Social Learning - Reflections on Work 2.0

riding the social wave

I was fortunate to facilitate roundtable discussions at the Work 2.0 conference recently on the topic of how to engage learner through social learning. Here are five questions I think would be useful to explore to implement social learning that can make an impact within an organisation.

1. Where do conversations happen?

Social learning is often described as use of a particular tools - in the roundtables alone Yammer, Chatter, Slack, MOOCs, Lynda.com, Google Plus, Sharepoint, among others were mentioned. While tools can be important to provide a focal point, it is of course people who make social learning happen. So the first question to ask is around where conversations happen.

One delegate, for example, was involved in designing physical spaces that encourage congregation and discussion. While many of the examples discussed were single tool implementations I think emerging social learning strategies should be tool agnostic and likely occur across many tools.  The importance is that conversations and knowledge sharing can take place, not the mode or media that facilitate this.

2. Are your networks robust?

Nearly every delegate described a scenario where a small number of users are responsible for most of the posts and this appeared to be assumed as a bad thing. However take Wikipedia, as an example, one of the world's largest knowledge sharing platforms where 10% of users make the majority of edits. This is known as the 'Pareto Principle' where a small number of users are responsible for the majority of contributions and can be described by a Power Law distribution. 

Social networking theory demonstrates that networks follow a Power Law rather than contributions having a more even normal distribution. Knowing that you have such a distribution is probably a good sign and can be used to identify measures such as centrality and associated roles such as influencers and connectors. Understanding these roles is more crucial to the health of the network than the number of posts, especially if key influential roles are removed (a consideration for secession planning).

3. Is there a community of practice?

Often the term 'lurkers' was used to describe behaviour with one delegate suggesting that 'those who are engaged post'. I would argue that this negative construal of analysis belongs in a traditional formal learning paradigm whereas in a community of practice model could be effective peripheral participants.

Lave and Wenger's community of practice model describes a process where learners join communities on the periphery and move towards the centre (mastery) through their participation in the community. However, not all members of the community are expected to aspire to expert status and legitimate peripheral participation. For example those who view but don't post, still receive a valuable learning experience.

Take for example a software sales consultant who may be an expert in building client relationships but maintains peripheral participation in the software development community to keep abreast of future developments or success stories. 

4. How do we know it is working?

Social learning is a different paradigm to formal learning and measurement of learning and ROI needs to adapt to this. Social learning is not something one completes as they do with a SCORM module for example; posting to a micro-blog is completion only in the traditional. The article already touches on concepts such as influencers, curators and participants that can help inform new paradigms. Most delegates agreed that learning measurements should be based on outcomes, however limited budgets will always question where is best to invest so I think there will be requests to demonstrate ROI of social learning initiatives.

I would expect to see engagement, promotion indices, influencers and other similar metrics to figure more prominently in the L&D vocabulary shortly. xAPI journeys, open badges and similar support technologies will continue to mature in this area.

5. Do we need this?

One delegate suggested that those companies not investing in social learning may not exist in the future - similar to the impact social media is having on traditional marketing. Certainly in the growing area of knowledge work keeping abreast of developments in several communities and knowing where to achieve centrality or expert status is a crucial skill with implicit demands for social learning. This might support a need to bridge between teams, to share content from diverse sources, and/or simply that learning what others do is inherently interesting to the social mind.

My personal view is that all good learning is social and always has been. The challenge for organisations is to implement learning strategies that do not present barriers to communication - and many technologies are such a barrier. If we define learning in a narrow formal sense then we push the real learning to sidelines and are unable to leverage the benefits that knowledge sharing could bring to an organisation.

Find out more in James' recent blog; 5 top tips for using the social wave. Or check out how Vodafone Australia are using social to improve engagement