A framework for social learning in the enterprise

A framework for social learning in the enterprise

The social learning revolution has only just begun. Corporations that understand the value of knowledge sharing, teamwork, informal learning and joint problem solving are investing heavily in collaboration technology and are reaping the early rewards.

—Jay Cross

Social learning

Why is social learning important for today’s enterprise?

George Siemens has succinctly explained the importance of social learning in the context of today’s workplace:

There is a growing demand for the ability to connect to others. It is with each other that we can make sense, and this is social. Organizations, in order to function, need to encourage social exchanges and social learning due to faster rates of business and technological changes. Social experience is adaptive by nature and a social learning mindset enables better feedback on environmental changes back to the organization.

The Internet has fundamentally changed how we communicate on a scale as large as the printing press or the advent of written language. Charles Jennings explains why we need to move away from a focus on knowledge transfer and acquisition, an approach rooted in Plato’s academy:

“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.”

Our relationship with knowledge is changing as our work becomes more intangible and complex. Notice how most value in today’s marketplace is intangible, with Google’s multi-billion dollar valuation an example of value in non-tangible processes that could be deflated with the development of a better search algorithm. Non-physical assets comprise about 80 percent of the value of Standard & Poor’s 500 US companies in leading industries.

From replaceable human resources to dynamic social groups

The manner in which we prepare people for work is based on the Taylorist perspective that there is only one way to do a job and that the person doing the work needs to conform to job requirements [F.W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911]. Individual training, the core of corporate learning and development, is based on the premise that jobs are constant and those who fill them are interchangeable.

However, when you look at the modern organization, it is moving to a model of constant change, whether through mergers and acquisitions or as quick-start web-enabled networks. For the human resources department, the question becomes one of preparing people for jobs that don’t even exist. For example, the role of online community manager, a fast-growing field today, barely existed five years ago. Individual training for job preparation requires a stable work environment, a luxury no one has any more.

evolution of work

A collective, social learning approach, on the other hand, takes the perspective that learning and work happen as groups and how the group is connected (the network) is more important than any individual node within it.

MIT’s Peter Senge has made some important clarifications on terms we often use in looking at work, job classifications and training to support them.

Knowledge: the capacity for effective action. “Know how” is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in life.

Practitioner: someone who is accountable for producing results.

Learning may be an individual activity but if it remains within the individual it is of no value whatsoever to the organization. Acting on knowledge, as a practitioner (work performance) is all that matters. So why are organizations in the individual learning (training) business anyway? Individuals should be directing their own learning. Organizations should focus on results.

Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but even this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Social networks are the primary conduit for effective organizational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organization.

Social learning is how groups work and share knowledge to become better practitioners. Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks. The rest is just window dressing. Over a century ago, Charles Darwin helped us understand the importance of adaptation and the concept that those who survive are the ones who most accurately perceive their environment and successfully adapt to it. Cooperating in networks can increase our ability to perceive what is happening.

Making social learning work

Jon Husband’s working definition of “Wirearchy” is “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. We are seeing increasing examples of this on the edges of the modern enterprise. World Blu’s annual listing of our most democratic workplaces continues to grow and gain attention. Google’s dedicated time-off for private projects, given to its engineers, promotes non-directed learning and collaboration. Zappos directly engages with its customers on Twitter, fostering higher levels of two-way trust. As customers, suppliers and competitors become more networked, being more wirearchical will be a business imperative.

Wirearchies inherently require trust, and trusted relationships are powerful allies in getting things done in organizations. Trust is also an essential component of social learning. Just because we have the technical networks does not mean that learning will automatically happen. Communications without trust are just noise, not accepted and never internalized by the recipients.


Here are some ways to make social learning work in the enterprise:

Think and act at a macro level (what to do) and leave the micro (how to do it) to each worker or team. The little stuff is changing too fast.

Engage with Web media and understand how they work. The Web is too important to be left to the information technology department, communications staff or outside vendors.

Use social media to make work easier or more effective. Use them to solve problems for work teams and groups.

Make traditional management obsolete. Teach people how to fish and move on to the next challenge. If the organization is maintaining a steady state then it has failed to evolve with the environment.

Analyzing social learning

Most 20th century workplaces had two types of learning: formal learning through training and informal learning (about 80% according to research) which just happened by accident or the result of observation, conversation and time in the job. This focus on formal training, for skills and knowledge, missed out on our social nature. Business has always been social, especially at the higher levels of management and with ubiquitous access to networks, this is once again part of everyone’s work. In the global village, we are all interconnected.

Jane Hart has shown how social media can be used for workplace learning and that instead of just training, there are five types of learning that should be supported by the organization:

IOL – Intra-Organizational Learning – keeping the organization up to date and up to speed on strategic and other internal initiatives and activities

GDL – Group Directed Learning – groups of individuals working in teams, projects, study groups, etc Even two people working together in a coaching and mentoring capacity

PDL – Personal Directed Learning – individuals organizing and managing their own personal or professional learning

ASL – Accidental & Serendipitous Learning – individuals learning without consciously realizing it (aka incidental or random learning)

FSL – Formal Structured Learning – formal education and training like classes, courses, workshops, etc (both synchronous and asynchronous)

Notice that traditional training (FSL) is only one of the five types. Three of these (IOL, GDL, PDF) require self-direction, and that is the essence of social learning: becoming self-directed learners and workers, all within a two-way flow of power and authority. Social and informal learning are not just feel-good notions, but have a real impact on an increasingly intangible business environment.

Jay Cross has looked at the ways that social learning is becoming real and developed this table to highlight some of the workplace changes he is observing:

get real jaycross

Implementing social learning

social media for learning

The changes in becoming a networked workplace can be further analyzed using Jane Hart’s five ways of using social media for learning in the organization.

ASL – Accidental & Serendipitous Learning: from Stocks to Flow

Learning is conversation and online conversations are an essential component of online learning. Online communication can be divided into Stocks (information that is archived and organized for reference and retrieval) and Flows (timely and engaging conversations between people, including voice or written communications). Blogs allow flow and micro-blogs, like Twitter, enable great flow due to the constraint of 140 characters

The web enables connections, or constant flow, as well as instant access to information, or infinite stock. Stock on the Internet is everywhere and the challenge is to make sense of it through flows of conversation. It is no longer enough to have the book, manual or information, but one must be able to use it in changing contexts. Because of this connectivity, the Web is an environment more suited to just-in-time learning than the outdated course model. ASL is shifting from looking at knowledge as the collection of bits and engaging in the learning flows around us, without any conscious plan. We are working and learning in networks and the only thing a network can do is share.

PDL – Personal Directed Learning: from Clockwork & Predictable to Complexity & Surprising

Complexity, or maybe our appreciation of it, has rendered the world unpredictable, so the orientation of learning is shifting from past (efficiency, best practice) to future (creative response, innovation). Organizing our own learning is necessary for creative work. Workplace learning is morphing from blocks of training followed by working to a merger of work and learning: they are becoming the same thing. Change is continuous, so learning must be continuous. Developing emergent practices, a necessity when there are no best practices in our changing work environments, requires constant personal directed learning.

In complex environments it no longer works to sit back and see what will happen. By the time we realize what’s happening, it will be too late to take action. Accepting surprise is similar to the delight an artist may have on completion of a work and only then see an emergent quality not consciously understood during the process of its creation.

GDL – Group Directed Learning: from Worker Centric to Team Centric

As mentioned earlier, the real work in organizations is done by groups. This means that sending individuals on a training course and then re-integrating to their work group is relatively useless. With work and learning merging in the network, groups need to find ways that support each member’s learning, while engaged in tasks and projects. Tools that can capture activities and keep group members focused should be used to reinforce group learning.

Social learning requires a certain amount of effort to maintain regular contact and association with our colleagues. Developing social learning practices, like keeping a work journal, may be an effort at first but later it’s just part of the work process. Bloggers have learned how powerful a learning medium they have only after blogging for an extended period. With the increased use of distributed work groups, it is even more important to foster social learning and web media are the current tools at hand.

IOL – Intra-Organizational Learning: from Subject Matter Experts to Subject Matter Networks

Mark Oehlert recently coined the term Subject Matter Networks as a new way of finding organizational knowledge. Instead of looking for subject matter experts from which to design training, we should extend knowledge gathering to the entire network of subject-matter expertise. Once again, the emphasis is no longer on the individual node but on the network. Good networks make for effective organizations.

Networked communities are better structures in dealing with complexity, when emerging practices need to be continuously developed and loose ties can help facilitate fast feedback loops without hierarchical intervention. Collaborative groups are better at making decisions and getting things done. The constraints of the group help to achieve defined goals.

Building capabilities from serendipitous to personally-directed and then group-directed learning help to create strong networks for intra-organizational learning. This is exceptionally important because the emerging knowledge-intensive and creative workplace has these attributes:

• Simple work will be automated.
• Complicated work will go to the lowest bidder, as processes & procedures become more defined and job aids more powerful (e.g. mortgage applications).
• Complex work requires creativity and is where the value of the post-industrial organization lies.
• Dealing with Chaos sometimes has be confronted and this requires creativity as well as a sense of adventure to try novel approaches.

FSL – Formal Structured Learning: from Curriculum to Competency

There remains a need for training in the networked workplace but it must move away from a content delivery approach. The content will be out of date before the training is “delivered” (another outdated term). Work competencies will still need to be developed through practice and appropriate feedback (what training does well) but that practice will have to be directly relevant to the individual or group (group training is an area of immense potential growth). Jointly defining work competence with input from individuals, groups and subject matter networks should become the new analysis process, enabled by social media. Think of it as social ADDIE (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation) for the complex workplace.


Our workplaces are becoming interconnected because technology has enabled communication networks on a worldwide scale. This means that systemic changes are sensed almost immediately. Reaction times and feedback loops have to get faster and more effective. We need to know who to ask for advice right now but that requires a level of trust and trusted relationships take time to nurture. Our default action is to turn to our friends and trusted colleagues; those people with whom we’ve shared experiences. Therefore, we need to share more of our work experiences in order to grow those trusted networks. This is social learning and it is critical for networked organizational effectiveness.

Our current models for managing people, training and knowledge-sharing are insufficient for a workplace that demands emergent practices just to keep up. Formal training has only ever addressed 20% of workplace learning and this was acceptable when the work environment was merely complicated. Knowledge workers today need to connect with others to co-solve problems. Sharing tacit knowledge through conversations is an essential component of knowledge work. Social media enable adaptation, and the development of emergent practices, through conversations.

emergent practices

About Internet Time Alliance

Internet Time Alliance helps organizations solve performance problems.

Our toolkit contains collaborative intelligence, network optimization, performance support, informal learning, and a hundred years of practical experience.

Together, we can help you make your workers and partners more proficient, in less time, and often for lower cost.

See what we’re thinking, visit us at the Internet Time Alliance

Jay Cross | Jane Hart | Harold Jarche | Charles Jennings | Clark Quinn

External References

George Siemens http://elearnspace.org/

Social Learning White Paper http://www.entreprisecollaborative.com/

Charles Jennings http://charles-jennings.blogspot.com/

F.W. Taylor: Principles of Scientific Management Wikipedia

Jon Husband: Wirearchy http://www.wirearchy.com/

WorldBlu: Most Democratic Workplaces http://www.worldblu.com/

Jay Cross: Where did the 80% Come From? http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/

Jane Hart: Social Learning Handbook http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/handbook/state.html

Jay Cross: Social Learning Gets Real http://www.internettime.com/2009/11/social-learning-gets-real/

Mark Oehlert: Subject Matter Networks eclippings (learning as art)

33 Responses to “A framework for social learning in the enterprise”

  1. Morna

    I came across your post via @josiefraser on Twitter. You seem to have captured the rationale behind our network @ girlgeekscotland very effectively. I hope you don’t mind that I have briefly summarised your thoughts on our own website (news section) – with links of course.

    i wondered if you know of studies of social learning in networks of our kind which have grown up in an adhoc fashion outside of institutional or organisational structures?

    I’d be really interested in reading about that – and in any advice you can give us about how to leverage our informal learning networks.


  2. Jessica Laasonen

    I enjoyed this extensive look into social learning in organizations. I fully agree on the benefits of learning as a team, and through networks rather than individuals. However, this quote raised some thoughts in me: “Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks.” I would say that whilst the benefits of social learning are evident, we should make sure that we also allow room for individual thought and development. The danger in focusing on training individuals as a group is groupthink and lack of originality. In order to manage learning efficiently we must make sure that it is still the individual effort combined in a group that the value of team consists of.

    • Harold Jarche

      Training individuals as a group is not the idea here. I was at first surprised when Peter Senge made the statement about individual learning, but he explained the years of research behind it. It doesn’t matter what the organization does, each person is unique. Focusing on individual skills is a mug’s game. Let each individual decide what is best for her or him.

      The organization should be concerned with how people work together and find ways to help them cooperate and collaborate. There is no need to manage individual learning. We don’t manage what or how our employees eat and we don’t need to manage their knowledge or learning. We can make it easier for them to learn and share knowledge though, just like putting in a cafeteria or a water fountain. Workers need support and tools to develop these personal processes but the organization should stay out of the business of individual learning and instead focus on collaboration. Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks. The rest is just window dressing.

  3. Jessica Laasonen

    Thank you for clarifying this concept. It does make sense to focus on learning through social networks. Perhaps this just means that organizations must make sure to recruit individuals who have already proved to be qualified and competent enough to be trusted with individual learning.

  4. Larry Irons


    I totally agree with your point about the needless focus on individual learning. I’m totally mystified by the fact that organizations routinely require at least a high school education for the most menial jobs involving manual labor and a college education for jobs involving knowledge work. Yet, HR continues to remain focused on whether individuals can be trusted to learn on their own. If the current TRAINING mentality must remain as the dominant focus then I can only surmise that what organizations need to do is develop competency tests, like reading, writing, arithmetic, and reasoning to determine who they hire. Forget about the degrees. Otherwise, organizations need to trust that people who made it through a university education actually do know how to learn. The current focus on TRAINING is in fact condescending to most individuals with a modiocre degree of cognitive competence.

    All of this, however, doesn’t deal with the basic question about learning in groups, or teams, in complex organizations spread across various locations. I wrote about that today,




  5. Rachel

    I came across your blog through the eLearning Technology website and I really enjoy the way that you explain things. I too agree that social learning is the wave of the future and that a lot of training will need to go into being a leader of this type of learning environment.


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