5 practices for stimulating social learning

Claiming that the survival of any professional in the knowledge economy depends heavily on the ability to learn is by no means an exaggeration.

In today’s economic and business climate, the survival of any professional is determined by the ability to generate value in a genuine way, either by offering services as an employee or as a freelancer or a knowmad (an independent professional), and increasingly a blend of such services. The rapid pace at which events occur will not let up for fretful professionals who have qualms about leaving their comfort zone. The market on the contrary is particularly ripe for them, while remaining comfortable will sooner or later lead to professional suicide.

Not so many years ago, knowledge acquired by a professional secured a reasonable life expectancy in the labour market. Today widespread technology breakthroughs, market volatility, global competition and new social values have been game changers. Consequently companies must be agile and develop their products and services faster than their competitors. In short, companies and professionals will survive as they constantly recycle, acquire knowledge and connect.

Under these circumstances, learning and its management become critical for any organization. The way things stand, it is not farfetched to think that the ability of any company to react to market elements today is directly proportional to the ability to boost the learning capacity of employees within their organization—it’s common sense.

But it is not enough to recognize the need to learn. If the processes through which companies channel learning to their employees are the same as always, there will be a reasonable risk of not incorporating knowledge at the speed the market demands. In other words, the key is learning to learn differently, realizing that in a hyper-connected, diverse and volatile global business environment, employee learning must be above all social.

But what do we call social learning?

Although the focus of this post aims to be practical, I thought it appropriate to take a peep at the underlying theory that supports this idea, precisely because we are talking about learning. So from this angle, when discussing social learning, it’s worth drawing attention to the research by the psychologist, Julian B. Rotter, on the social learning theory, and later, Albert Bandura who further developed Rotter’s ideas. At the risk of oversimplifying much of their conclusions, the social learning theory suggests that learning and the associated behaviour are an outcome of a combination of environmental (social) and psychological (cognitive) factors. If you are interested in exploring the theoretical roots further, follow the embedded links.

This quick look at the theory is important so we do not lose sight of the roots of this idea, since from the perspective of managing people and knowledge, today we talk of social learning to refer to the process in which we acquire and connect knowledge and experiences through our social interactions within the community or communities we are part of both physically and virtually. At least that’s the way I understand this new way of learning to learn…

Theories aside, the question is how to stimulate social learning in practice within organizations? What specific actions can be implemented to promote this new approach?

Having understood and recognized the need and its relevance besides grasping the concept in terms of the circumstances we live under, here are some ideas on how to speed up the uptake of social learning within the dynamics of any organization.

Encourage the exposure of employees to their environment

Undeniably this would be a simple and fast mechanism to implement. Any employee is already connected to different communities and lobbies that can add value to the business. However, companies often forestall and cannibalize this exposure to the outside, fearing a knowledge drain, when paradoxically this lack of exposure outdates employees and thus knowledge within the company. There is no need to set up a grandiose programme that consumes resources. The idea is simple: facilitate and encourage employees to strengthen their ties and connections with their communities by attending seminars, workshops, conferences and external working groups. One of the main forms of organizational suicide in the 21st century company will be the suppression of employee exposure to their environment.

Structure knowledge exchange between areas inside the organization

A practice that only requires three steps: identify the knowledge hosted, structure a transfer process and make it a habit. In fact a simple procedure which has a high impact in terms of learning. All professionals are knowledge bearers, so establishing a means where some transfer the knowledge possessed to others is a healthy and necessary exercise, not only because learning increases among the members of the community representing the company, but because at the same time it can prevent knowledge drain and in parallel contribute to strengthening ties and a sense of belonging.

Create learning communities with stakeholders

This time it is not just about encouraging and promoting employee ties with their communities but also leading from the company to create a community where knowledge (and learning) is generated through collaboration with the company stakeholders. Such a practice can be expressed virtually and physically and developed in the form of face-to-face meetings or through the use of virtual networks that customers, suppliers and external collaborators of the company sign up to. The benefits are many, aside from promoting learning. A community of this kind allows ties to be reinforced with customers and suppliers, something that can help improve customer loyalty and identify supplier synergies and cost efficiencies.

Pilot social learning in key groups (High Potential & High Performers)

In all likelihood a company taking first steps to incorporate social learning practices will face reasonable misgivings about the impact. Although in my opinion social learning must permeate throughout entire organization, it is always possible to run pilots with key groups. Normally high-performing professionals with great potential are often keener than average to learn. A practice for gradually introducing social learning into the company is to develop pilots with key groups: high-potential and high-performance employees. Their willingness to learn will be crucial for adopting a style based on interaction and the ability to share knowledge with peers. Incorporating this form of learning into this group contributes to their professional growth, while reinforcing belonging and commitment to the business.

Develop workshops and open sessions taught by experts

Probably this practice is the outcome of all the above. As company employees strengthen their exposure to the environment and as stakeholders in this environment build closer ties with the company and its employees, it will become easier to organize sessions in which various experts, who are part of the employee networks and communities, approach the company for transferring their knowledge and experiences. This is one way of learning that can take place openly both face-to-face and virtually. The goal is build a bridge for networked learning, bringing the company closer to those rich in special knowledge.

Social learning is not a chimera, nor futuristic talk that’s impossible to realize. On the contrary, there are real practices that are simple to implement and which will promote the channels and ties through which the company and employees learn and assimilate knowledge, experiences and ideas steadily through the nodes they are already connected to.

Any company genuinely interested in promoting learning among employees and with their environment can implement these processes and initiatives. Of course, the company will have to have the drive to execute it, neutralizing limiting beliefs and urban legends associated with exposing employees to the outside. Today this drive still remains in the hands of those who wield formal leadership in most companies; such leadership must relinquish its interest in teaching, and instead promote the culture of connectivity hallmarked by the consolidation of social learning.

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