Organizations have been successfully offering social learning for some time. This approach, which evolved from Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, is experiencing increasing popularity due to shrinking training budgets and time constraints as organizations attempt to keep up with the pace of change.

What Is Social Learning, and Why Is It Beneficial?

We can define social learning simply as “learning with and from others.” This approach leverages employee bench strength, encouraging peers to teach and exchange information with each other through the use of learning tools, technology or old-fashioned conversation. Social learning does not depend on an instructor, facilitator or recognized “expert.” Still, peer learning can be transformational for new hires or employees who are in a new role or new to a project. Social learning is the “20%” in the 70-20-10 Learning model and is made successful through encouragement and feedback from trusted advisers and/or peers.

In their book “What Makes a Great Training Organization,” Doug Harward and Ken Taylor of Training Industry, Inc., offer several social learning tools that can create an immersive learning environment. They write that employees have a variety of ways to collaborate and learn from each other, including peer coaching and training and sharing knowledge, learning and feedback on relevant topics through social media, wikis, blogs, communities of practice, podcasts, videos and chat.

Questions to Consider

To implement a social learning approach, learning functions should start with a basic assessment of what’s feasible for their employee population. Consider the following:

    • What tools are available that you could use for social learning (e.g., internal chat channels)?
    • Are colleagues more familiar with some tools than others? Prioritize known tools first.
    • Can you use virtual meeting tools for social learning? For example, many platforms support on-demand chats with small or large teams and the ability to exchange files while collaborating in real time. Teams can now have ongoing discussions on topics, challenges and lessons learned without having to use and track separate email threads.
    • While promoting social learning, can you encourage employees to network and build their relationships? Doing so will create a strong foundation for social learning.
    • Would the organizational culture allow for social learning during team meetings? Instead of putting the responsibility for sharing new knowledge and solutions solely on managers, perhaps they can leverage team expertise in a more collaborative session. Consider rotating topics and employees to present during each team call.
    • Do you have an employee portal? Encourage employees to use them to record and post video clips sharing ideas and lessons learned. Sales teams often use platforms to share specific challenges or issue team members have encountered and how they solved it. Quick video clips are easier to create than create elaborate slide decks and enable employees to share information “just in time” and before their colleagues encounter similar challenges.
    • Which approaches will your leadership team, human resources (HR) partners and managers back? Leadership support will create better engagement. Leaders tend to support methods that are widely available, easily understood and require little to no investment (unless you make a strong business case).
    • Are there opportunities to gamify certain initiatives to create friendly competition or collaboration? Gamification works well when it encourages employees to come together to innovate and solve problems quickly.

Balancing Learning Methods

Based on the learning function’s assessment, one or all of these approaches could be successful in promoting social learning. However, organizations should not use social learning as the only method for learning. Rather, they should balance it with other learning methods for a more impactful employee learning experience and improved business outcomes.

One of the critiques of social learning is that employees might pass on incorrect information without appropriate checks and balances. It’s also possible that employees might not take social learning seriously due to its informal nature. In business functions where deep technical skills or knowledge is required, social learning might not always be the best fit (for example, learning how to use and troubleshoot a new machine, implementing cloud technology or performing tasks that will be audited).

Humans change their behavior through a combination of observation, imitation and modeling. Formal learning and on-the-job training are important approaches that social learning can supplement to embed behaviors. In some cases, training should also include an assessment to ensure employees can demonstrate their mastery of the topic.

So, should an organization implement social learning? The answer is “yes” — wherever it makes sense and aligns to the organization’s culture. The level of social learning also depends on the organization’s needs and risks. However, it should not be the only available learning modality. Social learning, combined with on-the-job learning and formal training, creates a more comprehensive learning strategy that can pivot as business needs transform.