Social learning: what can your staff teach you?

20 April 2016

Author: Emily Burt


Social learning: What can your staff teach you?

The days of didactic learning are numbered. Staff can connect with each other in an instant and learn without being in a classroom – it’s L&D, but not as we know it

Until recently, developing new skills in the workplace invariably meant an in-house training course, hosted by either an organisational or external expert (and probably featuring a weird ‘trust’ exercise as a warm-up). But today, while a more traditional model still has its place, L&D is undergoing a quiet transformation.
 
In a working landscape where the answer to any question is only a few clicks away, and where you can hold a Skype conversation with an expert on the other side of the world in seconds, the concept of waiting for allotted ‘learning’ slots looks increasingly anachronistic. People are absorbing knowledge in new ways, and social learning – a product of this development, and by some measures the most exciting advance in workplace learning for some time – is rapidly altering how we develop and share knowledge at work.
 
The definition of social learning depends on who you ask, but broadly speaking it is about connecting people to each other (we’re social animals, after all) to find answers to specific questions or meet broader developmental needs. That could mean putting people in contact inside your organisation – recognising the huge expertise you have sitting untapped within your own four walls – or opening their eyes to external information that might help them.
 
“Social learning is the semi-formal layer that surrounds formal learning,” says author and consultant Julian Stodd. “Formal learning occurs in a defined time and place, with a story owned by an organisation. A face-to-face course is formal learning, but a conversation between colleagues about that course is social learning, where the same information is communicated through different channels.”
 
Imagine you’re an L&D professional in an engineering business. A staff member is having trouble operating a specialist piece of machinery. You could call in an expert (which will cost money and delay workflow), or you might find that there is someone inside the organisation who has the answers. And if you can capture what they have to offer and turn it into a wiki, their thoughts will be immediately available to anyone with the same problem in future, and can be added to by others.
 
Perhaps your managers have a problem dealing with difficult reports. You could put them through a formal programme that might help alter their behaviour, but it could take months and might only impact a small number of people. It might be much more effective to source online videos offering role-play scenarios and create a simple, informal course of video study that could be shared internally (or, better still, invite one of your better managers to host a lunchtime talk on the topic and film it for use on your internal social network).
 
The shift away from a top-down model comes partly in response to changing business landscapes. The popularity of flexible working means employees can now go weeks without setting foot on the office floor, and the increasingly youthful workforce is hooked on new technologies. The CIPD’s 2015 Learning and development report showed that L&D professionals anticipate an increased use of user-generated content – learning materials such as blogs and videos, collaborative technologies or even sharing ideas in ‘lunch and learn’ sessions – over the next few years.
 
“Learning does not simply equate to training or education,” says Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies and a prominent social learning blogger and author. “The majority of social learning happens through social collaboration – working with your colleagues in your organisation – and now it is frequently underpinned by social technologies.”
 
The centrality of technology both to business and personal life has played a fundamental role in the growth of social learning. According to the CIPD survey, three-fifths of L&D professionals expect their use of e-learning courses to grow, while more than 30 per cent see their use of virtual classrooms and webinars rising, and a further 25 per cent predict an increase in mobile device-based learning in the near future.
 
But social learning is not synonymous with digital culture, or social media. Instead, technology acts as a facilitator: anyone in possession of a smartphone is now capable of learning at a time and place that suits them. Employers can use the tools available through smart devices to create self-sustaining platforms of learning, and connect workforces spread across industries, working environments and skillsets. Having this connection, and space for collaboration, is crucial to confronting global workforce challenges.
 
“Interaction has always been part of the learning process,” says Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development at the CIPD. “Cavemen and women learned to make fire through social interaction, and children learn largely through social processes. Part of L&D’s role in the future will be to act as a connector, finding communities and plugging into them.”
 
As businesses become increasingly global in their reach, and many companies in southeast Asia continue to rely on skilled foreign and expat workers, organisations are facing new obstacles to bringing together their working communities. “The challenges of connecting global communities are huge, because when you deal with learning in a global sense you’re not just talking about geography but legal, ethical and moral boundaries,” says Stodd. “There are big cultural differences between Singapore and the UK, for example, and organisations must find ways of engaging people despite these differences. Equality is the foundation of any social leadership and social learning: all voices have to be equal and equally heard.”
 
Businesses can be slow to successfully adopt this culture, because social learning thrives on the breakdown of established leadership structures. As the way employees absorb knowledge changes, managers must learn to adapt the way they communicate. “When it comes to social learning, the only leadership is the type a community can afford you,” says Stodd. “To really develop social leadership, organisations must be willing to relinquish control of the conversation. If you enter a social learning space with a formal learning authority, you won’t succeed.”
 
Adopting a leadership role in creating these spaces can be as simple as setting up digital forums where employees can discuss issues and tackle workplace challenges, or encouraging them to take advantage of each others’ specialisations within their sector. This is where social media comes into its own, creating a global classroom where people can share and engage with learning programmes that are relevant and interesting. Organisations such as global professional services company Accenture are proactively engaging with these concepts. The company has ‘connected classrooms’ and uses a digital ‘on the go’ learning platform so that employees can connect and learn anytime, anywhere, through mobile and tablet devices.
 
However, the complexity of social learning means a lot of organisations, particularly at a regional level, are yet to fully engage with its demands. “Social learning is a relatively new concept in Asia,” says Bala Murali, head of Sea Salt Learning’s Singapore branch. “There is interest in the concept, but people require more education before organisations can start introducing it fully.” Once they realise the potential, they may wonder how they ever did things the old way.
 
The future of L&D
The five behaviours the learning professional of tomorrow will need to exhibit – as outlined by the experts
 
1 Social facilitator
If there’s one thing that’s become clear in the age of Google, it’s that no one has all the answers. Even Google itself. L&D professionals are now being asked by employees and managers to help them collaborate with and learn from their peers – to act as curators and facilitators of knowledge and connections, rather than the entirety of the learning experience.
 
Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development at the CIPD, says moving from being a learning creator to a learning curator is the most critical challenge facing practitioners. “L&D needs to loosen its grip on designing learning content, to become a facilitator of learning,” he says.
 
2 Performance analyst
Asking new and unexpected questions is the key to moving beyond the usual answers. “Good consultancy skills, combined with strong questioning skills, can help uncover deep-seated issues that may be masked by other symptoms,” says Krystyna Gadd, founder of How to Accelerate Learning.
 
This type of enquiry might also help learners think differently – perhaps the struggling salesperson needs a confidence boost from coaching rather than yet another stand-and-deliver seminar? – and can help save money and resources by getting people to embrace shorter bursts of learning (such as lunchtime sessions or blogs) rather than immediately opting for a more traditional course.
 
3 Business leader
Three quarters of respondents to the CIPD’s 2015 Learning and development survey say they aren’t sufficiently aligned with the needs of the business. Dive into the reasons behind this mismatch and it becomes clear that L&D professionals aren’t always truly connecting with business strategy, while business leaders don’t always understand the purpose and capability of L&D. As a result, L&D is too often regarded as a function that’s separate from the rest of the organisation. “L&D must be seen as a change agent rather than a cost,” says Gadd. “Only then will we see the business truly partnering with L&D to embed learning.”
 
4 Digital specialist
Having the confidence to understand, recommend, deploy and use new technologies is one of the biggest challenges facing L&D professionals today. Just one quarter of CIPD survey respondents say they feel ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ confident in their ability to harness technology to increase the effectiveness of their interventions. It’s a good idea to ask employees and managers which digital tools they find most useful; how much time they would like to spend on learning; their views on the digital tools used currently; and the technologies they’d like to try.
 
5 Behavioural expert
Cutting-edge insights into how we learn have the ability to transform organisational learning. Nigel Paine, author of The Learning Challenge and former chief learning officer at the BBC, says: “Neuroscience knowledge will become embedded in our behaviour, and we will build learning in ways that encourage retention, behaviour change and neuroplasticity without thinking much about it. And we will look back at the crazy ideas we used to have about learning, such as keeping people sitting in the same room for hours on end.”