Notes on social learning in business

We just finished a month-long workshop at the Social Learning Centre which involved over 50 participants from many countries. The workshop was on social learning in business, and followed on from previous ones like the PKM workshop on individual, informal learning, and the Training to Performance Support workshop on tools that can often replace instruction. This was my last in a series that Jane Hart and I have done over the past year. Jane is conducting an April workshop on enterprise community management and sign-up ends this week. Jane and I also have a Summer Camp scheduled as our final joint offering, and it will cover a wide variety of topics, to be announced prior to starting in June.

The core themes in this workshop were around social aspects of learning at work: narrating our work for others; communities of practice & understanding networks. Social learning can happen in both formal instruction and informally. Many of the structures and systems that can support informal learning can also help social learning. While not interchangeable terms, they can often apply to the same activity. For example, when I learn informally in a social network, it is social learning as well. However, reading a book alone may be informal, but not social. As Albert Bandura wrote; “most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” This is most often outside of formal instructional activities.

People learn socially at work, which is why organizational design is so important. We automatically ask those close to us for help, but they may not be the best people to ask. Social enterprise tools can help expand our social learning networks. Understanding that social learning is natural, we should look at ways to support and enhance it.

Training and instruction are all about control, with curricula, sanctioned learning objectives, and performance criteria. This works when the field of study is knowable. But fewer fields remain completely knowable, if they ever were. Many institutions and professions have been built on the premise that knowledge can be transferred in some kind of controlled process. If you question that premise, you threaten people’s jobs, status, and sense of worth. This is why you see some violent reactions to the notion of informal and social learning having validity within organizations.

A major difference between communities of practice and work teams is that the former are voluntary. People want to join communities of practice. People feel affinity for their communities of practice. You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice. If the groups are mandated by management, they are work teams, or project teams etc., but not communities of practice.

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.” — Etienne Wenger

For those who want to promote social learning in the workplace, start by modelling good networked learning skills. Be the example and wait for opportunities. For instance, narrate your work for others to see. Consider the Buddhist proverb; “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Be ready to appear once their eyes are open.

sitting buddhaBecoming comfortable with narrating your work takes time, practice and feedback. When I have worked with companies, it has taken several months for people to get comfortable with working and learning out loud. It also takes modelling of new behaviours, a gentle hand to guide, and once in a while, a bit of cajoling. I have not figured out a way to do this quickly, or without allowing time for practice and reflection. I don’t think it’s possible. That is often the problem with enterprise social software implementations. Once the initial training is over, management thinks all problems have been solved. Getting to social takes time.

4 thoughts on “Notes on social learning in business”

  1. Great article. I like the way you address informal and social learning and complementary ideas. Also, I agree that the adoption of social learning technology is somewhat an issue with many businesses, but it is gaining in popularity.

    There are social learning management systems like TOPYX that have award winning social learning and community-building tools available for businesses of any size because there are no per user fees. For social learning to work, everyone has to be involved.

    Businesses will more likely be quicker to move as they see the ROI involved.


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