Is social learning just another bandwagon? Can it make a real difference to your business? ‘Social’ is often bandied around as a palliative that can take care of all sorts of things. To what extent is it an urge to duck the responsibility and cost of providing formal learning or a genuine recognition that this is how many people like to learn these days? After all, a recent Towards Maturity Excellence in Leadership Development report indicated that 91% of learners in leadership development find collaboration with others essential or very useful.
Either way, many organisations are increasingly quick to recognise the value of social learning to unlock and promote knowledge sharing. And those organisations are equally keen to put in place the services and tools to scaffold that knowledge sharing across scattered, often global, teams and communities.
So what’s new pussycat?
In most organisations, there will usually already be informal social learning happening naturally – it just might be not formally recognised or known as as ‘social learning’. For example, here at City & Guilds Kineo, our design community has a Skype forum where we share ideas, seek advice and ask quick questions. We don’t formally refer to this as a social learning activity, we just get on with it.
So does social learning happen in isolation or is it part of a blend? You’ll probably already be familiar with the 70:20:10 framework that suggests that learning at work usually happens in three different ways:
- 70% experientially – e.g. through day-to-day tasks and ‘on the job’ learning.
- 20% socially – learning from other people – e.g. copying role models, sharing advice.
- 10% formally – e.g. through structured classroom events, formal reading, e-learning.
Ensuring benefits to business
The crucial question is how can businesses drive this 20% social learning forward and formalise it where necessary?
Although 3 out of 10 L&D departments have no plans to implement social media, 96% of L&D leaders are looking to technology to help increase the sharing of good practice.
So choosing the right tools and services is pivotal. They won’t make social learning happen overnight, but they are the foundations upon which all the rest of it will build. In its report Social Software for Business Performance, Deloitte suggested that, “As the organization builds confidence and proficiency using social software, it can expand use of the tool to address additional attractive opportunities where the potential impact and the employee engagement are high.”
Testing the water
A pilot phase or project allows the business to dip its toe in the water of structured social learning, getting a sense of the temperature, tides and currents, before plunging in and inviting all the relevant employee communities. A test case can also usefully prove whether or not your learners are ready – and may surprise you with its popularity. For example, 62% of directors report that they find in-house social networks and communities essential or very useful, but the L&D perception is that only 16% will prefer it – a huge disparity! 
Once the business has established effective ways of using social learning within the organisation, there can be huge benefits to be gained. The Deloitte report continues, “Companies can reap significant financial rewards and develop skills and experience that have the potential to help them build a stronger competitive position over time.” In 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report which estimated that $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in annual value could be unlocked across four sectors by the use of online social learning tools and services.
As well as unlocking business value, there are also significant cost savings to be made with social learning solutions. In implementing a collaborative social learning intervention for its IT compliance training, Virgin Media created a cost saving of 72% - training 36 people for £18k, instead of the £65k cost of the previous traditional classroom training solution. Equally, they extended their potential audience reach, with the social learning solution able to reach 1500 people simultaneously – which massively reduces the cost per learner even further. So how did they do it? They took a 3-day classroom programme and rebuilt it into a remote online solution, comprised of virtual instructor led sessions (available live and recorded), resources, exercises and a social network. In addition to the cost saving, the solution also achieved a huge increase in engagement and learner success rates, with the average UK first time pass rate rising from 67% to 87%.
Don’t miss the boat!
Overall, we have increasingly high expectations about the rewards of organisational knowledge sharing in terms of productivity, efficiency and streamlining, and we have increasingly high expectations of individuals to take responsibility for their own capability, performance and development. Social learning interventions can help to make significant leaps in bringing these together to maximise value to your business. So as a bandwagon, social learning is set for the long haul, and well worth hopping aboard to take the ride. Can you afford not to?