Activate & amplify: Making social learning work

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Social learning can have a positive impact on business performance by offering employees continuous learning opportunities. It's time for more organisations to embrace the changes it can bring. 

Despite the title, learning and development professionals do not need to make social learning work in an organisation, because it already works.

Whenever somebody taps a colleague on the shoulder to ask “how do I do (X) around here” or whenever they visit, call or email a local ‘expert’ for assistance, this is social learning in practice.

Despite the fact that it's already going on, there is a hugely impactful and exciting role for L&D to activate and amplify social learning experiences that can potentially support every employee, every day, whilst sharing and building capability, in the direction the organisation requires to achieve its strategic goals.

Our primitive ancestors knew that it was important to understand the terrain they occupied and that their success (if not survival) would rest on those who ‘knew’ and knew ‘how’ teaching and mentoring those who ‘did not yet know’ or ‘needed to get better’. This is the very essence of evolution: becoming transformed by our efforts to respond to the demands of the environment.

However, since the end of the industrial age of predictable (often manual) work, L&D have become distracted by attempts to ‘scale’ traditional solutions and obsessed with classroom ‘learning’.

Far too often, trainers who have little experience in a given subject - and who do not understand the complexities of the environment - deliver courses that pull together everything that delegates should know in order to ‘change behaviour’.

In classrooms, workers congregate to absorb far too much information than they could possibly retain before being told: 'if you take two or three things away from these three days it has been worthwhile...”

Is that really a demonstration that it has been worthwhile or is it an abundant misuse of company resources?

Until now, L&D’s digital response has been to increase the scale and reach of the classroom with eLearning - an even more hopeful guess at what workers actually need but without the distraction of discussion, challenge and real practice.

Social learning and efficacy

The opportunity with social learning is to take us back to what we know works, which is helping people to succeed within a given context based upon their pressing concerns and what has been tried and tested by others more expert - and even more successful - than them in the organisation.

Why is this important? We have spent years trying to retrofit ROI onto ‘training’ initiatives when, in actuality, there was no return. The only thing we could measure with any real certainty was attendance, completion, assessment and satisfaction.

For greater impact, and with the help of the right technology tools, social learning can be embedded into the work itself, when workers face the challenges they seek to overcome, in the primary learning context, which is the job itself.

It can then be measured to what extent L&D’s efforts are helping people to do their jobs and preparing them to overcome challenges, as and when they arise.

This is about people, the work they do, the aspirations they hold.

All of this can (and should) be achieved in a format that supports the working lives of people today - on-demand and on-the-go. Supporting employees in their moment-of-need can help to influence performance in line with organisational and cultural expectations, in a way that ‘courses’ have aspired to do since work became more complex and unpredictable,

This is not all about technology, however. This is about people, the work they do, the aspirations they hold, and access to the knowledge and know-how that will have a positive impact upon business performance.

Technology has just enabled this conversation to happen because business performance and employee capability had largely been tackled in ‘courses’ (online and offline) until now.

Mobile devices and rapid learning creation tools put the technology at our fingertips to create Social Learning experiences that can have you create valuable resources in minutes and plug actual performance gaps the same day.

How do you make this work?

One way to do this is to identify a business priority. The bigger the better. Then, find people who have the knowledge and know-how that others will need in order to achieve the organisation's strategic goals.

An example may be around digital transformation. Many organisations are aiming to grow their digital offering, so by talking with those in pockets of the business who have the required expertise can help you to understand it yourself.

Find out from local experts:

  • What the expertise is that they have.
  • Why others should know about this.
  • When others would or should apply this.
  • The type of person or role this is applicable to.

Then think about what sharing this would look like. Ask them:

  • If there is any pre-requisite experience or understanding that is required?
  • Is it a skill, theory or a strategy - or a mix?
  • How this can all be broken up in different difficulty levels (for example: beginner, intermediate, advanced)?

Then plan a journey, comprised of a variety of ‘experiences’ to help the applicable group get from ‘not-knowing’ to ‘knowing’ and then ‘doing’ with the most appropriate approach.

More operational priorities can be tackled by identifying performance gaps holding people back from getting their work done or achieving their potential. This is likely to be in certain groups or at defined levels in the organisation.

An example might be (and often is) at a management layer. Perhaps first line managers are finding the transition to management tricky and, therefore, are not offering the organisation what is required from their management.

Find out the common questions they are asking and look to answer those questions with (and by) more experienced and successful managers throughout the organisation.

New skills for L&D

To activate and amplify local experts, the new skills of L&D are diagnosing actual business priorities, unpacking what ‘experts’ know and do to create (and curate) resources that empower and equip workers to perform.

In building valuable resources, a critical new skill for L&D is likely to be video production. Your ability to scale social learning will lie in your ability to quickly and easily capture knowledge and know-how in a way that engages workers and adds immediate value.

Grab your smartphone, a tripod, a portable light (or ultra lamp) and a lapel mic. Smartphone aside, the others will cost you no more than £200 and you will make that back in multiples.

With the right rapid creation tool, you can build resources in minutes and iterate in real-time.

Workers will go back to the same resources again and again because they are living and breathing.

Share your resources with others on the same day they are built, elicit feedback from employees and make them better and more valuable immediately. Unlike courses, workers will go back to the same resources again and again because they are living and breathing and will improve over time.

You will find that by building resources rather than courses (as Nick Shackleton-Jones first described) gives you the ability to touch everybody, every day - impacting business performance with continuous learning opportunities. This is a far cry from training courses which, realistically, workers will attend perhaps once a year.

So, you make social learning work for you and your business - by activating and amplifying what your ‘experts’ know and do to help your organisation achieve its biggest priorities.

The right technology tools can help you to develop online resources that embed ‘learning’ in the workflow, supporting workers when they need it most. A ‘resources-first’ approach will change the focus and impact of your face-to-face events.

Of course, there is huge value in bringing people together but by providing support (resources) when it is needed (in the workflow) you bring people together to do what they do best and find most valuable: learning from colleagues’ experiences, discussion, debate, challenge and practice.

Social learning supports the performance and growth of workers to succeed in the context of their organisation and the right technology empowers L&D to develop continuous learning opportunities.

Imagine what it would be like to potentially influence everybody’s performance, every day and become integral to how the business operates and grows.

Interested in this topic? Read How social learning impacts the learner experience.

About David James

David James is Learning Strategist with Looop and a seasoned Talent Management, Learning & OD leader with more than 15 years of experience in the field. Until recently, David was Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region. 

Looop is a powerful online learning platform for business that capitalises on how people really want to learn today and is renowned for extraordinary levels of learner engagement.

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