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Mar 2017

Does social learning have a future?

Blog posts

James Cory-Wright

James Cory-Wright

Head of Learning Design at Kineo

"If you gave me a fresh carnation

I would only crush its tender petals."

                                             (Lyrics to "Carnation" by The Jam)

When's social learning at its best?

That's the problem with so-called "social learning" - If you over-engineer it - you kill it.

Social works wonderfully well when it’s evolved, undirected, and voluntary. By the people for the people. Whether or not that can be, or needs to be, categorised as "learning", is a moot point.

As soon as trainers, L&D, management, get involved and try to play the trendy vicar, social is dead in the water.

Or maybe not…

It depends on where you're coming from. Certainly, one client of ours won't have died wondering! We caught up with him recently to talk about his social learning experience. The client was eloquent and passionate as he outlined his truly impressive attempt to give social its best shot. As well as the social platform we're developing, he's involved an agency in branding the site as a memorable go-to character.

The best analogy for social learning I've heard is it's like a party – you can book the venue, supply the food, invite people and even have them all turn up – but you just need everyone to be in the right mood, to bring a little bit of magic, for it to turn into a good party. And our client is savvy and sanguine enough to acknowledge that, despite his best efforts, he could not bet on its success. In what appears to be a recurrent theme these days, he recognised that the success of his social learning project would be down to the will of the people. If any foray into social deserves to succeed, it's this one.

And yet, what if…

You can understand why everyone gets excited about "social" as the way to deliver the majority of training/learning in the workplace; not least from many a business' points of view, because it's deemed a low-cost solution.

But money aside - from the L&D person's perspective, it's about tapping into how most people like to learn i.e. "socially". And going forward, if we remove the obstacles, including the corporate will to control, then social can arguably sit as comfortably in the 70% of the 70/20/10 rule of thumb (where 70% is the hands-on experience of learning on the job, 20% learning from others and 10% is formal instruction). Of course, that's down to technology that enables people to share socially 'in the moment' and reflectively, remotely and globally.

Calling it "learning" is the biggest obstacle to learning

Perhaps it would help if we no longer call it "learning" as there's not much need for that anymore. Given the wealth of information available to us and the speed and channels through which that can be sent and received. Let's either call it performance support or stick to learning but recognise that by that we mean performance support! Semantics.

Relinquish control

Forget trying to control it – instead enable it! For social to succeed, from a content point of view, it has to be genuine, necessary and useful. One of its greatest strengths is that social has the capacity to filter, - to act as its own gatekeeper. That may be less true outside the workplace where trolls, post truth and "fake news" do lurk. But mercifully in the workplace, content will only exist when it's useful, relevant and honest or else it has no meaning.   

Learning as problem-solving

Stack Overflow is the embodiment of social learning in the digital age. Described on the internet as the largest online community for programmers, over 6.5 million of them, come together to "share their knowledge", to learn from each other in the modern sense of the word as in getting answers and solutions to problems; problems that are self-defined and resolved at the point of need. Learning as performance support.

Stack Overflow has other great ingredients. It not only self-generates its own content, it's also its own gatekeeper. It has a ranking system called a Reputation Score that you gain by solving problems and being helpful. Also hard earned Gold, Silver and Bronze badges and all manner of other nuanced badges including "Tumbleweed", "Mortarboard" and "Not a robot".

And unlike many forums, all the threads are saved and can be searched on. Isn't that what we mean by "learning content"? The Adapt community is another fantastic example of social learning in a contemporary sense of the word i.e. technology enabled.

But the absolute key to it and the key to achieving any kind of social learning is to recognise what's the fuel that drives the engine.    

Kindness and kudos

For L&D pros trying to crack the cypher of social learning; again we should look to the 6.5 million self-proclaimed nerd-heroes of Stack Overflow. What motivates them to devote the time and energy and know-how that make their social learning site such a success?

It's the human nature, the kindness of wanting to help each other. It's the pride in what you know and being able to help your fellow man/woman. It might be vanity. By all accounts, some people on Stack Overflow are quite snooty as they dispense their wisdom from a great height. But we're none of us perfect. And then for some, it can be about the competitiveness of wanting to be top dog and the kudos of being recognised by your peers. In other words, it's kind of a lot like life! So no need for gamification, this is the game.


I'm sure the debate will continue, the gyre will continue to turn. However as long as we chatter about it (like this post!), "social" will remain the Emperor's New Clothes and the cause of a certain amount of anxiety as in "Shouldn't we be doing something about social?”. But actually, once the talking stops, technology-enabled social in the workplace will start regardless, or simply continue to grow depending on where your organisation is at. Now isn't that what we call a win-win?

To find out more about social learning in the workplace and how to tap into its potential, download your copy of our social learning guide.

James Cory-Wright

James Cory-Wright

Head of Learning Design at Kineo

James has over 25 years' experience of instructional design and video scriptwriting. He heads up our team of learning designers and consultants, overseeing learning content design across all client projects. James has a reputation for creativity and innovation in elearning, having worked on numerous successful projects and regularly attends industry events, presenting our latest thoughts.