What Is Social Learning (and How Can You Foster It in Your Workplace)?

Social learning might sound like the practice of getting updates on your friends’ lives by scrolling through your social media feeds, but not quite. Social learning is actually when you learn by interacting with your peers.

It’s basically the opposite of formal academic training and lectures. Social learning is the exchange of knowledge and ideas that happens in relaxed, informal settings, like one-on-one meetings or chats over coffee.

Since educating employees is such a high priority for many companies (and can be a great staff retention tool), many make significant investments in tools like learning management software, a market that brings in $2 billion USD annually in the USA.

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But when you consider that corporate education experts have found that up to 90 percent of workplace learning happens informally, you might want to pause before buying an expensive software program. (Or, if your budget is slimmer, you may want an alternative to expensive learning platforms.)

First, consider how your staff members can learn most effectively. With new hires, do you hand them an employee manual, or do you have them shadow an experienced member of your team? If you wouldn’t consider putting a new hire to work without training with a veteran employee, you already understand the value of social learning.

But employing social learning doesn’t mean forgoing formal training and education sessions. Instead, you can use it to supplement these efforts or integrate it into the curriculum. When people read a manual or listen to a lecture, they might retain some of the information presented, but many people truly learn only when they are actively engaged.

Here are some ideas for how to incorporate social learning into your educational and training programs:

  • Turn your presentations and lectures into conversations.
    Encourage employees to ask questions and engage with you and their fellow employees to foster a deeper understanding of the material.
  • Make webinars a group activity.
    Webinars are often solitary affairs. But if you have a smaller team, consider having them watch an online webinar and then use a discussion afterwards to debrief.
  • Buddy up.
    Match up your employees by skills or experience and encourage them to meet for regular coffee chats.
  • Exchange ideas.
    Why not learn from other businesses? Think about hosting a roundtable or networking night with your employees and those from neighboring businesses on best practices for success and growth.
  • Think about technology.
    There are a lot of tools that can aid social learning. There are platforms built specifically for it. But you can also use other types of technology to encourage it. For example, if you use a messaging tool like Slack, you can set up channels where employees might pose questions for a group to work through or share their success so others can learn from it.

There’s no question that social learning is effective. It’s also attractive to companies seeking to enact proven methods of employee education. But, as with any other teaching tool, companies must evaluate social learning strategies before choosing one that meets the needs of both the organisation and its employees.

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