Blogger’s Note: This social learning post was a team effort. My thanks to my co-bloggers for this entry: Amy Scherer, Maegan Schmidt, and Danielle McKay.

Have you ever wished your subject matter expert (SME) could share their knowledge with your learners?
I’m guessing you have.

But you probably found out—after asking your SME to turn his/her knowledge into training—those “rapid” development tools were tricky to use, and your SME…wasn’t a professional trainer.

It’s not your SMEs’ fault, really. Most SMEs aren’t trainers. So, how can SMEs share their knowledge? Further, how can SMEs share their knowledge with all your learners exactly when those people need it?

Enter social learning. Let me give you an example.

A Fredrickson Instructional Designer (ID) recently had trouble with a glitch in a rapid development tool—I was writing this post while it happened, actually. So, he went onto Fredrickson’s internal social media tool, Yammer, and posted his question about the glitch. For two days, our Yammer was awash with tips from Fredrickson people. And our ID received help—right when he needed it. This is the power of social learning.

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Jane Hart is a social learning expert from the UK. Her website is one of the most visited learning sites on the web: the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies. I attended Jane Hart’s social learning presentation, put on by the Professional Association for Computer Trainers (PACT). And Amy Scherer, Danielle McKay, and Maegan Schmidt, learning experts, attended her all-day social learning workshop (also put on by PACT). The four of us pooled our notes and created this post.

Just using social media at work doesn’t mean you’re taking part in social learning, Jane says. It’s about how you use social media (there are aspects of social learning that don’t involve social media, but, for time/length, we won’t go into detail here).

So, how does social learning actually work?

Learners work autonomously, and simply share—largely via social media—any new knowledge they find, or any questions they have, with coworkers. This offers several advantages to you and to the learner.

What does social learning bring to the workplace?

  • Your learners will be more effective (along with your L&D department). According to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, learners remember just over 50% of what they learn after 20 minutes, and that number decreases to about 20% after 3-6 days. Through social learning, the learner has access to information in the moment, and an almost immediate response to any questions.
  • Any knowledge posted is automatically saved, for as long as you want it to be (and, if posts are labeled, that knowledge is categorized too). I’ve heard L&D managers wishing they could capture the knowledge of soon-to-be retirees…. Think of how useful all this searchable info could be in the future. Heck, get all your soon-to-be retirees involved now!
  • You’ll more fluidly involve participants who don’t share a physical location into conversations and knowledge-sharing—reaching your entire staff.
  • In social learning, your people create their own learning experience. They decide when to ask questions or answer them, and they decide when to expand their knowledge on certain topics. This takes some pressure off you, the L&D manager, to push your latest course through. And you’ll still have an important role (which I’ll explain in #2 below).
  • And, again, your SME—who isn’t a trainer—doesn’t have to try and be one. The SME can just share their sweet knowledge in your social media tool—without having to form it into “training.”

“Yah…. Great,” you are thinking, “but how can I get there?” I’m glad you asked.

5 things you need to cultivate social learning in your workplace:

  • You need to have a social media tool, which your employees can access, and use freely, during work (and outside of work). One great tool is Yammer—which we use internally at Fredrickson (I like it)—but Jane also publishes her Top 100 Tools for Learning each year.
  • Next, you, the L&D manager, must participate. Jane emphasized modeling social behavior and encouraging social sharing without forcing it. (For example, Fredrickson’s own president, Joyce Lasecke, is an avid Yammer user.) Managers can’t expect their workers to demonstrate how knowledge sharing brings value to the team if the manager doesn’t do the same. Further, you can engage with those you think might be “power users” (those employees which use social media more frequently). Sometimes this feels a bit like behind the scenes puppetry, but learners won’t start using the tool if they only see the same people using it all the time.
  • Give your learners autonomy—let go of control. The fear of malicious or incorrect information “getting out there” is a very real fear, but it’s also important to remember that users’ names are attached to their posts, and information can easily be corrected, enhanced, or updated at any time. You may have a vision for how your company’s internal social network should function, but you’ll quickly find that learners will use it in ways you hadn’t imagined. It will also motivate them to learn and share more. See John Wooden’s post: Dan Pink’s “Motivation 3.0” and Social Learning.
  • Reward group efforts. When you’re talking with your learners, it’s a good idea to focus on rewarding group efforts, as opposed to strictly individual ones. Jane explained that this helps diminish over-shares (excess noise) and helps stop knowledge hiding.
  • Work out loud. Working out loud = observable work + narrating your work (an idea coined by Bryce Williams). This means your team should be as open as possible about sharing new insights and resources. There are even tools available to bolster the quality of that shared knowledge: ilos, a Twin Cities-based company, allows learners to record their screen and voice, and share those videos internally; and FlipGrid, a video-sharing startup from former U of MN professors, just received $17m in funding for their new video-sharing tool, Vidku.

“Sounds great!” you think, “But, what about compliance training, or when I need my learners to understand multiple-step processes? I don’t see social learning as the answer to everything.”

You’re right. It may not be effective at training people to learn multi-step processes, and, sometimes, learners just need time to digest information and put it into proper context when the time is most convenient. Social Learning is not the answer to all your learning needs. It isn’t going to replace eLearning or classroom training.

When you think about social learning, think of learning happening at the moment of need, like performance support. When learners have a support issue, they can post the issue on your internal social media, and then get immediate answers. Social learning is like putting all your learners into a constant conversation—you might save an email for later, but you’ll answer a chat message right away. That’s how social learning works.

“OK, I’m interested in social learning. What should I do next?”

Ask someone from Fredrickson what we think of our social learning tool, Yammer. Or, if you’re interested in finding out if social learning is right for you, Fredrickson offers Discovery Jumpstarts: Our learning experts will sit down with you, get an understanding of your content and your business, and let you know if social learning would help. Then, if necessary, we’ll try and connect you with a company we think is a fit—a company which implements internal social media tools.

I hope we—Amy, Danielle, and Maegan, and I—were helpful. Happy social learning.

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One thought on “5 things you need to cultivate social learning in the workplace

  1. Raphael

    Great article, Brian.
    I would be interested in discussing further on the Social learning process you managed to put in place using Yammer. Which kind of ‘communities’ did you create ? How did you enable Business adoption ? Etc.
    Any chance to have a follow-up call ?


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