What is social learning?

by Viv Cole on March 13, 2012

Last week I attended #SLCONF , a conference on social learning. Social learning is a zeitgeisty term which is very much in the early stages of the Gartner hype cycle for most organisations. I participated to find out more about what social learning is and what L&D practitioners should be doing about it/ with it.

There does not seem to be commonly accepted definition of social learning. It’s not unusual for definitions of emerging technologies and usages to morph to encompass a few other things that it feels sensible to associate with the core meaning. This process is analogous to the way that estate agents have expanded the territories of West Hampstead and Hove into areas that would be more objectively described as Kilburn and Portslade respectively…

I understand social learning as “making use of social media to enhance learning within a community”. I have deliberately chosen ‘community’ rather than ‘organisation’ as I think it’s helpful to be able to think more broadly, though I know that most of the time people will be thinking in terms of organisations. Social media includes technologies like Linkedin, Twitter, Yammer; a list which is constantly evolving and expanding.

In broad terms the answer “what should L&D do about/ with Social Learning” question seems to depend on whether it’s informal or formal social learning we’re dealing with. For formal learning, social media can be used to enhance/ replace existing activities that happen before, during and after a training or e-learning event. For more info see Tim Drewitt’s slides There is more to social formal learning than the twitter backchannel.

For informal learning, L&D’s ideal role should be to empower people to interact with as little corporate intervention as possible (though it’s really tempting to get stuck in and then foul it up…); so provide enablers e.g. sensible social media usage policies, recommend technologies, and then leave people to it. In practice it will take time for people to become habituated to being contributors and for company leaders to develop the trust that informal social learning is adding value to the business.

Nick Shackleton-Jones at BP has approached the end goal of people sharing video clips about topics that others may find useful by seeding the central repository so that it looks attractively busy. As an analogy is the social media space and empty warehouse that people are intimidated by the choices over what to do, or a farmer’s market where it’s obvious how to get involved. Initially users will only be able to rate content, but over time people and culture are hoped to evolve to the point where people are being more active contributors.

Accenture has neatly rationalised the ideas that social learning has two strands: connecting People to People and People to Content, and that usage can be characterised by a maturity model. If there’s only one thing that I’d be allowed to remember from the day, these slides would be it…and well worth a look for any professional services firm that is grappling with the opportunities and threats that social media offers learning.

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