Although social learning is nothing new, the term does seem to have taken on a life of its own recently. Social media has had much to do with this but it still does not explain the increased interest and use of this way of learning. Is it just another Learning and Development fad or something that is here to stay?
Fact: human beings have learned socially from the beginning of time. As a social species we seek naturally the company of others, their views, opinions, wisdom and, in so doing, we learn and develop. So what has changed?
The impact of technology
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the increasing use and recognition of social learning, and the development of technology-enabled communications. Back in the 1980s, when people needed specific information or advice they would probably pick up the phone or pop in to a colleague’s office, and by the 1990s they used email instead.
Today, they have a vast array of sources from which to choose, such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Learnist, Pinterest, blogs, wikis, communities of practice and crowd-sourcing (electronic brainstorming). Someone once said that social networks are like technology-enhanced cocktail parties, in that they stimulate people’s awareness and knowledge, create or enhance capabilities, and reinforce behaviours and beliefs!
It’s all to do with speed
Communicating in a digital age is characterised by speed, the speed at which information flows combined with its immediacy. This is what distinguishes social learning today from that which has gone before. The social learning tools that we have at our disposal allow us to do the same things we have done previously, only better, faster and cheaper. It is in these tools that the true value of social learning lies.
It’s not just to do with information though. Information is only as good as its source and, when it is consistently reliable, those who provide such information will become accepted as subject matter experts, whose knowledge, views and opinions are held in high regard. By accessing sources of social learning, people not only have the opportunity to gain expert insights but also to expose themselves to ideas and viewpoints they would not normally encounter.
Personal learning networks
Social learning involves making contacts, most of whom people would never have got to know if it wasn’t for social media. Even if these special contacts are only ‘met’ in the virtual social space, for many they become their personal learning network (PLN). Just think about how powerful a PLN could become in the context of language learning for companies.
Formal training actually accounts for quite a small proportion of our learning. A lot of our learning is social, through formal and informal interactions with our colleagues. It doesn’t matter whether this learning is planned or unintentional, what does matter is that social learning is recognised and encouraged right across the company.
The technologies that are used to assist social learning are really just secondary and are deployed best when they serve to bring people together to collaborate, to share information and insights, and, in so doing, to learn.
No, social learning is not one of Learning and Development’s latest fads, it is here to stay and, in the process, is already transforming a large number of organisations in terms of outcomes, competitiveness and employee-satisfaction.