What Is Social Learning (and How To Make It Happen In Your Workplace)?

Colleen Egan, Writer

Society and business are gradually moving away from the view that formal, organised education is the best and only way to learn. One theory that’s being put to use is Social Learning Theory, which supposes that people learn from one another via observation (watching and listening to others), imitation (doing the same) and motivation (understanding the positive outcome of doing so).

The opposite to learning within traditional lecture rooms and training programmes, social learning involves the exchange of knowledge in a relaxed, informal setting where there is no defined outcome or result — it’s learning through interaction. Think chats over coffee, collaborations within Google Drive and employee-created wikis.

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According to Bersin (part of Deloitte), learners retain just 5% of what they hear, and just 10% of what they read. When they become more actively involved in the learning, those percentages significantly increase:

  • About 50% of the material covered through discussion and interaction is retained
  • More than 75% of learning that takes place through on-the-job experience is retained

With social learning, an action is observed or discussed, then remembered and replicated by an individual who feels motivated to do so. Imagine two children playing near one another in the park. One is rewarded by their parent for doing something good. The other child, seeing and overhearing this, performs the same action in front of their parent to get the same reward. It’s easy to imagine how we use social learning when we’re children feeling out the world, but how can it be applied and made useful in the workplace? Firstly, social learning shouldn’t replace formal training and education. It’s more of a supplement that helps people retain information that they may otherwise lose in a less informal and involved environment. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate social learning into your employee training programmes:

  • Turn presentations into conversations.
    Encourage employees to engage with you and their fellow employees to foster a deeper understanding of presentation material.

  • Use the Q&A format.
    By asking your employees to come to meetings armed with questions, you encourage them to contextualise the discussion for their own needs.

  • Make webinars a group activity.
    Webinars are often solitary affairs, but used in a group, discussions are created that everyone can contribute to.

  • Buddy-up.
    Pair employees according to their skills or experience, and encourage them to meet for regular coffee catch-ups.

  • Encourage networking.
    Learning can come from beyond your team. Attending external networking events can prompt discussion that wouldn’t normally happen in the office.

  • Use technology.
    Company wikis, social media and platforms like FutureLearn all serve to provide information whilst prompting learners to discuss and debate topics.

  • Hold “retros”.
    Company-wide retros (retrospectives) are sessions where the team discusses what’s happened over the previous week. Employees that don’t usually interact with one another are put in an informal setting where they can chat and ask questions.

  • Encourage interaction to happen, anywhere.
    Steve Jobs’ legendary office design for Pixar was rooted in social learning. The layout was planned specifically to prompt random acts of discussion between unconnected individuals. You could do the same with your own space by changing where people sit, where water dispensers are positioned and how closely desks are spaced.

  • Make people feel involved.
    Lastly, but most importantly, is the act of letting your employees know that group discussion, collaboration and exploration is explicitly advocated by you and other managers. People need to feel comfortable and valued in social learning situations.

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Colleen writes for Square, where she covers everything from how aspiring entrepreneurs can turn their passion into a career to the best marketing strategies for small businesses who are ready to take their enterprise to the next level.