Why can’t L&D ignore Social Learning?


Social learning was widely recognised as one of the key trends in L&D in 2014 and indeed in 2015. The term has been around for a number of years, so why are L&D professionals seeing so much more focus on this type of learning?

Social learning is nothing new. It is how humans have always learnt and social technology has now made the ‘social’ element of learning more scalable, enabling employees to share and learn where ever they are, at whatever time suits them.

The increasing emergence of social learning can be reflected in the tangible changes we can see in our personal lifestyles. Shopping is online; some retail stores are even facing administration due to the competitive online market. There are over 2.6 billion internet users globally, a rise of 870% since the year 2000. Even browsing for a CD in HMV is becoming a thing of the past as it is now easier in people’s busy lives to use the ‘buy in one click’ service on amazon, purchasing the CD without leaving your desk and it then being delivered to your door. So, it is not surprising that we are becoming increasingly dependent on computers and mobile devices for many of our personal and workplace activities

These tipping points in how people engage with the world can’t help but have an effect on L&D.

How can social learning fit into the training mix?

Social and informal learning are inextricably intertwined, social learning is almost always informal and could be a key reason as to why social learning technology is seeing such a surge forward. More organisations are adopting/accepting the concept of 70:20:10 and as a result they are looking to see how they can support their learners through informal and social learning experiences and technologies certainly have the answer. It is important to note that social learning technologies can also support formal learning. If a simple definition of formal learning is where the curriculum is set by someone other than the learner and they are asked to complete/read it by their line manager, it could be argued to be formal.

How can social learning be delivered/supported?

The content available for informal learning in today’s working environment is coming from multiple directions and activities and these are occurring with more frequency. With the increase in social learning technologies it is now possible to collect and curate large amounts of content. The use of these technologies in workplace environments is continually growing and for 2014 there are an expected number of trends. Research has suggested that in 2014 there is an incorporation of social technology into the core training strategy and 65.7% of organisations are using social technologies for learning. And the market is growing fast, the enterprise social software market will jump 42% through 2015, with worldwide spending set to reach $4.5 billion in 2016

However, there is no global standardisation of how social learning can be delivered through technology and it is interesting to note that research has shown a number of different variations:

  • 59.5% of organisations are using discussions forums
  • 57.9% using internal blogs
  • 54.9% using secure instant messaging
  • 35.7% are planning to develop communities of practise via a social learning technology platform during the next 2 years

Currently, the number of organisations using social learning technologies is 18.4% with a large proportion of those companies being globally distributed. The motivation to implement these technologies is clear for both local and global companies as the aim is to build an online learning culture that has a dynamic learning and sharing environment, supportive of collaboration and innovation, which in turn can improve working performance.

What technology is supporting social learning?

In terms of the technological side of social learning systems, 2015 will see a greater acceptance and adoption of Tin Can API worldwide. Tin Can API is a software specification that allows learning content and learning systems to speak to each other in a manner that records and tracks all types of learning experiences. Its capabilities allow it to track learner’s progress both as they move their way through traditional, formal and also crucially informal learning.

SCORM, the technology that led to the development of Tin Can API, has the capability to track the completion of learning modules, the time, pass/fail rates and it can report learner’s scores. However, Tin Can goes the next step and it has the same capabilities plus being able to track games, simulations, informal learning, as well as offline, interactive, blended, long-term and team-based learning. It is predicted that more tools, LMS’s and delivery platforms will be supporting the Tin Can API standard to track informal/social learning and even mobile learning apps are utilising the power of Tin Can to deliver personalised learning experiences. In March 2013, 25% of e-learning vendors had adapted Tin Can into their projects and this is set to rise in 2014.

These trends may lead us to suggest that we have come to the end of finding the best solution for social learning as we can now leverage and track all informal learning. It’s important to recognise that tracking a learner’s completion of resources doesn’t actually allow us to know if the learners have achieved their goals or applied what they’ve learnt to the workplace. Therefore, it seems that we have taken a large step forward in 2014 by providing L&D practitioners with a really tangible opportunity to engage with social learning technology, but this is only the first step.

So what does this mean?

So, this means that this year organisations are starting to lead their employees through a journey that is helping those employees to adopt social learning effectively through technology. In each case organisations should ensure that social technologies will meet organisational specific needs and that it is developed, deployed, used and measured appropriately to ensure impact. 2014 was the start of the social learning journey for my organisation, in an environment where learning technology is evolving faster than ever, 2015 is going to be an interesting year in terms of evaluating how well we’ve supported our people in their social/informal learning. How about you?

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One Reply to “Why can’t L&D ignore Social Learning?”

  1. Great article – it’s been interesting in the last 18 months or so watching the conversation around social learning shift from ‘this should happen’ to ‘it’s happening!’, and it seems inescapable that tech is at the heart of it.

    It seems a bit odd to say that – as you say Phil, social learning is the oldest form of learning there is, and it happens spontaneously without mediation, so why should new technologies make such a difference? But the differences in scalability afforded by cloud-based LMSs, and the power of Tin Can/xAPI to capture and harness the value of real-world informal learning experiences, mean that the new information, the new knowledge, and the new skills unlocked by social learning can travel around the world and make a real difference to your business before more established formal learning modes have got their shoes on.

    This is exactly the kind of territory we’re exploring at Brightwave with tessello, and we are finding that the more clients start working and learning in this open, social, tech-assisted way, the more surprising and impactful the effects upon the business are.

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