The Social Learning Revolution

[The substance of this article is also available as an Internet Time Alliance whitepaper in PDF format]

“A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.” (Wikipedia)

How we have traditionally understood “learning” to happen in the workplace

I think you will agree that for a long time now it has been the function of the Training Department to be responsible for “learning” in the workplace.

The prime role of this function (relatively recently renamed as the Learning & Development Department) has been to package-up and organise learning events – both internally or externally – either in the form of face-to-face classes or workshops, or as e-learning courses – or even blended solutions. Training Departments  have also had the responsibility of tracking and managing this “learning” – usually with the help of some form of training or learning management system.

And that is how managers and other parts of the business see the function of training too:  simply to create and deliver courses to solve perceived learning problems – because that is the way they have been conditioned to think about “learning” as Harold Jarche points out.

“Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have gone through a period where training departments have been directed to control organizational learning. It was part of the Taylorist, industrial model that also compartmentalized work and ensured that only managers were allowed to make decisions. In this context, only training professionals were allowed to talk about learning.” 

In most cases this training requires participants to take time out of their daily jobs – often going to a separate place or room. Although more recently learners have been able to sit at their own desks and complete online courses, they have still had to stop what they were working on in order to study the course.

But things are changing …

How we really learn in the workplace

Firstly, it has become clear that most of how we learn to do our jobs happens outside training – in the workplace itself, as we do our jobs.  Some studies state this accounts for around 80% of learning that takes place in the workplace, others even higher.

But let us be clear, the way that we learn here is very different from the way we learn in training.

Whereas (most) training content is structured and follows a logical progression through a body of material, learning in the workplace is unstructured, some even call it “messy”.

For instance, we might learn from reading a document, from viewing a presentation, even from small pieces of random information we overhear,  or by observing activities that our colleagues undertake.

We might learn intentionally (i.e. we set out to find something out) or quite unintentionally. (Here’s a very simple example to explain the difference.  So, if I ask someone “how do I unjam this printer?” and watch as they show me how to do it – that is intentional.  But if I just happen to be standing beside the printer when it jams and I look on as someone else unjams it , that is unintentional.)

Sometimes we might not even be aware that we have learned about something or how to do something, until at some later stage we realise we know about or how to do that very thing.

This type of learning (often termed informal learning) might seem trifling – trivial even – but is actually very important. As one academic study points out

Most people instinctively know that they become competent in their jobs through learning as they perform those jobs … and that through this process they acquire knowledge and skills which are so  entwined with the job, that they are referred to as ‘tacit’.”

And whereas explicit or book knowledge can be easily codified into courses, tacit knowledge cannot.

Furthermore, this type of informal learning happens individually – as people go about their daily tasks – as well as socially – when we are with others.

Social learning is therefore not a new term or training trend, it is something that has been happening since time immemorial – both inside and outside organisations – as we learn with and from others.

So we might learn from others (intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously) by asking questions of our colleagues,  through discussions in meetings, or even in casual conversations by the proverbial watercooler.  And, it is also in social learning that powerful insights to problems often arise that have been generated by the collective wisdom of employees

Up to fairly recently, training departments have not really been interested in informal learning for many reasons:

  • For some, it is irrelevant, since it hasn’t been “delivered” by experts and doesn’t involve studying or memorization.
  • For others it’s too intangible, even invisible.
  • And for yet others, since it can’t be measured or managed in the traditional training ways, they don’t believe it is within their remit to worry about it.

But, once again things are changing .. informal learning is becoming even more potent in the workplace .. and this of course is where social media comes in.

How we are using social media in the workplace

Back in April 2011 Forrester Research estimated that around 47% of business users were “using one or more website(s) to do parts of their jobs that are not sanctioned by their IT department” and expected this number to rise to 60% in 2011. An article in CLO magazine around the same time believed that between 1/3 and 2/3 of employees were meeting their learning and performance needs by working around L&D departments.

My own analysis of the situation, looking at the contributions to my Top 100 Tools activity activity over the past 5 years, shows that this is an increasing trend. Individuals who have used social media in their personal lives now see them as valuable professional tools and are using them in many different ways – both for working and learning purposes.

  • for continuous personal and professional learning/development
  • for professional networking
  • for knowledge sharing
  • for collaborative working
  • for productivity and performance improvement

It is also clear that many individuals recognise the need to learn continuously in their jobs. Although they acknowledge that training and self-directed study has a valuable part to play in this, they also realise that formal approaches alone cannot possibly provide them with everything they need to know, nor do they have time to learn in traditional ways which take them out of the workflow. Rather they need to have on going  access to a range of sources – both content and people – to acquire new knowledge and skills,  both individually and socially – and it is here that social media are providing them with the vital tools to do this.

For instance, they make heavy use of Google to search the Social Web for solutions to their problems rather than use the internal LMS to find courses – preferring to solve their problems by accessing quick and simple resources on sites like YouTube, Slideshare and Wikipedia. In other words they make significant use of resources that have been created and freely shared  by others –but  which frequently  prove to be valuable performance support  materials for them. And in the same way they are also happy to share what they know –  using the very same social tools.

They rely on a trusted network of colleagues that they have built in public social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, as well as in private online communities.  And they interact with these colleagues in many different ways, e.g. to ask and answer questions, to share and receive ideas, resources and experiences, to solve problems and brainstorm together, to keep up to date with what their colleagues are doing and thinking, to learn from them in many different ways – sometimes even without even realising it!

They also keep themselves up to date with what is happening in their industry or profession through blog and news feeds as well as aggregated and curated content from their peers, and constantly review their productivity in order to find better ways to do their jobs using new social media tools.

To summarise then, many individuals and teams now realise they have the tools to more quickly and more easily solve their own learning and performance problems, without leaving the workflow – since a solution is often just one-click away in their browser.

How are organisations using social media

Although some still ban access to public social media tools in the workplace, more and more organisations now appreciate the power of social media.  Many have seen its value for marketing and promotion of their business to their customers (e.g. by using Facebook pages or Twitter), and are now realising it has an important part to play internally for employee collaboration and engagement.

Some of these organisations are now implementing their own internal social and collaboration platforms – either by upgrading their intranets into social intranets, or by adding extra social functionality onto their existing systems, using tools like Yammer, Smartforce, Chatter, Jive and so forth.

Social tools are therefore changing not only the way that professionals are working and learning but also the way that organisations are transforming into social businesses. In the new connected workplace, current training, e-learning or blended learning services, which take a top-down, ”command and control” approach to organising and managing “learning” will not be appropriate to support these new ways of working and learning. What will be required is a completely new range of services – which we might call non-training services – that are focused on supporting continuous performance improvement and learning in the workflow as people do their jobs.

The Workplace Development Services (WDS) framework has therefore been developed to help organisations understand the range of new services and activities that will be required, as well as the tools and platforms to power these activities, and the new skills and mindset involved.


The Workforce Development Services (WSD) Framework comprises 4 key service areas.  However there is likely to be a high level of overlap in the activities provided by the different service areas.

1 – Training/Instructional Services

This service area will continue to design, deliver and manage training, e-learning and/or blended learning events. However the amount of this type of intervention is likely to reduce over time as other forms of learning are seen to be more effective.  Training and e-learning activities will likely include more informal and social approaches. They will also become more embedded in the workflow, e.g. learning communities will often be seen as an extension of a group’s existing online activities.

2 – Performance Support Services

This service area will focus on providing access to, and supporting an individual’s use of a range of resources (content and people) for performance improvement.  Activities will include creating (top-down) resources like job aids, e.g. by re-purposing courseware, but will also involve supporting the creation of employee-generated content, as well the individual’s own use of tools, content and networks on the Social Web, and the sharing of useful external resources through content aggregation and  content curation techniques.

3 – Social Collaboration Services

These (non-training) services will focus on supporting collaborative working and the building of internal networks, communities and collaboration spaces.  These will become key elements of building and supporting the collaborative culture of a social business – where informal, social learning is its bloodstream.

Activities will include helping to set up online group and community spaces, developing new collaboration and community skills by modelling new behaviours – since you can’t train people to be social –  as well as encouraging workers to “connect and collaborate” and engage in new collaborative work practices, so that there is a  symbiotic relationship between collaborative working and learning.

4 – Performance Consulting Services

This service will focus on finding the best solution to a learning or performance problem, which may well be a training/instructional solution but is more likely to be a performance support or social collaboration solution.  These services will focus on identifying the root cause of performance problems and proposing appropriate solutions through e.g. through workflow audits. This service area  will therefore serve as the main entry point in the Framework. In other words, instead of managers coming with requests for courses, they would come with requests for help with performance problems.


Although authoring tools and Learning Management Systems have gone “social” – i.e. by adding the functionality for social interactions within courses, like blogging, discussion forums and real-time activity streams, instructional tools won’t be the right tools for the new activities within the performance support and social collaboration service areas. These will involve the use of a wide range of other tools, particularly ones that are in use, in the workflow for everyday working activities.

The C4LPT Directory lists over 2,000 tools for learning and performance:


Supporting new ways of working and learning will require a wider skillset than is currently the case. It won’t just be about instructional design or LMS administration, but will require performance consulting skills, business skills, social media skills, collaboration skills and community management leadership skills.  However, since the Framework comprises  4 distinct service areas, this means there is still room for specialization, and at the same time a team approach will mean that all areas of work can benefit from those with the new skills.

The Social Learning Centre offers a range of online programmes, workshops, webinars and other resources to help new Workplace Development professionals acquire these new skills:


A key aspect of this Framework is that it requires a new mindset. This means recognising it is no longer just about using traditional “command and control” approaches (that are employed in most training solutions to try and force people to learn), but will also involve encouraging and supporting people to engage in new collaborative activities to support one another as they work  by helping them to “connect and collaborate”.  Success will also be measured in terms of performance outcomes not in terms of “bums on seats”, test or online course completions.