But how does this apply to the workplace?
spoke to Patrick Phillips, learning and development manager at Konica Minolta, where social learning is actively encouraged.
He told HRD
that rather than being binary options, formal and social learning methods should be used to complement one another.
“You can’t really have one without the other,” he said. “Individuals are transient – this influences the ways in which they learn.”
He added that employees are not “just the person who presents themselves at work”; they are defined by their experiences.
“Employees will naturally learn new skills through socialising at work and outside of work too, but this doesn’t discount the need for formal learning – the two methods complement one another.”
Phillips said that it’s important for employers to have strategies in place for both learning techniques.
Phillips advised HR to utilise stakeholders with common causes and passions in order to rally support for a social learning program.
“Often, support comes from other functions, such as the legal or the IT department,” he said.
“It’s also helpful to utilise trial groups to prove that there has been a high return from collaboration, as well as the importance of putting this into action in order to capture knowledge from a range of sources.”
At Konica Minolta, technical experts that go out to service hardware and software, utilise newly acquired skills and knowledge, acquired anecdotally through peers and on externally forums.
“These stories are not only shared by face-to-face contact,” Phillips told HRD
“Often, experiences that we haven’t encountered before … reach our office through experiences shared on our collaboration tool – so our staff can learn from someone based [elsewhere].”
Phillips added that showing stakeholders that the business benefit of using collaborative learning by explaining that it was, in essence, a core component of learning strategy and therefore could be formalised in small ways. Thus combining informal & formal learning, into one coherent strategy.
“By definition they’re different, but having a group out there that’s learning through sharing their experiences allows you to present the similar outcomes of social and formal learning,” he said.
“Individuals are transient, and whether you want your people to engage in informal or formal learning, your organisation should have a strategy to encompass the whole person rather than just little parts of it.”
Things to be wary of
Phillips warned that there may be a perception within an organisation that social learning is “a fad that will pass”.
“There might be a perception that it’s not applicable to your workforce, or that social learning is a little ‘fluffy’ – so HR needs to have a strategy to overcome this,” he told HRD
“It’s important to gauge the learning maturity of the stakeholders involved; you can then build an awareness of the tools, websites and sources of information people will be – and already are – using. Can you put a system in place to direct them to more ‘reputable’ sources of information?”
According to Phillips, another thing to be wary of is the process of choosing which sources to use.
“L&D professionals have an obligation to provide guidance and critically evaluate information sources – but there’s a bit of a risk that too much of this can be detrimental to social learning,” he said.
Advice for HR
“There needs to be little bit of guidance, and it’s important to ensure that you aren’t just adding additional content to the learning initiatives you already have in place,” said Phillips.
“You want the program to be specific to the needs of your workforce, and easily shared around.
“When devising a strategy, you have to check that employees will know specifically where to go and have metadata to provide information that is on point, relevant and reputable, rather than additional noise to my day.”
Phillips added that some managers may struggle with preventing the blurring of social and formal learning.
“When people discuss their individual development and involve social learning tools – inside and outside of work – managers need to ensure they are being flexible to allow conversations to take place and allow talent to flourish.
“These won’t necessarily be part of formal training programs – but this often makes the leader’s job easier. Often when you put people in a room together who don’t usually interact, conversations flow out of that.
“These tend to be shut down and moved back to the content specified by the program. But managers must remember that these conversations might add value to the learning program – sometimes even more so than the content being delivered.”
Phillips advised HR to keep the purpose of what people are there for in mind.
“In order to allow social learning to work, leaders must understand that what participants are going to learn might be outside the objectives of a specific course,” he said.
He told HRD
that another important aspect of social learning is that participants must steer it to suit themselves.
“It’s on the individual to be self-directive,” he said.
“However, I think there’s a role to be played with formal check-points to be able to assist participants in getting the best out of social learning.”
Social learning at Konica Minolta
“Within these learning environments, we utilise those spontaneous conversations and ensure our people collaborate – and that they can identify when they use these informal techniques,” Phillips told HRD
“We offer employees lunch time sessions where they can learn about a range of topics, which are internally and externally delivered. We also strongly advocate the use of social tools such as Twitter.”
Konica Minolta also has a collaborative tool incorporated into its employee intranet.
“We already use the intranet for collaborative learning purposes, but we are looking to increase the uptake of that,” Phillips said.
“We still have a bit of work to do in terms of educating our management team to provide coaching and guidance in identifying critical sources of information.
“To me, one of the most important things L&D can achieve is ensuring that people know not what to think, but how to think. They must also have the ability to critically analyse sources for people to use in their personal and work lives.”
He added that people in educational roles will already have some of that skillset.
Phillips reiterated that social learning should be used in conjunction with formal learning programs.
“If you single out one over the other, you’ll be missing out on a fantastic opportunity,” he advised.
“Remember to tap into employees’ motivations in order to get action from the material you’re delivering.”
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Albert Bandura’s social learning theory suggests that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context, and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction.