Social learning in the enterprise

This past year, my Internet Time Alliance colleague Jane Hart changed her title to Social Learning Consultant. Why?

Whereas early e-learning was all about delivering content, primarily in the form of online courses, produced by experts and managed via learning management systems, Social Learning is about creating and sharing information and knowledge with other people using (often free) social media tools that support a collaborative approach to learning.

Social Learning is fast becoming recognised as a valuable way of supporting formal learning and enabling informal learning within an organisation (something that has been overlooked for far too long). The use of online communities and networks, where employees are encouraged to co-create content, collaborate, share knowledge and fully participate in their own learning, is helping to create far more enduring learning experiences.

As Jon Husband says, “everyone in almost all enterprises is using the Internet all day long, participating in exchanges and flows of information”. This is networked business reality. If the learning/training department remains focused on content delivery it will miss the greatest opportunity for organizational performance – social learning.

I’ve put together a short slide presentation that covers some of the factors driving us towards social learning in the enterprise.

1. This is inspired by a year of discussions and conversations, especially with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues, with whom I’m grateful to collaborate and learn.

2. I start with McLuhan’s Laws of Media because this lens has proved useful over the years. For more information, read McLuhan for Managers.

3. We are only starting to see the enormous impact of the Internet on how we work. It is changing everything. I have yet to be swayed from this opinion.

4. We are seeing a shift in how we view knowledge, as Charles Jennings wrote on Social Learning:

We are moving to the world of the sons of Socrates, where dialogue and guidance are key competencies. It is a world where the capability to find information and turn it into knowledge at the point-of-need provides the key competitive advantage, where knowing the right people to ask the right questions of is more likely to lead to success than any amount of internally-held knowledge and skill.

5. Jay Cross has riffed on the changing nature of work, based on Thomas Malone’s The Future of Work.

6. Our current work structures are based on last century’s models of scientific management, sparked by F.W. Taylor.

7. Networks are draining the organizational pyramid, as the Cluetrain highlighted a decade ago.

8. We need to look at work differently and the nature of the job has fundamentally changed as passion & initiative replace diligence & obedience in the creative economy.  Wirearchy is a new framework for work in this economy.

9. None of this is new, it is part of our continuing need to adapt to change.

10. We need to look at learning as a core part of our work, and Jane Hart describes how workplace learning is more than just formal training.

11. When we need help at work, we turn to our friends and trusted colleagues with whom we’ve shared experiences. However, our closest friends may not be our best source of knowledge. We need to grow our trusted networks by sharing our work experiences so that we have more people to learn from when the need arises.

12. Social learning is critical for networked organizational effectiveness.

12 Responses to “Social learning in the enterprise”

  1. Dan Pontefract

    Nice summary of all things Internet Time Alliance related.

    Although I do 100% agree that the corporate training department will miss out on its greatest opportunity if it remains fixated on content delivery, this is not a light switch transformation.

    To me, I define the transformation as Learning 2.0 which encompasses the shift from an all-formal learning paradigm, to one that includes formal, informal and social learning. I think it needs to move to a 50-50 split in terms of total time and investment.

    What I worry about is if the ‘training department’ of today simply brands itself as a ‘social learning’ team. This misses the point entirely in my opinion.

    We need to bridge the all formal world with the informal and social possibilities and include a rebranding exercise from corporate university to collaboration office. (Chief Meta Learning Officer notion aside)

    BTW: in the summer, I took a crack at the Tetrads in relation to my definition of Learning 2.0. (

    • Harold Jarche

      50/50 sounds like a good start. That way, the org can start to consider self-directed, informal, social learning. We have enough data and research on formal training to do us for a while, but not much on supporting social learning in the workplace. At ITA we’re creating frameworks for implementation on this very subject.

  2. Stuart Henshall

    Harold, I have to admit this term “social learning” is bugging me and perhaps even more so when the Training Department (or whatever it is called) become the social learning team. If the organization isn’t learning… or isn’t learning fast enough then it has a problem. An organization needs new insights and the ability to know when to take action.

    Whether a training session or a facilitated strategic workshop the best “learning” often takes place in the breaks. Yes I believe there are real opportunities to use social software (these tools have been available for years) to stimulate the conversation. Similarly, there’s the backchannels too.

    I also have a fear that by calling this social learning team you let them off the hook. Let me provide an example. For years I ran sales. We had weekly reports that were sent in. Few saw them but they were circulated. Later these were emailed and thus shared with the group. Today the same things can be blogged in. By opening up the information and enabling both sharing and searching the organization learned best practice, what worked, translated new ideas, and went directly to sources of help. If you want to enable social learning… then I’d advocate the social learning team getting rid of email, moving to blogs and wiki’s and encouraging some opening up… “practices” and conversations..

    I have another example of how this type of learning was once hierarchial and could be wirearchical. See – I seem to be looking at all that old stuff at the moment!

    There’s a piece that I learnt once that Adults really learn by doing. Eg bringing “Facilitation Skills” into an organization. I did this many times.. not that I wanted every manager to become a facilitator rather to train them or learn them what it takes to facilitate change and growth. Then it makes it easier on those that really do facilitate. For my two cents “facilitation” remains key. It’s the only way to deal with organizational wisdom and collective intelligence.

    I’d also put this department in charge of making communications “real-time”. Speed up the transparency of the organization and training will become less about top down and more about enabling attention and capability.

    Perhaps just rambling at this point. I concur re above comment re collaboration office although I’d want some metrics on it to drive some changes. At the end of the day… the CEO must empower the organization to learn differently and then facilitate that change.

    • Harold Jarche

      Compartmentalizing responsibility is a real issue, I agree, Stuart. Currently, some organizations are looking at how to foster learning outside the formal setting, and the training department may be taking the lead. This may work, depending on leadership and context. This is what Dan is doing (previous comment).

      My colleagues and I reflect your position. This past year we gave presentations with titles like “blow up the training department” and “the great training robbery”. You say facilitation is the key. I’ve called it “communicating & connecting” – pretty well the same.

      Truly wirearchical organizations may no longer need a training department or it will be so different that it’s not recognizable. Wirearchies will likely need fewer managers and directors as well.

      On your last point, I wonder if the reverse will happen some time in the future. In a highly connected organization that needs creative, engaged workers, will the CEO empower them or will they empower the CEO?

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Jon Husband


    What I worry about is if the ‘training department’ of today simply brands itself as a ’social learning’ team. This misses the point entirely in my opinion.
    We need to bridge the all formal world with the informal and social possibilities and include a rebranding exercise from corporate university to collaboration office. (Chief Meta Learning Officer notion aside)

    Good points.

    And your application of the McLuhan tetrad is interesting to reflect upon. Glad you read the book 😉

  4. Dawn Poulos

    Harold. I’ve been referring to this post and the excellent resources you provide in it for the past week now and thought I would finally comment on it.

    Obviously, you know I agree with you and your colleagues’ position on social learning. One thing that is of particular interest to me is how social learning supports formal learning. This is critical as organizations make their transition to a more networked learning environment. As you say yourself in the comments, we are looking optimally at a 50-50 split between formal and informal in the near-term.

    I’ve read over Jane’s examples on the use of SM for formal structured learning and the thing I noticed is that SM tools are positioned as both additional channels to deliver formal courses (all or parts) and as a way for learners to collaborate on those courses. Social media is bi-directional, so why is it that we don’t explore how user-generated content can significantly improve formal content development processes? I mean this in terms of UGC providing valuable and timely information to instructional designers for more compelling course development. I mean this in terms of how SM can create massive efficiencies in subject matter expert contribution and knowledge capture using networks. And, I mean this in terms of leveraging the community for content review processes. If you look outside the learning organization, these are big topics of discussion, why not in training development?

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Dawn. The 50-50 split is not my idea or objective, but it’s a start. I think it should be about 20% of effort & resources for formal structured learning, based on the research. Increasingly using “subject matter networks” is a good idea that takes advantage of the power of social learning.

  5. Brian Bresee

    Hi Harold,

    I was struck by this blog post as I had just recently viewed the below presentation by Expertus and Bersin & Associates. Two facts stood out from their webinar, that even in 2010, only 1 in 5 companies feel expert in e-learning and collaboration, and that almost 80% of e-learning professionals believe that younger employees have significantly different learning needs than traditional programs.

    As a college student, I have always been surprised at how infrequently elearning is used in a university environment and how poorly it is usually implemented, but I guess these difficulties are across the board with creating effective elearning, though maybe a revised approach with collaboration and social tools will help?


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