First published by People First, on August 13, 2018
Many companies reluctantly spend a lot of money sending employees on training courses that can last for days. During these, employees are unable to complete their daily work, which might distract them, or they are answering emails and miss important information. Often, these formal ways of learning are the only time employees receive training, which not only costs the company money, but also productivity.
Organisational learning objectives require new employees to get up to speed as soon as possible. However, formal learning only makes up about 10% of our preferred way of learning. The other 90% involves exposure to new tasks and learning through experience. This is known as social learning.
Understanding social learning
There has always been social learning in the form of information handed down from generation to generation. But formal teaching has also been practiced throughout history, with students being lectured on certain topics. Research into human history and neuroscience has shown that this formal way of learning is only a small part of how we retain information. All known learning constructs lead back to four theories about the way we learn: behaviourism, cognitivism, experiential and andragogy.
We can look at various concepts and theories of collective and social learning, such as Kolb’s experiential learning, which divides learning into a process of experiences, where learning takes place through reflection on doing. To explain application of the theories in the workplace, we can use Knowles’ andragogy, which relates specifically to adult learners. To explain learning models currently in use and the way they work, Kasl’s, Marsick’s and Dechant’s system model of adult team learning and Jennings’ 70-20-10 framework provide great insights.
Social learning is a combination of learning through behavioural observation, such as watching someone perform a task and repeating it, and the cognitive process of memorising the task. We learn from each other and document our knowledge for generations to come. We learn what works and what does not, so we can refine ways to learn through new theories and practices. Through studies of human history and neuroscience, we have discovered the ways information is passed on to others and what role our brains plays in it.
Social learning is a form of collective learning. Another form of collective learning is collaborative learning, where people work together on a common objective to either find a solution or create something. These could be people with different skills and knowledge to share and help each other develop. Give clear structures to your collaborative learning groups and assess the outcomes achieved.
As businesses review their goals and achievements, it is obvious that formal learning is not enough – people often state that they learn best by ‘doing’.
Some learning and development (L&D) neuroscience best practice implies that self-generated insights, either by observing someone or by doing something, are much more crucial in embedding learning or behavioural change than just providing the information or solution. Helping people to arrive at their own learning triggers more brain activity by creating new pathways and rewarding achievements with the release of dopamine.
According to Rock’s SCARF model, one of the five domains of human social experience is autonomy, which provides a sense of control. It is more effective to let employees have control over their learning and guide and facilitate it, rather than simply presenting them with information. Learning needs to be incorporated into the work and business structure, to be part of everyone’s tasks instead of on top of them. Instead of isolating teams, people need to share their knowledge and experiences, beyond watercooler talks. Casual conversations can lead to information being shared incidentally, even though learning was not the initial aim of the conversation.
Putting social learning into practice
Technology has made it so much easier to share information; however, a lot of knowledge sits either with individual people or departments. Often, knowledge gets lost when employees leave. Using technology to prompt people to share and store information and knowledge helps organisations retain tacit and implicit knowledge. This can be particularly helpful across international companies.
Structured working groups or communities can be set up on chat applications to share updates on specific projects. These groups are great for team learning, whereas informal forums can be used by teams and individuals to share insights and updates about their tasks. Social media groups help to exchange ideas between teams and ask questions on topics relevant only to them. This way feedback can also be given instantly, and learning can be built upon by facilitating Q&A sessions with more experienced staff. Teams can share methods on how they have achieved their goals and invite others to try them too.
Webinars help to connect people in different offices or countries, screen share facilities are useful for sharing visuals, and webcams help to form better relationships with colleagues or peers that one would usually not meet in person. A Learning Management System can be used to store guidance, policies, videos and e-Learning courses that employees and even clients have access to.
Instant feedback on what works and what does not can be captured using survey software, which helps the L&D team to continuously analyse and improve the training offered. In turn, employees can respond quicker to clients’ needs by being able to locate the relevant information when and where they need it. It reduces the need to redesign or restructure training, as there are different options in place that work for everyone.
This lets individuals build personal learning networks and find the best learning method for themselves, others and possibly the company. This builds collective intelligence. All this is part of the 70% experience and 20% exposure to new tasks and environments of Jennings’ 70-20-10 model. So, organised and self-organised learning needs to go hand in hand. Also, knowledge and skills gained through self-managed learning can often be transferred into the personal life and are therefore a big motivator for adult learning.
Most of these activities can be done as micro learning – bite-sized learning tasks employees can build into their working day, without worrying about missing important emails or deadlines when attending hour- or day-long classroom sessions. This helps decrease the learning curve of new employees, as training will be incorporated into what they are already doing.
Implementing social learning spaces in organisations promotes a greater presence of collaboration within the company. Siloed working gets broken down and important information is shared between teams instead of being kept separate. Taking opportunities as they come can decide if a business will become a leader in their industry. Giving employees the space to collaborate helps them to evolve and become better professionals, which in turn helps the company become better in what they are doing.
A new learning culture
Of course, there are always challenges we need to tackle, including the fear of the unknown, or the desire to continue with the way things have always been. People might not want to share their knowledge, holding it as leverage to be the only subject matter expert. We need to show them that sharing information is valuable to everyone.
The end goal is a learning culture where self-directed learning is embraced. This creates respect and nurtures individual performance, so we can all help create an organisation we want to work for. If employees see what is in it for them, they will feel the benefit and will be happier to contribute to the overall company goal.
So, by implementing and facilitating collective and social learning in the workplace, companies can not only save money by not relying on formal training courses for all of their training, they can also help employees learn faster by providing them with learning experiences that are part of their job.
As mentioned in the introduction, about 90% of our preferred way of learning consists of exposure to new tasks and learning through experience. So congratulations! By reading this article, you have now learned how useful facilitating collective and social learning is, what kind of technology is helpful in implementing it in the workplace, and some tips how to do so.