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SOCIAL LEARNING: Why Some Social Learning Initiatives Don't Work & How Blogging Might Save It

Over the past year the topic of social learning and creating an organizational environment which fosters sharing, collaboration and informal learning has really taken off. We’ve studied it, written papers on it, presented on it and have even asked some of our clients to pilot certain concepts of it. Social learning is the concept that we learn best when we learn informally through social interactions with peers or coaches. Unfortunately, the question remains, “is social learning compatible with the way we all do business?” I’m taking a risk at transparency here by telling you honestly that I have not seen the positive results transpire. Groups have been set up, nurturing emails with content have been sent, sharing and collaboration have been encouraged, but the learner won’t bite. What gives?!

First, I think where social learning falls short is thinking that our people or our organizational culture is ready to embrace sharing, collaboration, and a continuous search for learning. We are asking people to take hundreds of years of hierarchical, no cheating, individualistic and capitalistic tendencies and asking them now to turn it on its head. Secondly, it’s too cool for school just yet. We were so rigid before, then all of a sudden everyone is allowed on Facebook or to discuss in a LinkedIn group or tweet a great article. The learner is caught between the militaristic dad called formal learning and the hippy mom, let’s call her informal learning. It can be a very confusing, “serving 2 masters” time for the learner. And thirdly, during a time of asking our employees to do less with less, do we realistically think they’re going to take the extra time to go to discussion forums or to look for articles on Twitter and post thoughts on the matter? It’s a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. And we are in a time where our staff is trying to manage and survive by focusing on need-to-haves. “I’ve got real work to do,” is a comment I hear many times.

However, there is hope. Let’s for a minute put social learning philosophy, models, statistics and data down and take a look at a very real and practical story about social learning. While preparing for her most recent blog, Lisa spent over a month researching on Why We Fear Doing Things Differently. She had looked up articles, read books and scanned material on change, essentially building up her reservoir of knowledge. She was researching both the change style indicator in regards to doing things differently, as well as the effects of groupthink on preventing us from doing things another way. To start her research she came to me about a blog I had written on the book, Poke the Box, which talks about looking at ways to do things differently and pushing those initiatives forward. I lent her the Seth Godin book to read as it had been a great resource for me. We also talked a little bit about the key concepts and our different perspectives on the topic. Lisa then went over to Deb, who has trained on change management for many years, and the two of them had a couple of in-depth conversations with Lisa tweaking her blog along the way.

As we were preparing the design of the blog, I brought the team together over a whiteboard and we had fun thinking about which celebrities might fit into each change style indicator. As we went through the list, we used the tool to see what classic attributes followed each celebrity. We had a lively debate about where each celebrity fell into each indicator. Finally, as Lisa wanted to dig deeper into the groupthink theory, Michael and she paired up to do a podcast interview where Michael had to develop appropriate questions to groupthink which required him to do some research of his own on the matter.

Watching this all unfold separately I wouldn’t have seen it as social learning, but when I saw Michael and Lisa pair up and record the podcast I had an ‘ah-ha.’ Our blog was driving social learning within our very own company. Every person in the firm had touched the blog somehow. From title to concept to writing to design – the team had our collective fingerprint on the whole piece. This isn’t a freak occurrence; this happens each week as the authors collaborate and share with each other to make the most insightful blogs come to life. Understanding that the sum of our team is greater than each individual part, it takes our collective knowledge and insight to build our best blogs.

Why does blogging drive social interaction? It’s forced while not being forceful. It’s forced because there is a due date, a launch time and no one wants to write from a shallow knowledge perspective – putting their blog out there to the world without fully vetting their written word. This accountability measure drives an individual’s need to consult with others and to learn what others know (not unlike a college student wanting the best paper to go before the professor). However, it is not forceful, in a social learning sense, because there is no hand holding on how one goes about learning the necessary material. No one is building a group discussion (formal social learning), or urging the learner to use Twitter, LinkedIn or Slideshare. Instead, it is a purely social learning experience as the learner can decide how best he or she attains knowledge to build the most effective blog.

Many times we start groups or discussion forums with the hope that we can drive participation. What would happen if we in turn, had people write a three-page paper every month on topics that pertained to their development like, “My leadership philosophy,’ or “How I handle conflict,” or “How I react to organizational change?’ Blogging provides the vehicle in which learning can occur structurally (to write a blog is required), it’s in a format familiar with the learner (research, reflecting, writing, and publishing), and it’s structured so that there isn’t some ambiguous learning-for-the-sake-of-learning-kumabaya session going on either (that hippy mom scenario again). Authorship provides structure, a timeline, accountability, research and gathering skills, all the while giving the learner first-person narrative rights and the ability to blog about a topic he/she like.

Let’s not forget, blogging isn’t a silly experiment in doing busy work for social learning to occur. It’s statistically proven that blogging can increase your website visitation by over 60%. Google (and people) are constantly looking for new, rich, value-added material to answer their needs. Blogging can also help build credibility for your business and the people within your business by showcasing talent and insight. I say go for the double whammy. Start a blogging program within your company to spur on social learning, as well as a great way to market your talents and insights to the world.

To start exploring the option of blogging (whether for social learning or for business), I encourage you to download our FREE guide on How To Write An Intelligent Business Blog That Engages Decision Makers and let me know if you have any questions about getting started.


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An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

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