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.