation, using the simple process of trial and error.

In 2013, a team of cognitive scientists at Indiana University carried out a series of experiments that investigated problem-solving strategies in networked groups. They found that the simplest way for people to solve challenging problems is by observing the way their peers approach the task and exploring the payoffs of their solutions in order to guide their own learning. Learners who observed and imitated others solved problems much more effectively than learners who tried to find a solution on their own.

In 2012, eLearning Guild researchers conducted a study at Sara Lee, an American consumer goods company, in which employees rated a number of workplace learning activities from lowest to highest importance. An astonishing 45% felt that experiential, on-the-job learning was the most important, while networking came in close second at 30%. Formal workshops and training programs, on the other hand, were not high on the list.

Social Learning in the Workplace

Social learning can take many forms, including peer conversations, team collaboration, self-directed study, forums and networks, communities of practice, and even blogs. Modern training incorporates social software, advances in video and multimedia technology, and state-of-the-art learning platforms. Using these tools, employees can easily connect across teams, satisfying their curiosity and fulfilling their learning needs. By supporting informal learning through collaboration and experiential, exploratory processes, companies are reaping rich benefits.

Social learning is now a hot topic among corporate learning and development (L&D) circles. With the advent of new technologies, skills are becoming obsolete at a faster rate than ever before, and businesses are always looking out for new ways to enhance their employees’ competencies.

The Benefits of Incorporating Social Learning in Training Programs

The first few weeks you spent in your role probably consisted of interacting with co-workers and learning how your company functions. You likely learned the ropes through small nuggets of information shared by your peers. This process forms the basis of social learning and comes with powerful benefits:

Immediate Results

A Harvard Business School study found that its massive open online course (MOOC) HBX CORe, which included social learning, had a course completion rate of 85% (compared to the typical single-digit completion rates for MOOCs). Data and analytics tools embedded in your learning management system (LMS) can help you measure the effectiveness of social learning tools through learner engagement and interactions.

High Engagement

Traditional training approaches often result in bored learners. Social learning is interactive, with hands-on activities that raise interest levels and keep learners engaged.

A Continuous Learning Culture

Social learning initiatives encourage a continuous learning culture, as employees start to consider learning to be an ongoing process throughout their career. This perspective not only supports their personal and professional development but also boosts organizational growth in the long run.

Employee “Ownership” of Training

A social learning environment empowers employees to take control over their learning. They can learn at their own pace, clarify concepts and navigate through learning pathways that they find interesting. Traditional training events often do not allow for this easy assimilation of knowledge.

Just-in-time Learning

Social learners use the easiest means available to find the information they need, as and when they need it, just in time to complete a task. Learning is instantaneous and can be as easy as asking someone a question, clearing a doubt on a forum or searching a library of subject matter expert (SME)-contributed content. Learners can take upskilling into their own hands, and there is no disruption to their daily workflow.

Higher Productivity

Employees who are interacting with peers on networking forums, sharing knowledge and answering questions improve their performance and productivity.

Workplace Collaboration

When team members reach out to each other to collaborate on issues they are facing, they feel included and supported. These types of collaborative teams establish a positive workplace culture that nurtures growth and boosts productivity.

5 Ways to Incorporate Social Learning in Your Training Programs

The most successful companies drive engagement by adding social learning to their L&D strategy. Here are five ways you can, too:

Online Forums

Any organization can set up a collaborative online forum through an off-the-shelf platform or create a customized platform for their specific needs. In these forums, senior employees can answer questions and share personal experiences, which will prove to be invaluable to colleagues who are facing similar challenges. Any employee can access this support network to help them deal with complex situations immediately.

Web Conferencing

Web-conferencing platforms enable employees to gather together for company updates, training sessions and group seminars, and they can also be an effective springboard for social learning initiatives. Screen-sharing enables people to share documents and presentations, and breakout rooms give small groups the opportunity to have discussions. Web conferencing enables the collaboration of remote teams — which has been especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Gamified learning turns training content into a stimulating and fun experience that can include friendly competitions. It can also incorporate elements of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), providing an immersive experience that puts learners in the driver’s seat and teaches them skills through real-life simulations. By progressing through game levels, learners can earn badges and collect social accolades that will motivate them to augment their skills and improve their performance on the job.

Subject Matter Experts

Every organization should have a group of subject matter experts who can help employees with complex problems. They can serve as coaches and mentors and report back to the management team on process issues or operational bottlenecks that could be affecting business growth.

Resource Library

Employees can collate and share resources through an internal digital database that anyone on the team can access and tap into. This library can include newsletters that compile helpful articles contributed by internal experts. Authorized users can keep these informative articles and resource libraries updated on a regular basis.

Developing a strategic L&D program that is based on social learning is key to staying ahead. Organizations that can nurture a culture of knowledge and skill-sharing, with social learning implemented alongside other training, will improve employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic “Creating a Social Learning Culture in the Modern Workplace,” which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.