Are You A Practitioner of “Social Learning”?

I just had a lovely call with a Learning leader for a global 100,000+ people company about getting started with social learning. They had some very good questions. I thought I would share my thoughts on them as it was a really enjoyable conversation.

1) Why is there so little about the How of social learning? Everything is about the Why.

It’s true. There are books, articles and many conference presentations about why you should support social learning in the workplace. But there is little available to explain how. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, the why needed to be the focus for many years. No one was listening. The early proponents of workplace social learning, collaboration and  the technology that can support it, had to work hard. The most prominent are those who I owe my career trajectory to – such as the ITA (Harold, Jane, Clark, Charles, and Jay) and Dan Pontefract. Others have taken up the why piece, including many technology vendors. This leaves a problematic situation. Too many are “practitioners” of the why, not the how.

Second, few people have had careers as practitioners of social learning. I’m very lucky to be one of those people (along with Mark, Helen, and Michelle). But even then, I don’t really call it social learning. It’s collaboration support, connecting, community management, innovation ideation, design thinking, or whatever makes sense to those I work with. Simply put, I help people collaborate and learn together. I enjoy theory, but I love the challenge of doing. You need to enjoy working in the grey and have thick skin to like doing this work.

2) Why are there no stories of companies doing social learning well? What companies are known for great social learning?

This highlights one of the most common misconceptions of social learning in the workplace. Heard of Facebook, Google, Dropbox, even Microsoft? How about the thousands of small remote-only companies? They do it, but most would not even call it social learning. They have business-outcome-focused collaboration, information sharing, or “working together”. It’s just not called social learning and isn’t owned by L&D necessarily.

Stories on LinkedIn, HBR, Forbes/Inc etc. about social learning tend to be hyperbole. Every big company has good and bad. Most legacy enterprises practice social learning to different extents. But it’s in pockets with certain groups and people. It’s just not a enterprise-wide part of the culture. This what I worked with at Kellogg’s.

And that’s OK because – honestly – it’s unlikely to be enterprise-wide. Support who wants to be supported. Work with those who are open to new ideas. You likely work in a small team. Social learning support actually helps you target high value internal clients and get success stories quickly. Some ideas will work, others will not. You just need to be flexible and ready to iterate.

And remember, no employer branding poster ever says next to a smiling headshot: “[Company Name] is a great place for learning socially”. Seriously – social learning support is not Leadership Development with Harvard Profs in VR. It’s practical, quick, and incredibly valuable. But it’s not a big shiny thing.

If you want help getting started with the practical side of social learning (or collaboration support, or your term of choice) in the workplace, get in touch.


Also published on Medium.

3 Replies to “Are You A Practitioner of “Social Learning”?”

  1. Thanks for the mention as a social learning practitioner James. I think there are lots of people encouraging, enabling, supporting social learning (or whatever other label it has – knowledge sharing, collaboration and the like). The field of community management (as in communities of practice rather than communities for purpose of brand development and marketing) is an example where practitioners are to be found and is a good source of ‘how’ case studies. In the Learning & Development field not many people work out loud publicly and if more did we would have a richer set of case studies to draw on, helping us to collectively improve our practice. Social learning about social learning.

    I agree with the approach of working in pockets where people are open to new ideas and you can create interest in a social approach to address business opportunities and challenges. My experience at Coca-Cola Amatil was that being a role model and advocate for social learning was essential in generating and discovering the pockets of interest.

    Thank you for your support as an industry colleague and fellow social learner over recent years.

    1. Thanks Michelle. You are very right about the lack of sharing. I find many in this field tend to be introverts pushing their boundaries. Sharing further is hard…as I said you need to have thick skin because very rarely do you have everyone lined up in support!

      Work with the pockets, find real solutions. That’s the best you can do. We get caught up in the “I want to change the whole organization” need. Leave that to the big vendors and their failed projects 😀

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