Sr. Director, Solutions NovoEd
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Social learning: a collaborative approach for the digital age

Social and technological advances are changing the way we work, and it’s now more important than ever before to encourage a collaborative approach to learning, argue Charlie Chung, senior director of business development at NovoEd and Erin Streeter, vice president of learning products at Forrester Learning.

14th Nov 2019
Sr. Director, Solutions NovoEd
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Business people discussing over digital tablet
iStock/xavierarnau

Organisations have been tapping into social learning — that is, learning with and from others — for half a century, but the concept’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past few years in our connected social media driven era. Companies are looking to leverage the flexibility and adaptability that social learning provides as they navigate rapid change and ever-greater complexity.  

More organisations are turning to collaborative learning to accelerate the adoption of new strategic initiatives that require enterprise-wide change.

In a Brandon Hall survey, 73% of respondent companies said they intend to increase their focus on social learning and Forbes reports that social learning is one of the top ten business trends that will drive success.  

It is worth keeping in mind that instructor led training (ILT) is often seen as the gold standard approach to training primarily because it is anchored in social learning, with an instructor and a room of participants interacting authentically. Use of this model is shrinking, however, from one-half to one-third of all business learning, given expanding geographic footprints and increasingly fragmented employee time.

Key factors driving the need for a learning culture

To compete, organisations are embarking on new initiatives like customer experience (CX), digital transformation, and design thinking to enact company-wide change. Despite this, most current learning offerings fail to deliver in these areas, and as a result, employees lack the actionable skills, adaptability, and resilience to successfully execute these strategic initiatives.  

Developing a learning culture can be a strategic lever that helps motivate employees to change behavior. A recent Dow Jones Intelligence study found that 54% of companies with a fully developed learning culture saw major improvements in customer experience, versus just 23% of companies with less fully developed learning cultures. There were similar improvement gaps for revenue growth, agility, and operational efficiency.

Simply put, learning cultures increase the success rates for business transformations. More organisations are turning to collaborative learning to accelerate the adoption of new strategic initiatives that require enterprise-wide change.

Collaboration instead of isolation  

Recent technological advances have made online learning more scalable and efficient. The historical focus of online learning, however, has been on the isolated actions of an individual learner. This emphasis can make learning, a social act by nature, an experience that results in limited engagement and poor outcomes.

As a way to advance beyond this impasse, organisations are looking to online platforms built on social and collaborative paradigms, focused on application and meaningful behavior change. This approach empowers employees to learn together in a deeper, more substantial way.  

Although the technologies are still emerging, we have more options than ever to unleash social learning in our digitally connected age.

What is the tangible benefit of utilising social learning? For starters, it improves the bottom line. “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organisation’s learning culture,” notes Josh Bersin, a leading corporate talent and learning analyst.

Companies that effectively nurture their workforce’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries over an extended period of time, according to Bersin’s research.

Unleashing the power of social learning  

Collaboration has proven to be a crucial element in social learning’s effectiveness. Research by Chuck Eesley, assistant professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, shows that collaboration in online classes significantly improves engagement and course completion. Students who participate in virtual teams are 16 times more likely to complete online courses (32%) than students who worked individually (2%).

Eesley’s research shows that basic interactive features such as discussion boards and messaging are simply not enough to maintain engagement. The benefit of team-based learning comes when students feel part of a community. Team assignments, mentorship, and transparent identity foster accountability, which is a powerful motivator.

Organisations that have implemented this type of social learning through next-generation learning platforms are starting to record impressive results, as measured by completion rates and NPS scores.

Although the technologies are still emerging, we have more options than ever to unleash social learning in our digitally connected age.

The hallmarks of social learning

Characteristics of a vibrant learning culture include frequent interactions and debate between peers, managers, and experts along with ‘safe spaces’ within the learning community where learners can practice, take risks, experiment, get feedback, and even fail.

The result is a tight connection between learning and innovation. Choosing the right collaborative learning platform for your organisation can help embed these practices and processes.  

Social learning amplifies an organisation’s collective knowledge, creates powerful networks that drive lasting growth, and fuels the rapid adaptability that’s essential in today’s business environment. These are powerful pillars on which to build an enduring learning culture.

The five step programme to social learning

Social learning can develop organically, but for organisations that want to prioritise select skill development and to cultivate those skills in a contextual manner, business leaders should guide the process.  

So, how does a forward-looking L&D team implement a culture of social learning that can be applied to all sorts of initiatives? Here are five key steps.

Step one

Redefine what ‘training’ is in your organisation, changing it from being content-focused, to defining the change in behaviors that such training is designed to bring about. Foster a learning culture that can help your organisation face whatever new challenges lie ahead.

Step two

Get buy-in from executive leadership to prioritise resources for learning and to encourage experimentation as a direct result of that learning. This cultural aspect is not just about having more time to ‘take training’, but to actively try doing things in new ways, often as a result of learning experiences that employees have.

Step three

Adopt the goal of developing learning networks in your organisation, which are ways that people interested in learning specific topics are connected to each other. These networks live in parallel with your organisational, geographic, and informal networks, and provide new sources for idea sharing, expert advice, and encourages people to progress in their learning journeys.

Step four

Ensure that there are safe spaces for practice while people are on their learning journeys — where employees feel comfortable experimenting with new concepts and expressing ideas, without fear of judgment, or of ‘looking like an amateur’.

To do so, senior leaders need to explicitly set a tone of experimentation and constant learning. This matches well with innovation and brainstorming, which requires practices where value-based judgments are withheld, from which new ideas can flourish.

Step five

Support the adoption of actual innovations sources from people’s learning journeys. If each learning journey is focused on concrete, applied outcomes, some of these will undoubtedly be ideas that will be helpful for the organisation. This will show that learning leads to real change in the organisation.

Creating the conditions for this requires processes to track outcomes after the learning journey and provides appropriate visibility for good ideas. This will also reinforce the cultural norms of experimentation and innovation within the organisation.

If your organisation hasn’t adopted a social learning approach to your critical training and transformation initiatives, you now may recognise how important this can be in developing a learning culture to help your organisation face the challenges of the future.

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

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