Humans are inherently social beings. I could cite several sources that make this claim (such as this Forbes article or this study from the National Library of Medicine), but I know this from personal experience. I used to teach young humans (kindergartners and fourth graders to be exact), and I observed them mimic me, and each other, as they learned to write their names and sound out words. I experienced this myself as I transitioned from education to the corporate world, where I needed to learn how to create eLearning programs but had no access to formal courses. Instead of returning to school, I turned to my colleagues to show me best practices and free resources that could help me grow. Then, I experienced it as a mentor when colleagues came to me for help to grow their skills.

Most learning and development (L&D) professionals are familiar with the 70-20-10 model. For those who aren’t, it suggests that 10% of individual learning should come from formal education events such as courses or books, 20% from social learning and 70% from applying new knowledge and skills on the job. Even though this model states that formal learning events should comprise a minority of a learner’s education, this is where learning professionals find themselves spending most of their time (and training budget), often despite L&D’s best efforts to convince the business of a more well-rounded approach.

This deviation from best practice is most frequently due to the desire of the business to be able to track and report on training programs. However, the reports typically shared merely indicate how many people completed a course or self-reported satisfaction, rather than how much the audience has learned and can apply to their daily role. The application of concepts is much more challenging and complex to measure. Businesses are less likely to invest in learning programs that employ social and application facets if they can’t easily measure the impact. A secondary cause is a lack of resources (either financial or human) to help manage and maintain social and application learning components. As a result of this practice, many learners are not able to connect what they hear in a course and what they do every day — rendering the course ineffective.

If components of a program go beyond the 10%, the focus typically goes directly to application despite social learning being an important phase in the model. Social learning is defined in various ways depending on the organization. In this context, social learning is any activity where one person learns from another. Most commonly in business, we see this occur in mentor and coaching relationships, workplace communities or program cohorts. When used effectively, social learning acts as a bridge between what people learn in a course or program and the application of that learning in their day-to-day roles. This happens through hearing from others’ experiences, asking questions and troubleshooting in a safe space and sharing what they know to build their confidence in the topic. Learning in these ways with others helps to solidify the behaviors that enable workers to put the skills more easily into practice.

With this in mind, let’s explore three reasons why social learning is more important than ever, as well as how to begin implementing social practices into your learning programs.

Returning to the 70-20-10 Model

According to research from Bersin by Deloitte, “80% of workforce learning happens via on-the-job interactions with peers, teammates, and managers.” But the same research also shows that those workers only have 1% of their workweek available for learning. This means that employees need to be able to find what they need, when they need it. Some of this need is met by on-demand content, either via internal learning platforms or search engines.

However, when turning to these platforms, learners often struggle to directly apply what they are trying to achieve in their role without any social support. While this approach may not always pose barriers, frequent feedback during and after programs reveals that learners are unsure how to apply it to their role or wish they had someone they could turn to with specific questions to put the learning into practice effectively. Utilizing intentional social learning components could help to ease this burden and help to bridge the gap to application.

Learners Feel Disconnected From Others

Virtual learning has been a big topic in the profession for some time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it became even more critical as businesses rushed to ensure that employees had what they needed to continue working and developing in the absence of face-to-face learning options. As time has gone on, however, employees are reporting fatigue with virtual options as organizations focused almost exclusively on formal learning with little to no social learning additions.

This fatigue is further driven by the lack of personal connection that was standard with in-office interactions. Those who started with new companies during the pandemic also have struggled to create social networks that would once have been created by having lunch with co-workers or during in-person orientation events.

Formal Learning Can’t Keep Up With the Pace of Business

L&D leaders know that it is not uncommon to deploy a program only to have it become out of date within months (or even weeks). The expense to update programs shortly after launch is greater than most organizations can justify, so compromises to content are accepted as a cost of doing business. Additionally, the life span of a worker’s skills continues to decrease.

According to the book, “Exponential Organizations: The Essential Guide to Building ExO’s,” the average shelf life of a business competency has dropped from 30 years in 1984 to five years in 2014. This means that the workforce faces a constant need for upskilling and reskilling that most current corporate learning programs cannot keep pace with. Social learning, however, is more agile in nature since it can adjust to learner and business needs more efficiently and effectively than formal learning and often takes less time and resources to deploy.

Ways To Incorporate Social Learning

The need for social learning is clear. The challenge is to create deliberate social learning channels that enable learners to have efficient access to a wider pool of experts.

One way that might already be taking place in your organization is workplace communities. At Mars, Inc., there are approximately 110 communities (approximately 90 of these are employee resource groups) that have been identified by the L&D organization. Only one of these communities is driven by the L&D organization. The communities range from business topics such as project management and agile to diversity, equity and inclusion employee resource groups. The relatively newly formed social learning team in Mars, Inc.’s L&D organization is working to create and promote a directory of these groups so that they can be found by a broad audience across the globe.

Additionally, this team has created a hub of supportive tools to help community leaders learn how to grow and sustain their community, as well as create content and curate existing materials to support ongoing development. Reskilling and upskilling via communities not only help to connect employees across the organization, but also occur in a more business-paced approach since they are focused on timely topics being raised by their members. They also allow for personalized support via community questions or connections and do not require substantial resourcing from the social learning or broader L&D teams as leaders are being equipped to learn from each other.

Another way to incorporate social learning into the workplace would be to look outside of the traditional L&D space for inspiration on how people connect and learn from each other around the world. For instance, when conducting interviews with a very small sample of new graduates entering the workforce in 2020, at least half of those interviewed stated they utilized platforms such as TikTok and Instagram to learn about topics that interested them or hobbies they pursued. The reasons they gave for doing so included the fact that there were short videos, but also that they could interact with the expert (or influencer as they are commonly known in the social media world), as well as others who were watching the video. This concept could be (and has been) translated into the L&D space through:

    • Hosting “watch parties,” where a group watches a short course on a topic and interacts with each other and an expert during the session.
    • Providing managers with a toolkit to help them lead a “course club” (similar to a book club but centered around an existing course) with their teams.
    • Live office hours with experts, where course instructors present small topics in their area of expertise and engage the audience with prompts and Q&A sessions.

Conclusion

It is easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day of developing courses and forget that we are developing them for humans who need and desire to have connections with others. This connection helps to link what they know, what they’ve learned and what they need to know to do even better. If you can create experiences that help them to do that, you will be tapping into their core needs. So, as we say on my team, let’s get social, L&D!

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