There is little doubt that the emergence of Web 2.0 and social networking tools have radically changed the way organizations do business… so much so that terms such as “social business”, “social enterprise”, and “social workplace”—terms that had hardly existed a decade ago—are now widely accepted as commonplace phrases. Furthermore, it is apparent that these popular “buzz words” all have something in common: the word “social”.
Unlike the days of old when working was simply a matter of getting your daily tasks done by yourself (or perhaps with the help of a friendly colleague or two), the new social workplace requires a level of interaction where daily conversations and activities are highly collaborative in nature and peer-to-peer oriented, and where knowledge is shared extensively without traditional time or geographic constraints. It is this new level of interaction, fostered by social tools, that have led many businesses to adopt new innovative approaches to business execution and strategies that impact the bottom line. And it is exactly this model of the social workplace, where tools and individuals mingle to create an integrated collaborative experience, that provides the immediate input and feedback that businesses need to compete locally and globally.
Unfortunately, with this new model of the social workplace, conversations happen in 140 characters, documents are collaboratively created, and content is archived and calculated—but very little experience and knowledge is actually shared. As a result, many executives have to deal with a series of looming questions:
- How can you continue to move fast, yet take the time to invest in growing your business?
- How can there be employee development when no one can stop long enough to teach or learn?
- And how can you identify the internal skills, intelligence, wisdom and expertise that your employees have and distribute it in a way that flows right into your business stream?
There is no one way to answer these questions, but many experts and organizations are now realizing that a new era in workplace learning has emerged—an era where knowledge sharing and collaboration are crucial, but needs to be nurtured and extended in ways that are conducive to how today’s social workplace operates.
As Charles Jennings, a notable thought leader and consultant for learning and performance, notes in his blog post, Social & Workplace Learning Through the 70:20:10 Lens:
“Our awareness that more learning occurs outside courses and curricula than inside has added fuel to the fire of social learning…there has been a re-awakening of the understanding that context is vital for learning and, aligned with this, that performance in a formal training environment is not necessarily a good indicator of performance in a different environment, such as the workplace…These realisations are leading to greater focus on workplace learning—learning in the context of work. Learning and work are merging [emphasis in original].”
In other words, if your business has gone social, then your learning and knowledge sharing should go social too. Thus, a social workplace—one focused on sharing and collaboration—requires that social learning be at its core.
What Is Social Learning?
So what is social learning? Well, to state it simply, social learning is exactly what it sounds like—learning with and from others. It is learning that is organic, ubiquitous, and collaborative; it is the learning that arises from the ordinary peer-to-peer exchanges and interactions that happen every day; and it is the learning that we, as human beings, have been doing ever since we were born. Albert Bandura, a psychologist renowned for his Social Learning Theory, describes it as learning that occurs from observing and modeling the behaviors of those around us.
Social learning requires that everyone in a company know that they are responsible for both teaching and learning.
We’ve all participated in some type of social learning in the workplace before. Whether it’s drafting a sales email that outlines every step of closing the big deal or having lunch with a customer to understand how they are using your product in new and different ways, we have all experienced moments when we have gained valuable information and knowledge from our peers—knowledge that is directly useful and relevant to our jobs at the right time.
However, if social learning is not a new concept, then why is it generating so much buzz lately? What we really need to explore and define, then, is what Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner call the “new social learning“—learning that represents a “fundamental shift in how people work—leveraging how we have always worked, but now with new tools to accelerate and broaden individual and organizational reach.”
As they define it:”The new social learning provides people at every level, in every nook of the organization, and every corner of the globe, a way to reclaim their natural capacity to learn non-stop.” 
The important phrase to note here is, “to learn non-stop.” In other words, social learning is not only about learning from others, but about continuously learning from others at the time of need to get the job done. This mentality is very different from the mindset that many of us are used to—officially “learning” or gaining knowledge during a teaching session, but then immediately storing that knowledge away afterwards in order to “get back to work.” It is about time we redefine this traditional mindset.
What Does Social Learning Look Like in the Workplace?
With social learning, understanding an organization’s learning culture is just as important as having the right tools and framework. Social learning requires that everyone in a company know that they are responsible for both teaching and learning. This may sound like a challenging prospect, but there are already several organizations out there that are already embracing this type of learning. Some good examples:
IBM is a frontrunner in the current social learning revolution, understanding early on that using social tools for business is simply not enough for growth, and that learning somehow also has to be involved. Over the past few years, the organization has seen a great shift in its learning culture as departments not only strived to deliver more education through a mixture of classroom and self-paced learning mediums, but also through cultivating a wide variety of online communities and specialist groups.
As noted by a CLO article, The Client Knows Best:
“Increasingly, IBM is leveraging social learning to meet this first element of learning strategy. Rather than develop centrally related content, experts throughout the company find, build, publish, share and comment on assets to enhance skills development and productivity. IBM has created tools such as online learning communities and socially generated tags on key knowledge assets to make relevant knowledge more searchable. It also has reduced search time and costs, accelerated onboarding and, recognizing that more than 40 percent of its workforce is global, enabled delivery of job-relevant information to networked mobile devices.”
IBM is a great example of how a global company has managed to take advantage of its employees’ diverse cultural backgrounds and knowledge base to create a truly collaborative space for innovation.
The Cheesecake Factory
Known for its gourmet cheesecakes and elegant restaurant ambience, the Cheesecake Factory is quickly becoming as famous for “serving up social media snippets for employee learning” as for its fine dishes. When Jeff Stepler, the Vice President of Organizational Engagement, realized the value of social learning strategies for enterprise growth, he quickly implemented what is now known as the Video Café—an informal learning portal that allows employees to film, upload, and watch short videos generated by their peers on a variety of different job-related topics, from how to greet customers to how to slice and serve cheesecake. Not only does this method significantly reduce the cost and time it takes to develop original content, but it encourages a continuous learning culture where employees can continue to learn tips and best practices from their peers—all through small multimedia snippets of information.
A list of additional examples of social learning in the workplace can also be found on founder Jane Hart’s Center for Learning & Performance Technologies blog.
How Can I Implement Social Learning in My Own Organization?
So now that you have an idea of what social learning looks like in an enterprise, how can you capture “learnable” moments, make them repeatable, and then add them to your own social business stream? This is where technology can come into play. If social learning requires every employee to be responsible for company growth, knowledge sharing, training, and employee development, then everyone is a trainer and subject matter expert. Social workplaces must provide each person in an organization with the tools to create on-the-fly learning sessions—whether via videos, audio, or presentations—and allow them to place them organically in the business stream.
To go back to an earlier example, this means that the next time your star salesperson closes a big deal, s/he can take five minutes to sync audio over the presentation that was just used to close the deal, explain what the critical success points were, and embed that session into a wiki, intranet, email, Google doc, or enterprise social network. Nowadays, social business tools give your employees the extra on-demand opportunity to learn more, share information, and help grow your business.
Key Considerations To Social Learning Success
The key considerations to successful social learning in the workplace are simple:
- Enable and empower everyone in your organization to teach and learn at opportune times.
- Make learning collaborative and peer-to-peer, crossing department lines and organizational hierarchies.
- Make learning on-demand and experience-based.
- Combine learning with daily business tasks to create a more integrated learning and working experience.
As long as you take these considerations into account, you can keep your entire company learning and growing without having to spend an exuberant amount of time and resources to run formal training programs. Social learning embeds itself into the social workplace. By placing social learning at the core of your business culture, you can ensure that your employees will continue to learn, collaborate, and share knowledge at the same pace that your business innovates and grows.
 Bingham, Tony, and Marcia L. Conner. The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media. Alexandria, VA: ASTD, 2010. 5-6. Print.