Blog Post
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March 15, 2018

Social learning at work: what it is, and how to do it

Leading organizations are creating cultures of continuous learning by providing ways for employees to learn when and how they want to. Here’s why a social learning strategy is good for your workforce, and good for business.


A modern approach to learning is increasingly critical for sustained business success. This means looking beyond structured and traditional corporate training, and instead understanding how people actually learn, both at work and in day-to-day life.

Leading organizations are creating cultures of continuous learning by providing multiple options and approaches for employees, and leveraging technology as part of the process. Employees want to learn on a schedule and in a format that works for them.

Related: How to embed a learning culture within your organization

While there’s a place for formal learning, a large part of practical, effective learning actually happens through informal and non-traditional methods and environments.

According to research findings from several sources, 70% of learning comes from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks and problem solving, and 20% through direct feedback and from observing and working with others. The other 10% comes from traditional, formal training (think classes, courses and reading).

In today’s world of work, social or informal learning is an effective way to address employees’ learning needs. It’s the idea of learning with and from others within the organization, informally and by sharing knowledge. According to the Association for Talent Development, social learning approaches have a 75:1 ROI ratio over web-based training.

There’s also psychological theory around social learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory states that people don’t learn the same way, so learning isn’t one-size-fits-all. Learning comes from observing, imitating and modeling the behaviors of others. In this context, the learner is active, not passive.

Related: Want to retain high performers? Boost loyalty with learning

Social learning can be applied in an organization in a number of ways, including group discussions, panels, coaching and mentoring, or workshops. Here’s how you can implement social learning as part of a culture of continuous learning.

Call on subject matter experts for workshops or how-to videos

There’s critical knowledge hidden within every organization. It may sit with different business units or departments, in documents, or with particular subject matter experts.

This is the type of knowledge employees can’t always get from formal training – they ask about on the job, and directly from individuals who they consider to be experts. But, it’s not reliable, effective or scalable for employees to continue to ask subject matter experts for information the fly.

Learning from SMEs via workshops or video, are ways that organizations can uncover, capture and share this information to the wider organization in a more systematic way.

Facilitate group discussions

There are several ways to facilitate discussion amongst learners, whether in the moment or on an on-going basis.

Lunch and learns or panel discussions are easy ways to assemble groups of learners to hear about a particular topic, and then ask questions and discuss potential challenges, thereby learning from each other and collaborating.

Forums and discussion boards are also hubs for discussion – for example, asking questions related to a particular learning video and encouraging employees to answer and discuss them, or post their own experiences for further learning.

Coaching and mentoring

Coaching and mentoring facilitate self-directed learning, with the employee taking the lead in managing their own learning and skills development. Working with their manager, they set on-going professional and personal goals and determine the support and tools they need to achieve them.

Managers play a key role here in enabling employees to achieve their goals through support, direction and instruction – whether formal or informal.

Coaching and mentoring also promote a performance development culture and boost employee engagement.

Encourage employees to collaborate on projects and initiatives

Social learning is effective because it triggers learning through collaboration. The appeal of social learning to today’s workforce is that it empowers employees to take the lead in their learning, and facilitates opportunities to collaborate with peers.

Social learning also provides a way for employees to collaborate, discuss and share before and after more formal training, expanding the opportunity for retaining what they’ve learned and putting it into action.

Data from a Towards Maturity study found that organizations that used different approaches to learning were four times more likely to respond faster to business change, three times more likely to report improvements in staff motivation, and twice more likely to report improvements in customer satisfaction scores.

Plus, social learning promotes a culture of learning because, as per a point made in FastCompany, you’re asking them to do it themselves, versus simply telling them you want them to learn. Additionally, FastCompany writer Sarah Kessler adds, putting employees into teaching mode brings out their passion and confidence.

Read more about how to integrate learning into the employee lifecycle

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