Creating an Effective Social Learning System

The rise of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, wikis) has enabled us to easily reach out, connect and communicate with friends and acquaintances everywhere. We share aspects of our lives and seek advice on questions such as: “where can I go for…”, “who knows about…”, “where is the best deal on…” When Millennials come to work, they expect similar tools to network with their business colleagues.

Companies that provide these capabilities are seeing impressive results from the workplace learning enabled by these knowledge sharing tools. Suddenly “social learning”, developing knowledge, skills and attitudes while interacting with others in real-time or offline, has become a most popular buzzword in the learning and development (L&D) community.

Formal versus Informal Learning

Learning has always had formal and informal components. Formal learning offers courses, classrooms or workshops. It is official, scheduled, follows a curriculum and may result in diplomas or certificates. You don’t sign up for informal learning and there is no graduation, since learning never ends. Examples are: shadowing, trial-and-error, asking questions, reading a book or participating in an online group.

There is a growing realization that informal learning predominates1, 2. In leadership development for example, only 10% of learning is delivered by formal methods. Relationships, mentoring and networks account for another 20%. The remaining 70% is provided by challenging work assignments and on-the-job experience.

KM Processes for Social Learning

A KM team can help a L&D group jumpstart a social learning practice. Knowledge managers have pioneered effective learning and knowledge transfer processes and tools such as online communities, peer assists, expertise locators, wikis and virtual collaboration for many years. They also know about getting results by reinforcing knowledge-sharing behaviors.

A community of practice (CoP) is probably the best example of a social learning system. A well-designed CoP supports a question and answer process so that members can share and learn from each other. Answered questions and real-time events are valuable resources for employees just joining the group. Member profiles provide another way to find and connect with colleagues for a deeper conversation. When coupled with other captured knowledge collected by the community (e.g., standard practices, job aids, work processes), a CoP can act as both a performance support system (accessing knowledge while doing work) and a learning tool (adding new lessons as members gain new insights).

Social technology is clearly an important enabler. However effective knowledge transfer processes and reinforced seeking and sharing behaviors are also critical ingredients to deliver a learning experience that creates a competitive performance advantage for your organization.

  1. Jay Cross,
  2. Lombardo, M. M., Eichinger, R. W. (2000). The Career Architect Development Planner. 3rd Ed., Lominger Ltd

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