Social learning remains one of the most misunderstood components of modern workplace learning strategy. Many managers are still stuck in the mindset that social learning means “wasting time on social media” – and while social learning can indeed take place on mainstream social platforms, it’s far from a time-wasting exercise. Social learning is really a natural part of an effective learning experience whether online or offline (around the water cooler, for instance).

Encouraging social learning alongside and within formal learning activities, such as face-to-face training or structured e-learning courses, is now an essential aspect of a learning professional’s design thinking, as is integrating learning opportunities as a part of the natural collaboration and knowledge sharing that (should) exist within everyday workflow activity.

Social learning is already enhancing the learning programs of businesses worldwide, and this article provides insight into how organizations can reap the rewards of a carefully considered social learning strategy.

  1. Everyone learns socially, whether they say they do or not.

Social learning isn’t about reinventing the wheel. Everyone learns socially every single day. It’s a natural process, whether it’s asking a colleague for help with a complex computer system, emailing a manager for guidance or asking a quick question in the office’s chat facility. Traditionally, it’s considered to be the 20 in the well-known 70:20:10 model, whereby people learn (roughly) 70 percent of what they need on-the-job, 20 percent via social means and 10 percent through formal training.

In reality, it’s likely that social learning is threaded through everything from formal courses to on-the-job performance support. However, research shows that organizations tend to dedicate 80-100 percent of their learning and development (L&D) budget to the 10 percent of formal learning, leaving the collaborative learning and on-the-job learning comprising the other 90 percent as an afterthought.

The fact that everyone learns socially outside the workplace arguably makes it much easier to translate into the workplace than more formal methods. Very few people would seek out a formal e-learning course to learn how to put up a shelf. Instead, they might text a friend, watch a YouTube video or ask for tips on Facebook. This is social learning in action, and it stands to reason that people would want to apply the same approach to knowledge gathering and sharing in the workplace alongside their more structured, formally designed training.

2. It’s cost-effective and learning effective.

 Face-to-face training is notoriously expensive because it often entails spending money on a trainer, a venue, travel, subsistence and resources, as well as requiring people to spend time away from their regular roles in order to take the training. Social learning has no real upfront or budget attached to it, other than the tools you choose to facilitate it, which in turn, can be near free. As such, it can be thought of as cost-effective. But more importantly it is learning effective. By integrating interaction before, during and around formal learning activities, you can dramatically increase the effectiveness of the overall experience. You can ensure that learners focus on areas of personal need, you can identify training that can be removed from your curriculum, and you can replace training with performance support. Collectively, this has a significant effect over the business impact of your learning strategy.

Here’s a simple example you could use to make an instant change within your own organization. A group of new starters attends a face-to-face onboarding session for their new seasonal retail role. The L&D team can create an online group for them to continue talking online after the session. This means that they can clarify points, ask questions and share tips and advice with their peers. This benefit would be lost without this group, as differing shift patterns could mean that the people with questions may not otherwise interact with the new starters with the answers.

Managers and subject matter experts may also be invited to the group to answer questions and share important information, such as upcoming promotions or special offers, to the entire group at once, and they can then answer any questions in real time. Empowering learners to stay in touch and reinforce learning for no real extra cost helps the organization make the most of all learning opportunities.

3. It transcends silos. 

Social learning is a great way to open up communication channels and puncture silos across the organization. If a company has several regional offices, and office A consistently exceeds its targets whereas office B tends to underperform, it doesn’t make sense to keep all of the expertise stuck in office A. That’s why shifting the conversation online can help redistribute knowledge and skills throughout the organization to ensure consistency and improved performance across the board.

Another often overlooked benefit is the value of “ambient information,” or working out loud. When conversations are held on lots of channels, such as instant messaging, email or over the phone, other people who aren’t privy to those channels may miss information that could be useful in their own roles. By supporting social learning online on a single shared platform, it enables everyone to follow conversations or groups they find interesting or useful. Just because the IT team doesn’t think the marketing team will find a certain thread useful, the marketing team can still see the conversation happening, and can be kept abreast of any useful developments that they may need to consider in the future. Working out loud is learning out loud – this has a powerful catalytic effect on how an organization remains culturally coherent and competitive in times of unprecedented rates of change.

4. It ensures rapid knowledge transfer.

Social learning plays an important role in performance support by ensuring rapid knowledge transfer. With traditional face-to-face training, employees could be waiting months for a session to teach them skills they could benefit from right now. Supporting social learning is a great way to improve workflow in an organization through the sharing of knowledge and skills, and empowers learners to tap into the expertise of their peers much faster than would be possible through formal training initiatives.

For instance, if a retail worker is looking to be promoted to store management level, they may need to gain a certain set of skills before they will be considered. There may not be a training course available for six months, so social learning enables them to go online and ask questions to help them get started immediately. This makes it particularly useful for proactive learners who want to do more than the bare minimum to improve their skill set and productivity, and helps prevent learners from being held back from any extra learning that will benefit them in their roles.

5. It cultivates a culture of success. 

The value of success stories should never be underestimated. Hearing about others’ success can be a powerful motivator and help contextualize why something matters. Any learning professional will know that it’s not always easy to convince employees of the value of learning programs, so social learning platforms can be used as a way to share achievements, demonstrate the results they’re getting from their learning and share tips and advice with others.

Cultivating a culture of success can make a massive difference to morale across the organization. Too often, successes are buried under the things that go wrong, so it’s important to remind employees that success is something to be recognized and celebrated, especially when it comes from the learning opportunities they have access to through the organization. Whether it’s creating a forum specifically for success stories, getting your marketing team involved with internal marketing initiatives or simply encouraging people to share great feedback as status updates, making people feel valued and recognized is a fantastic way to boost employee retention rates and motivation levels.

It’s the Future 

With 79 percent of organizations already using a learning management system (LMS) to deliver formal learning, many businesses are also looking for ways to better support social learning. In today’s businesses, where remote working, flexible working, freelancing and the gig economy are becoming increasingly common, it cannot be assumed that “water cooler chat” will be enough, or is even happening. The challenge going forward is facilitating productive, informative conversations across the business, allowing all employees to have a voice and share their expertise for accelerated growth in skills and knowledge for everyone.