Why your Enterprise Social Network is your most valuable social learning platform

system-954972_640This is the article I wrote for the January edition of Inside Learning Technologies magazine. 

In the workplace, social learning comes through social collaboration. Social learning is a natural everyday phenomenon; simply put, we learn from our colleagues as we work with them. For this reason the new enterprise social platforms (like Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) that underpin social collaboration are your most valuable social learning platforms. as these platforms are designed to foster collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing among employees.

But an ESN also provides an ideal technological environment to host more formal social learning activities – in this way individuals can learn with and from one another in the very same way (and platform) that they do for working.  Using an ESN brings a number of other significant advantages:

  • It means that your thinking about “learning” is not constrained by a dedicated learning platform that perpetuates the traditional course approach. In other words using an ESN lets you think differently not just about what you do but how you measure the success of your learning initiatives. That is, it helps to think in terms of performance outcomes – i.e. what individuals need to be able to do as a result – rather than on learning outcomes or course completions.
  • It means you can start from a position of thinking about the people in your organisation and how you can encourage connections and engagement between them – rather then focusing on the content.
  • It means that all the knowledge and experiences shared in more structured events are not locked away in a separate learning platform.
  • It means that it’s not just about internal experts telling people what they should do or know, but about peers sharing their thoughts and experiences, and learning from one another.
  • It means that an individual’s personal activity stream will consist of all their subscribed activity streams – from all their formal learning initiatives as well as from their work teams and communities too.
  • It means that conversations can continue more easily after an event, in the workflow, and this supports the transition of learning communities to communities of practice.
  • It means that “learning” is no longer seen as a separate activity from working; and that for the first time it can be truly become a continuous, social experience in the workflow.

But effective social learning won’t just happen by using the new enterprise social technologies, there are some key lessons that can be learned from those who have offered formal social learning.

  • You can’t force people to be social – this mostly results in contrived or faux interactions rather than any genuine social learning. And where it does occur it is often evidence of a compliant – rather than an engaged – group of individuals. Firstly, those who are very familiar with the Social Web don’t like to be forced to “be social” in a way that has been defined for them, and those who are not familiar with the Social Web, don’t like to be forced to use tools they are not comfortable with. Secondly, the whole point about social tools is that they are fundamentally “enabling” tools not “command and control” tools. Hence any organised social learning experience shouldn’t focus on the use of social tools to perpetuate the “command and control” training model, but on enabling a deeper social experience – and to do this it needs to embody the underlying ideas and concepts of the Social Web that people enjoy.
  • You can’t equate social activity with learning – Another reason that people are required to be social in online courses is because it is erroneously believed that social activity equals learning. But this is clearly not the case; in fact it is very dangerous to assume that because someone is socially active they are learning, and that when someone is not socially active they are not learning.
  • Social learning is not something you make others do – So, it’s not about setting up questions for discussion, and then saying “be social!” Someone needs to encourage and support that interaction, and that person needs to know when to intervene and when to hold back. It is not just about managing the interaction but also being part of the social interaction. That person also needs to understand what it is “to be social” and to have experienced “social” in other places, for example on the Social Web, in public social networks as well as online communities.

In other words, social learning is not just a shiny new accessory to add to existing formal learning practices. For genuine social interaction to take place it needs to be relevant, purposeful and appealing in order to stimulate a real desire or need to engage.

I use an ESN (Yammer in fact) to host the online workshops I run. I refer to these as Guided Social Learning Experiences (GSLEs), since they involve providing an experience where both planned and serendipitous learning can take place through the sharing of ideas and knowledge. In other words, GSLEs provide just enough structure, without constraining personal and social learning. Here are my 5 design principles:

(1) Focus on performance outcomes – The GSLE should be focused on meeting performance outcomes rather than fulfilling learning objectives so it is important to start by identifying what individuals need to be able to achieve or do as a result of their participation, and how those performance outcomes might best be assessed, e.g. through a real-world performance assessment, self-, peer- or even manager- evaluation.

(2) Design activities rather than storyboard content – A GSLE should revolve around a series of short activities intended to meet the performance outcomes.  These activities should help participants build competence towards any final performance assessment, as well as encourage conversation, knowledge sharing, or collaboration along the way. Content (both expert and participant generated) should be used to support the activities – rather than be the driving force.

(3) Promote self-governance (autonomy) – Supporting participant autonomy is a key element of a GSLE. Individuals should be able to make their own decisions about participation in the workshop and at the same time take responsibility for those decisions in order to meet performance expectations – rather than be directed to behave in a prescribed way, and have their activities tracked and monitored. Individuals should also be able to choose how and when they carry out the activities.

(4) Guide the learning journey – The task of the Learning Guide in the GSLE involves encouraging and supporting participants rather than forcing or enforcing interactions. It is about being a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”, so the role needs to be taken on by someone who can model the desired social behaviours required, rather than simply instruct participants “to be social”.

(5) Set and manage expectations – The GSLE approach does not seek to replace all other types of learning intervention; like any other approach it has its place, and will suit some people and address some performance problems better than others. For instance it is a useful approach for performance improvement situations that would benefit from an activity-based or problem-based approach to learning about something in a semi-structured way.  Although it is particularly effective with people who have experienced the Social Web and want to have a similar social (learning) experience, it might also be used to kick-start a new mindset that values self-organized learning and performance improvement through knowledge sharing and collaboration within work teams.   Nevertheless, participants who have a traditional view of what a learning intervention looks like – particular if they are used to an instructivist training approach –  will need to be prepared for this new experience; one that is more active, interactive and participative.  And for some managers, there may also be the need to help them to understand the importance of trusting the participants, rather than providing a traditional top-down “authoritative voice” solution.  Managing expectations, all round, will be important to ensure you provide an open, transparent environment in which people can feel safe to share and learn with one another.

Want to find out more, come and join my online workshop, Supporting Social Learning in the Workplace running 29 February – 25 March