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Social Learning Defined

February 19, 2009

Social Learning Defined

It’s become apparent to me in recent weeks that many professionals in the learning industry still don’t know quite what to make of social learning.  In other blog posts, I’ve written about social learning models, how to make a case for social learning, even how to rethink your role as a learning professional, but I haven’t really defined social learning as a base level.  So here goes:

“Social learning is about learning through your interactions with others and through the knowledge and expertise of others.”

Simple right?  Yeah, sort of like chess.  Describe it in less than five minutes and then spend a lifetime mastering it.  The big difficulty in the definition is not the complexity of the concept — it’s something nearly everyone seems to grasp intuitively, largely because this how most people learn most of what they know.  But as with chess, the hard part is not the definition, it’s the execution and and mastery of the diverse strategies and moves that manifest from the simplicity of the model.

In my experience to date, most learning professionals are still figuring out the basics.  They know the term; they understand the meaning of the words, but they haven’t thought through the implications and strategies.  The common thought is “we’ll add discussions, wikis, and blogs to what we already do…”  Or “we’ll add social networking to our leadership program.”  These are fine ideas and are certainly worth pursuing, but they do not represent a complete strategy.  This is really just one tactic — let’s call it “socializing our existing formal learning models.”  

While this “socializing formal learning” approach provides a lot of immediate value, the organization and the training group is still largely in control of the message and the topics of discourse.  Learners might have an opportunity to participate and share, but it’s participation and sharing around subject areas that the organization identifies.  This is the equivalent of going to a cocktail party where you can join in conversations all night long, provided you never introduce your own topics or try to change topics.

A crucial part of social learning to enable learners to start their own conversations on topics that they think are relevant.  Further we need to enable them to start these conversations with each other and with the management team.  Within the a “socializing formal learning” model, the majority of the expertise and knowledge flows down from the “top” of the org to the “bottom.”  This generally represents significant short-term cost to the org — an investment that is made in the hope of a longer term gain that is manifested in improved organizational performance, efficiency, risk avoidance and the like.  What’s interesting is that the org rarely asks for a “like” return.  In other words, what the org “gets” for it’s investment of expertise is improved business metrics.  Why shouldn’t the org also see a return of expertise?

In other words, why not reverse the top-down expertise model and set-up an environment where employees share their expertise and knowledge from the bottom-up?  Too often, orgs are so busy worrying about whether their formal content is accurate and approved and blessed etc… to notice that they are missing out on a massive amount of “informal” information flow and “in the trenches” expertise.

What do I mean?  Take the package delivery business — DHL, UPS, FedEx.  These companies require a ton of formal training both for regulatory compliance and to ensure good customer service.  Typical top-down expertise and knowledge sharing.  So here is the question:  how much expertise and knowledge flows back up-stream from drivers, delivery guys, warehouse workers, freight handlers at airports?  Imagine the insights a delivery guy or girl could share about client satisfaction, competitive threats, volume, new opportunities…   Imagine the info that drivers could share about road conditions, routes, gas prices…  You get the idea.  Massive amounts of untapped knowledge and expertise to which the average training group is compeltely oblivious.  Btw, I am not singling out the package business — you can do this same exercise with virtually any company and any business model.  Take Cisco as an example.  Totally different business model, yet they have transformed their business by tapping employee expertise.  Ditto for Best Buy.

So isn’t this too a kind of social learning?  It sure fits our definition: “”Social learning is about learning through your interactions with others and through the knowledge and expertise of others.”  But how many learning professionals are thinking like this?  How many of them view this sort of exchange as part of their mandate?  How many are just going to cede this part of their job to IT departments because they never thought to think this big?

And what about the idea of learner-to-learner support?  Isn’t social learning also about sharing experience and expertise with peers?  It’s great if we connect learners and let them share expertise around our formal courses and curriculum, but isn’t it even more powerful to connect them on topics for which there is not formal learning?  It seems to me that this would be the biggest bang for our buck.  Ace Hardware has this nailed as does Intel.  And if we broaden our scope and look “outside” of our employees, we can see this sort of peer-to-peer learning everywhere:  MSDN, Ford SyncMyRide, technical support forums too numerous to mention.  If major companies like Ford can rely on consumers supporting, training, and assisting each other, why can’t we do this inside our companies?   This is yet another kind of social learning, but like the bottoms-up model, it does not seem to have hit the radar of most learning professionals.

I really believe strongly that learning professionals need to rethink their mandate and scope of responsibilities and quick.  IT departments are treating the bottoms-up and peer-to-peer exchanges as purely an IT issue related to communication, not as yet another dimension of learning and employee development.  We need to start inserting ourselves into these domains before we’re shut out completely and find ourselves  on the outside, watching IT change the nature of employee training and development with no input from us.  To do this though, we first need to recognize and embrace the idea that social learning is not just about socializing our formal learning models, but also about turning these models on their head to pull expertise from our “learners” and to connect learners so they can share expertise with each other.  Until we do this, we’re going to continue nibbling at the appetizers of a five course gourmet meal that we may not get to eat.

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