Social Learning: Getting from “we push” to “you pull”

Posted by Jennifer Stempel and Amy A. Titus on April 17, 2014
It’s tempting to think that social learning is about technology — after all, social media platforms and the Web 2.0 technologies that enable them are virtually inseparable. But as our recent overview (Social Learning: Empowering employees to learn from one another) points out, social learning is different: more about people than technology. Specifically, social learning is about people sharing knowledge to learn from and with one another. Technology might be involved, or it might not. A more important characteristic is that it provides learners the ability to pull the information they need, when and where they need it. That’s the ideal “teachable moment” and when learning can be most valuable and productive.

This “pull” way of learning is quite a departure from traditional learning and development (L&D) offerings that push learning out via classes, eLearning, or other types of training events. But it directly reflects the way people get information in general today, thanks to the Web and the proliferation of ways to access it from anywhere, anytime. It is, however, fundamentally changing the role of the L&D function and L&D professionals. While there will likely always be a need for traditional forms of learning (particularly for compliance and other forms of standardized, required training), L&D’s role in the social learning environment is more “broker” than “supplier.” Rather than focusing solely on creating and pushing content to learners, L&D is having to figure out how to enable and encourage the free-flowing exchange of information among learners.

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Sometimes this exchange might involve a technology platform, whether social media-based or another type, but it doesn’t have to. How do people communicate, connect, and share information in the organization today? Building on those already established mechanisms is a natural starting point that’s familiar to employees and can avoid the need to reinvent the wheel. This can be augmented by L&D efforts to, for example, bridge gaps between any workplace silos that might be impeding the flow of knowledge; facilitate gatherings specifically to discuss and share information; and identify areas where additional people or resources might be needed to support fluid exchanges.

Employees, too, play a different role as learners. Rather than passively waiting for a learning experience to be pushed out to them, they are empowered to pull what they need, when and where they need it, as well as contribute their own knowledge to teach others. While many employees will be comfortable with this give-and-take knowledge-sharing approach because it mimics their social media interactions off the job, others may be reluctant. The idea is not to mandate participation, but rather to let it develop naturally. As it develops, assistance and encouragement comes by providing active leadership buy-in and sponsorship, removing barriers, sharing feedback and success stories, and the like. Over time, as people see the value of participation in terms of being able to do their jobs more effectively or efficiently, participation will increase organically. Or, if it doesn’t, this too can help in evaluating and refining the social learning approaches and mechanisms.

Social learning was a hot topic at Bersin by Deloitte’s IMPACT 2014 conference a couple weeks ago. Many L&D professionals expressed concern about how to measure social learning, which doesn’t fit customary reporting on number of classes delivered to numbers of participants, with ratings of courses and facilitators. Our contention is that L&D should move away from this by-the-numbers measurement in general, and that the social learning equivalent — measuring numbers or frequency of participants and interactions — is not meaningful.

Instead, and this is admittedly the harder way to go, L&D should be looking at the impactof its efforts. What’s the value to individuals of the learning experience and to the organization as a whole? Did participation in a social learning forum help someone solve a problem more quickly? Spend less time on a service call? Get information needed to close a sale? Facilitate brainstorming that led to a process, product, or service innovation? These are the kinds of results that resonate with business leaders.

The Social Learning overview gives more insights about how organizations are using social learning to add value. In our next post, we’ll look more closely at examples of social learning in action —the good, bad, and ugly — as organizations continue to work to tap into the collective knowledge of their employees and put it to work.

About Author
Jennifer Stempel is a senior manager in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deputy Lead of Deloitte’s Learning & Talent Development practice. She helps organizations move from event-based training to continuous learning through practical and innovative approaches to informal and on-the-job learning.

Amy A. Titus is a director in Human Capital within the Talent, Performance and Rewards group of Deloitte Consulting LLP. She is responsible for bringing talent, learning, organization improvement, and change solutions to her clients.

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