Social Learning doesn’t mean what you think it does!

A few days ago my Internet Time Alliance colleague, Harold Jarche, shared this article, written by Deb Lavoy, with me: Social Business Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does, Neither Does Enterprise 2.0.  The first few paragraphs say it all!

“Social Business” is not about technology, or about “corporate culture.” It is a socio-political historical shift that is bigger, broader and much more fascinating.

A new perspective is changing how we think about society, politics, interpersonal relationships, science, government and business. New approaches are emerging. Learning and self-expression are exploding. Values are changing. Leadership is changing. The economy is changing. Change itself is changing — it is accelerating and becoming the norm.”

The changes we are seeing in Workplace Learning are of course just one part of the changes we are seeing in businesses as whole. Simply replace the word “business” in the quote above with the word “learning” and it still makes sense. So, for instance the first paragraph would now read:

“Social Learning ” is not about technology, or about “corporate culture”. It is a socio-political historical shift that is bigger, broader and much more fascinating.”

In other words those who think “social learning” is just about a new training trend, or about adding social media into the  “blend”, or that it is about acquiring the latest Social Learning Management System are missing the big picture.

Harold Jarche makes this point succinctly himself in Social Learning: the freedom to act and cooperate with others

“One current theme in the workplace and education circles is to “blend” social with the formal and structured. But social learning is not a bolted-on component of our formal educational and training programs. It is a sea change. It will disrupt institutions built upon the technology of  the printing press – all communication enterprises, including education. Yes, we have always learned and worked socially, but we have never had the power of ridiculously easy group-forming or almost zero-cost duplication of our words and images.”

So to paraphrase the title of Deb Lavoy’s article – “Social Learning doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

So what is the “big picture”?  Deb puts her finger on it in the third paragraph of her article:

“Business structures founded on command and control, automation and process are giving way to structures that are less hierarchical and more dynamic, designed to engage people’s hearts and minds to make a difference in the world. ”

This is, of course, a fundamental change in how businesses operate – and consequently means a fundamental change in how we need to view workplace learning.  So in order to stay in tune with the new ways of working and learning, how does the L&D function need to change? The clue is in the paragraph above.  It needs to move from a “Command and Control” approach to one that I call “Encourage and Engage”.

So what does this “Encourage and Engage” approach look like?

During the summer I wrote a series of postings highlighting 8 features how Smart Workers are working and learning today.  For each of these features, I’ve now compared the “Command and Control” response with the new  “Encourage & Engage” response to highlight the different approaches. I’ve summarized them here below, but if you want more detail you can follow the links to the complete articles.

1 – The Smart Worker : recognises that she learns continuously as she does her job

Command and Control Encourage & Engage
  • Any learning outside training is not of any significance of interest to us.
  • Learning only takes place in a classroom or in a course delivered from our LMS, where we monitor and track it.
  • We value informal learning and want to support people learn continuously – in the workflow.
  • We make our (non-compliance) courses available on the intranet for people to use as they wish. We use lite tracking to ascertain useful resources.

2 – The Smart Worker wants immediate access to solutions to his performance problems

Command and Control Encourage & Engage
  • Performance problems can only be solved by training solutions.
  • The only valid solutions are those created/delivered by L&D
  • We ban access to social media resources – just to make sure.
  • We have to provide comprehensive solutions to a problem; there are no shortcuts.
  • We have to provide instructionally-designed solutions
  • We create more performance aids (in diff formats: PDfs, screencasts, etc) than courses
  • We are interested in good information design
  • We realise we can’t create everything people need and don’t want to reinvent the wheel – so we help people find useful, trustworthy resources on the Social Web

3 – The Smart Worker is happy to share what she knows

Command and Control Encourage & Engage
  • The only valid solutions to performance problems are those created/delivered by L&D
  • We can’t let people create content, it might include incorrect information
  • We need to make sure the content is of the highest quality.
  • People might abuse the system
  • Everything needs to be instructionally designed.
  • We can’t possibly create everything people need to do their jobs.
  • We know that people prefer “usable” content rather than “sophisticated” content
  • Let’s tap into this growing phenomenon of sharing
  • We will help/provide the. platform to enable/support this.
  • Content is moderated by the group – not us.

4 – The Smart Worker relies on a trusted network of friends and colleagues

Command & Control Encourage & Engage
  • Public social networking sites have no value, they are time-wasters, so are banned
  • We are about creating content not enabling conversations
  • We will set up an internal social network so that we can track all the discussions that take place and make sure people are contributing the right stuff & learning from it.
  • We will help people to build external Personal Knowledge Networks on social networking sites.
  • We will help groups and teams set up internal group  spaces so that they can support one another

5 – The Smart Worker learns best with and from others

Command & Control Encourage & Engage
  • We will add “social” to the blend.
  • We will implement a social LMS where we can ensure everyone contributes and make sure everyone is learning on courses.
  • Trainers (only) can create social learning communities.
  • We cannot force/enforce social; we can only help to provide a framework for conversations and discussions to take place
  • Social learning doesn’t just take place in formal courses, so we encourage anyone to set up informal online social learning communities (eg on our collaboration platform) eg to share their expertise.
  • We encourage informal (reverse) mentoring as a way of exchanging knowledge and skills.

6 – The Smart Worker keeps up to date with what is happening in his profession and industry

Command & Control Encourage & Engage
  • Only CPD programmes are valid.
  • We will allow people to attend one professional conference a year.  We may pay for industry magazines.
  • All internal communications will come from us; we need to ensure the information is correct.
  • We will help people with their Personal Knowledge Management: to find blogs and other resources, as well as set up filters to deal with information overload, etc
  • We encourage the curation of content for dissemination
  • We encourage sharing of knowledge in other ways.

7  -The Smart Worker: constantly strives to improve her productivity

Command and Control Encourage & Engage
  • Only enterprise network systems, tools and devices are to be used.
  • We train people how to use these systems effectively and efficiently.
  • We encourage the use of personal tools and devices
  • We help with workflow audits to identify new tools and devices that will aid productivity
  • When faced with a perceived “training problem” we take a performance consulting approach.

8 – The Smart Worker thrives on autonomy

Command & Control Encourage & Engage
  • No way! We can’t let people be in charge of their own learning; how do we know they are learning the right things
  • People need to be trained to do their jobs, and we need to keep track of it to make sure it is happening
  • Learning is a means to an end. The end is performance.
  • What is important is whether can they do their job – or can they do it better.
  • If they are self-reliant, we should just let them get on with it and help them if/when they need it.
  • We need to help others to become more self-reliant too.

Although a number of forward-thinking organisations have already shifted away from a command and control approach, it goes without saying that many others will resist making changes to long-held views of doing things.  But if you and your organisation are ready to make the move, then one way to start  is to work through each of these features, and build a Plan of Action (as I help organisations to do in my Workshop).

Clearly, one of the important questions that people  have about this new approach to Workplace Learning, is how do you measure employee “learning” as well as L&D’s involvement? So I’ll talk about that in my next post.

UPDATE: Presentation slides available in the third posting.

9 thoughts on “Social Learning doesn’t mean what you think it does!

  1. Brad Patterson

    Fascinating read, and yes it feels as if there is a big wave of social change in the midst, just as the past 30 years have seen a “flattening of the world”, it seems followed by a wave of “flattening of social hierarchy”.

    I wonder how quickly larger organizations will embrace the “qualitative” approaches you’ve mentioned here and in the next post. I have my doubts. I do think it’s probably happening much faster in the education realm than in the business realm, especially in non-public settings where the clients have more direct input on the learning environment.

  2. David Lindenberg

    Excellent post. In reading through the 8 features, my organization (healthcare in the US) definitely falls more in the Command & Control group. How do you allow learners to be more autonomous with their learning when so much of it is regulated and required/tracked by various external and internal entities? If requirement x isn’t met by all nurses, then entity A levels some type of penalty against the hospital. And it may be a very important requirement that directly affects patient care. This is a hard beast to manage. On to Part 2 of your article.

    1. Anonymous

      David – I think the diagram in Pt 2 will answer your question. In some jobs there is more opportunity//room for autonomy than others – I think it is important to find that part and support autonomy there – at least the learners can feel there have some control over their own learning then (if they want it, that is!)

  3. Matthew Baughman

    I think for (perhaps younger?) workers today, the C & C column is an oft encountered source of frustration, while the column on the right offers employees the autonomy and trust we so often crave in our work places. Tech. Natives grow up empowered to learn and publish what, when, and where they want to-therefore are less willing to “keep their heads down” and remain silent. Many will decide to work somewhere in which there is more autonomy and trust than the C & C column offers. However, for those of us stuck in a C & C environment-how to go about effecting change in a way that will not endanger one’s own position/security? Are these mutually exclusive (making change and maintaining security) in C & C organizations?


    It’s striking to me how much of that command and control logic (a logic of maximum performance) still dominates e-learning ID. We’re trying to incorporate agile methods in course design at SPSU, in part to allow for a more meaningful shift toward “encourage & engage” models of learning.

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