Social learning is not a new training trend

Article written for e-Learning Age magazine, November 2011

With the emergence of new social media tools, the word “Social” is being prefixed to old words to form new terms like “Social Business” and “Social Media Marketing”, and of course we now see the increasing use of the term “Social Learning”.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this term. Firstly, it conflicts with the existing term “social learning” which refers to all learning that happens socially with others – both social-media-powered and not. Secondly it is often erroneously used to imply that this is a new training trend – that this is something else that needs to be added to the “blend”, and which requires a new set of learning tools and platforms.

But discussion around the meaning of the term is actually missing the more significant fact – that the use of social media in organisations is already bringing about a fundamental shift in the way that people are working and learning.

It is clear that a huge number of people who have been using social media for personal purposes and are now using the very same tools to address their organisational performance problems – usually because enterprise systems just don’t provide them with the functionality they need. Forrester estimated this was around 47% business users in early 2011 and was likely to rise to 60% by then end of the year.

There are two key areas where this is happening and how it is having an impact on organisational learning.

  1. Extensive use of public social media sites like YouTube, Slideshare, Blogger, Wikipedia, etc, means that workers are now using these types of tool to support the creation, co-creation and sharing of content within their own work teams.
  2. Extensive use of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc means that workers are using these and similar tools to build networks of trusted colleagues (both internally and externally).

Although some organisations have yet to grasp the value of social and collaborative approaches, others are tapping into the growing phenomenon of sharing and the desire for social networking, and are actively encouraging these practices within their organisations, recognising that by doing so they can now support organisational learning in much wider and more relevant ways.

Indeed, many are realising that this user-driven approach is also impacting the traditional view of formal learning; firstly that the desire for quick and easy access to short pieces of content in different formats means that the existing course format is often not the most useful or valid solution to a business or performance problem, and secondly that many people now want to have a more participative role in formal learning, where they can share thoughts, ideas and experiences with other participants.

Although it is clear there are now many social-media-savvy people in organisations,  there are still many others who haven’t yet recognised the value of the new social tools  – whether through lack of exposure or for other reasons like fear of the unknown. So adopting social approaches in organisations needs to be handled very carefully.  It certainly does not sit well with most organisations’ traditional “command and control” mentalities.  In other words it’s not about implementing an internal social platform, forcing people to use it, and monitoring their social activity to ensure they do. Trying to do this will only annoy those who are already gaining huge value from their own social media tools and activities, and those who are not familiar with social approaches will be very uncomfortable and reluctant to be forced to do so, too.

A new approach  will need to build on what is already happening in the organisation, and encouraging those new to these social approaches to become involved, supporting these new activities as they grow, as well as developing the new literacy skills to help them get most out of the experience.

A new approach will also embrace both the use of external social media tools as well as internal collaboration tools, in order to support far wider approaches to learning than has hitherto been the case.  Indeed as learning and working become much more closely integrated, “learning” will not be seen as a separate activity requiring separate, dedicated learning systems or platforms, but will become embedded within normal workflow collaboration systems.

A new approach will also mean that L&D will broaden its role from one that is focused on traditional “training” to one that helps people work and learn smarter in many new and varied ways.