Social learning can empower teams to not only learn better, but more collaboratively by taking ownership of their learning journey. Here's what we learned by implementing a social learning strategy with a huge global workforce.
People are used to going on courses. They're used to experts, trainers and senior people standing at the front of the room and talking. This is the image people have in their mind when you talk about learning/training.
We’ve all spent thousands of hours in classrooms, doodling and yawning, so we all know what learning looks like – don’t we?
When the Foreign Office’s Diplomatic Academy decided to launch its new foundation level, we decided to try to stimulate learning groups across 200+ locations in a global workforce of 14,500 people.
No trainers, no formal courses, no experts on planes. We wanted teams to organise the face-to-face element for themselves, based around the e-learning, online materials and guidance.
Here are seven things we learnt about social learning - some of them the hard way.
Make it good, basic and incomplete
You’re not delivering this learning, you’re providing the means for others to deliver it. You’re supplying the bricks and the scaffolding, but they’re building the house.
An example: we gave our embassies a template for running a workshop on understanding parliament. It included slides, graphics, videos, links and a quiz - but we also built deliberate gaps into the design.
We asked embassies to find a local member of staff to lead a discussion on the local parliament, and to find a colleague who’d worked with MPs to talk about what they learnt. We asked them to connect their workshop to a forthcoming visit by a UK parliamentarian.
You’re supplying the bricks and the scaffolding, but they’re building the house.
In the jargon, we encouraged 'co-creation' – or to put it another way, we gave them the flatpack from IKEA, not the ready-made desk.
After some initial nervousness (one typical refrain was, “but we’re not trainers”), this worked really well. Keeping it basic meant it wasn’t too intimidating, and keeping it incomplete allowed it to be adapted to local priorities.
The power of guidance
Before their confidence builds, teams will value all the hints, tips, templates, suggestions and examples of best practice you can give them.
Invest in a really clear and attractive format for this guidance. Paradoxically, the clearer the guidance, the more confident they will feel in moving beyond it.
We were worried about too much hand-holding at the beginning, but we shouldn’t have; people are very happy to ignore your advice, but they want it to be there, especially if they’re fitting this new thing around very busy jobs. On the IKEA analogy, your guidance is the crucial Allen key.
Cherish the champions
When it comes to champions, you know the sort of people you're looking for - they're the people who organise the social events, the leaving cards, the charity events, the cake sales. Without them a team is much poorer.
There’s a type of person with the enthusiasm to set up and maintain a learning group – probably a lifelong learner, the sort of person who can start an online course and get beyond week one – and these are the champions you need.
Where someone had been told to be the L&D champion by their ambassador, it didn’t really work.
We have a global network of L&D champions, but we realised the job title isn’t enough.
Where someone had been told to be the L&D champion by their ambassador, it didn’t really work – but where they volunteered, or where someone simply picked up the role without the job title, they were unstoppable, and a superb source of honest feedback.
Don’t rely on grade, position, anything like that; search out the best champions, and invest in them with awards, special conferences and all the 'thank yous' you can muster.
Block the lurking lecturers
Some people seized rather too enthusiastically on the idea of 'self-facilitated workshops' to grab the role of lecturer for themselves.
One well-meaning facilitator reported that our workshop timing could be much shorter, as he’d “scrapped the group discussion bits – they didn’t seem to add much value” and “cracked through” the material in half the time.
Do everything you can to promote the idea of a shared experience, especially through design. People who share are great, people who dominate are not.
Offer glamour and biscuits
Even the best social learning initiative won’t sell itself. Use every trick in the book to create publicity, stimulate curiosity, and make sure people can get something out of it for themselves.
We created an awards ceremony for learning groups and invited Prince William to present the prizes.
We created a City & Guilds Diploma for those who wanted a qualification (our minister asked us to make the certificate even more impressive – he’d obviously got the point).
If all else fails, offer biscuits.
We also encouraged ambassadors to open and attend learning groups. Not all of our ambassadors are glamorous, possibly, but all of them are leaders, and the role modelling benefit is obvious.
If all else fails, offer biscuits.
You’ll need special arrangements
Some groups will be disadvantaged by an approach which relies on local teams sparking into life.
Two groups stood out for us: those staff who needed to work through the whole of foundation in a year to pass the diploma as part of their eligibility for promotion; and staff in small posts, where it was genuinely more difficult to gain the critical mass needed for a learning group.
For our promotion candidates, spread across multiple teams in London, we established an 'accelerated' learning group with a dedicated facilitator.
For more isolated staff, we’ve found it more difficult. We’ve encouraged experiments with 'virtual' groups, but the truth is we haven’t got the perfect working solution yet.
Social learning: part of the solution
Look at what your leaders worry about, then look at how social learning can be the answer to your leaders’ prayers.
For instance, our leaders are often concerned about the disjointedness of their embassy team. There are so many barriers and differences: people from different government departments working in different offices, physical security restrictions, the mix of local staff and diplomats.
There are language, hierarchy and cultural differences. In a small team it’s essential that people know and understand each other.
Regular learning groups offer the chance for people from different sections to mingle. Teams can take the lead on their own subjects.
When we surveyed our leaders, a high number reported a positive impact from foundation level, and 78% of those cited an 'improved culture of learning' – even more than those citing 'improved knowledge and skills'.
Regular learning groups offer the chance for people from different sections to mingle.
Those are just seven of the things we learnt. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we built foundation level on a grand theoretical analysis - it was a pragmatic response to a broad learning need in a very diverse and global organisation.
We were influenced by the success of learning sets and active L&D committees - and by earlier experiments with helping L&D champions to become local facilitators - but it’s fair to say that Kurt Lewin, Albert Bandura, Lev Vygotsky and others were overlooked in our initial discussions (although not Reg Revans).
There is a future article to be written about the relevance of social constructivism, peer and social learning theories and cooperative or base group learning.
For the moment, however, we’re happy that the team in Mogadishu managed to get through much of foundation level in the garden without disturbance from incoming mortars. Even the close protection guys got involved. Now that’s social learning.
Interested in this topic? Read Activate & amplify: Making social learning work.