We describe social learning—in the context of organizations using digital platforms—as learning that strategically deploys learner-learner relationships to drive effectiveness of learning acquisition, performance shift and application or behavior in practice.
We’ve known for a long time the theories of how we inherently learn socially. People are naturally drawn to the ‘More Knowledgeable Other’ and use the power of storytelling, sense-checking and shared decision making to validate their learning.
We now find ourselves at an exciting moment in time where technology encourages us to facilitate social learning in a way that doesn’t jar or feel forced to the user. Digital learning can move away from simply operating efficiently to operating both efficiently and effectively, creating learning that is at once far more powerful than anything we’ve delivered before.
5 Opportunities to Integrate Social Learning Strategies Into Digital Learning
So where have we seen the most important success stories? We believe these are some of the key opportunities of deploying social learning strategies into a learning program:
- ‘In It Together’ – Building a Support Network
- Driving Creativity and Innovation with Shared Sense-Making
- Application of Learning
- Context of Practice and Localization
- Ownership and Engagement
1. ‘In It Together’ – Building a Support Network
A tool we have used for many years within face-to-face and live group learning is the Action Learning Set. Learners in small teams are given individual or group challenges, supporting the application of their learning into practiced and learned behaviors. Undertaking the set group challenge itself is clearly important, but it is the power of the sustained group connection over time, the support, and the demand from each member of the group for collaborative engagement, that can sustain the learning far beyond the original task.
Digital social networks have similarly enabled continued group work, and group support, beyond digital learning events. And once again it is very often the aspect of peer-to-peer support that provides the most surprising results.
In a flagship blended leadership program for the UK Healthcare industry, we saw completion results of 95%+, from learners who were required to come home after long work days and complete many further hours of learning in their free time. Post-course surveys and interviews revealed that the key driver for this continued engagement was not necessarily the content itself (though this was greatly praised by learners) but the need to deliver their share of the group work, support their colleagues and ensure that they were not the ones that would hold their colleagues back.
The feeling of ‘being in it together’ kept learners going, while the chance to share experiences, knowledge, question and validate reassured them they were on the right track.
2. Driving Creativity and Innovation With Shared Sense-Making
With the power of a group, storytelling from different perspectives blend together to create powerful, well-rounded shared knowledge. Individuals can describe the problem to each other, understand how it impacts everyone, and share insights from different perspectives. When it comes to problem solving, the sum truly becomes greater than the parts.
This fits in well with our blended learning models. A good example of this is the work done in the UK Financial Services sector by our partners Eukleia (which specializes in Governance, Risk and Compliance training). Eukleia has seen social interaction used to great effect when it comes to training on how to apply a new regulation called the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SMCR).
Key decision makers from different areas of a business came together to understand the scope and application of a series of regulations. The ability to ask questions, explore grey areas and challenge colleagues helped develop a consistent company-wide stance and approach to conduct standards and new procedures.
HR, Compliance and Legal all had their priorities and concerns fed into the final decision-making process. Each department left with a stronger, more rounded knowledge of the tasks that lay ahead. Without this collective approach, it’s possible each department would only apply the aspect of the regulations that applied to them directly, without the awareness of how it could impact other areas of the business.
3. Application of Learning
When we design and implement social learning strategies, we naturally move the learning from the theoretical to practical application.
A good example is coaching managers on how to have a difficult conversation. You may see if someone has understood the concepts by testing their knowledge, but it’s not until they’ve tried to apply these concepts to a real-life scenario that learning is reinforced.
So if you have a small cohort who has taken the training on how to have a difficult conversation, their first step is to go away and put it into practice. The next step is for them to reflect and discuss their findings amongst their cohort—learning from their own actions and from each others’ experiences at the same time.
Designing with social strategies in play not only presents the opportunity to integrate the application of learning into your learning program, it encourages it.
4. Context of Practice and Localization
Localization, and contextual relevance for learners is a challenge for all centralized learning teams. Balancing the consistent, global message with local messages can be a key logistical challenge when distributing learning to a global network.
Cultural differences, business practices, rules, and regulations will vary across a global network. Recognizing and responding to the fact that local audiences often experience a different view of the world is part of making sure the learning lands appropriately.
Social learning offers a great solution to this. Learners own experiences are—and become—the shared localized context. Learners effectively become the feet on the ground.
What this means in practice is that if nurtured correctly the central training and messaging doesn’t necessarily have to be fully tailored for each region. For example, training on how to charge an electric vehicle will have multiple and subtle variations for each region in a global network, based on variances in charging networks and technologies. These factors all feed into varied customer experiences and buying objections.
Creating and encouraging localized discussion as part of the learning journey, allows learners to reflect on how the central message applies to them, but also to reflect on their own regional experience and how they deal with their customers.
This may happen naturally, but if it’s an essential message, it can be scaffolded into the learning design (‘Talk to your manager about changing regulations in your territory. How do they affect your customer’s attitudes to moving to Electric Vehicles? Where have you seen success in tackling these issues?‘).
Localized context of application changes the dynamic of the distribution of information. It adds bottom-up feedback to the top-down messaging.
5. Ownership and Engagement
Finally, by encouraging learners to shape and create their own content, you encourage ownership, and by proxy, greater engagement. The view that is shared means something to the individual, but it is now part of the content journey their colleagues are part of.
The engagement pyramid started life as a marketing model that focused on how people built engagement levels with brands, particularly on social media platforms. It would start with initial brand awareness and incrementally build from liking posts or reviewing products, through to commenting, sharing, and eventually becoming a brand advocate.
The principles of building learner engagement through social tasks mirror this. The further you can move people up the pyramid, the more engaged they become. By scaffolding tasks into the learning design, you promote engagement and buy-in to the core of the learning itself.