Social Media + Learning = much more than Social Learning

This article was written for the E-Learning Council, and first appeared on 10 October 2011

Although we learn every day, in everything we do, whether it is in what we read,  watch or listen to, or in the conversations and discussions we have with other people, at some time or other people started believing that the only important learning happens in a formal setting, e.g. in a school classroom or a university lecture hall.

Hence in the workplace most Training Departments have tended to focus their efforts on creating and delivering formal courses and workshops – and in the process have pretty much disregarded all the other learning that takes place, continuously and informally, as people do their jobs.

Twenty years ago training revolved around offering face-face-workshops or paper-based training guides, but with the advent of the Web, the E-Era began, and with it the emergence of new terms like E-Commerce and E-Business. The term E-Learning was also coined around 2000 and essentially refers to the automation of the development of (primarily) content-based, online courses, and their delivery and management in (so-called) Learning Management System.  For some organisations the social aspect of formal learning all but disappeared, whereas for others this was e-enabled  through the use of webinar tools.

But now with the emergence of social tools, we have moved into the Social Era, and this time the word “Social” is being prefixed to old words to form new terms like Social Business, Social Media Marketing, etc.   The same has of course happened with Learning, and this had led to the increasing use of the term “Social Learning”.  Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this term.  Firstly, it is often used to refer solely to the use of social media within formal courses, but secondly, and more importantly, it also conflicts with the existing term “social learning” which refers to ALL learning that happens socially with others – i.e. not just that in formal learning contexts – both social-media-powered and not.

But the discussion around the use of the term “Social Learning” actually draws attention away from the more significant point that the use of social media in organisations is bringing about a fundamental shift in the way that people are working and learning in organisations.  In other words, the Social Era is much more about innovation than simply adding “social” into the training blend.

It is clear that a huge number of people who have been using social media for their personal use have now recognised their value for professional use, and are also using the very same tools to address their own organisational problems – mainly because enterprise systems just don’t provide them with the functionality they require to do so. 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, Scribd, Slideshare, Blogger, WordPress, Wikipedia, and so on, that support the creation, sharing and commenting of content, as well as the co-creation of content, means that workers are now using similar approaches in their organisations to co-create and share their own content within their own work teams.
  2. Extensive use of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc where individuals have built a personal network of trusted friends, means that they are using similar approaches to build networks of trusted colleagues (both internally and externally), as well as power team workspaces and internal communities of practice.

Although some organisations (around 20%) still ban use of social media tools internally, others are tapping into this growing phenomenon of sharing as well as 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 recognising 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 their formal learning.  That is, they no longer just want to read (or just comment on) expert-generated content, but they want to be able to co-create content, and make full use of the opportunity to share thoughts, ideas and experiences with other participants.

Although it is clear there are now many social-media-savvy people in organisations – already making significant use of these tools and approaches in their professional lives – there are of course many others who haven’t yet appreciated what social media has to offer them – whether through lack of exposure or lack of understanding of their value, 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.  So it’s not about implementing an internal social platform, forcing people to use it, and measuring 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.

So a new approach will focus on engaging individuals and teams in new social practices, by building on what is already happening in the organisation, and encouraging those new to these approaches to become involved, supporting these new activities as they grow, as well as the new skills that many will need to acquire to get the most out of them.

This new approach will embrace both the use of external social media tools as well as internal tools, but what is clear these tools will need to support –  as well as power – far wider approaches to learning, than has hitherto been the case.  In fact 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 need to be supported and enabled within the normal workflow collaboration systems.

So what do we call all this if “Social Learning” isn’t the right term?  Since it is clearly more than just about using the tools and technologies, “Social Media for Learning” doesn’t adequately sum it up either.  An appropriate term needs to recognise that it is about helping individuals work and learn as they do their jobs. In the Internet Time Alliance we call this “Working Smarter”.  You can find out more here at how L&D can support this in my evolving book: NEW Workplace Learning: A Guide to helping Employees Work Smarter.

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