Social Learning: 5 steps to a successful implementation
Social or collaborative learning is learning from and with others. This could be learning through interaction with other learners or experienced colleagues as well as learning through observation.
In professional development social learning plays an important role and is as diverse as social contacts. However, when talking about social learning in the context of personal / staff development, we do not mean asking a colleague for advice, but the institutionalised form of social learning – usually with the help of digital solutions. To introduce this approach it is important that you are choosing (a) suitable format(s) for the internal education in your organisation.
Step 1: Is Social Learning a fit for your organisation?
No matter which format you choose: If your employees are supposed to learn from employees, both the learner and the teacher must be given time and recognition for this. The transfer of knowledge and experience must be part of the employees’ tasks and not something that has to be done additionally.
Professional development and learning must be an integral part of the organisation, supported by the senior staff.
Furthermore, a positive general atmosphere where the workforce, including management, supports and celebrates the achievements of others is very important for a successful social learning programme. The promotion of open communication and collaboration is as much a part of this as the recognition of employees’ proactivity (empowerment).
If these conditions are met, the next question is: Who is your target audience for your social learning programme? And what are the objectives you want to achieve with it?
Step 2: Define your target audience and learning objectives
Social learning does not have to be introduced for the entire organisation. You also have the option of using social learning only in individual training projects or for specific groups, for example as a pilot before rolling it out to the entire organisation. You may have individual groups in your organisation where the implementation of a social learning project is easy because the relevant employees already have the self-confidence and skills to pass on knowledge, for example line managers. Another approach would be to first roll out the project to those groups that would particularly benefit from social learning. This applies to groups of new employees as well as to groups who work in a dynamic or specialised field, or to groups who need to have a certain set of soft skills to do their job.
When defining your target audience, you should consider what kind of access they have to electronic devices and how they understand and use it. For example, if your target audience is young employees, you can assume that they are familiar with the use of social media. But if your employees are on the verge of retirement, this may not be the case. If they’re office workers, they usually have access to a computer, while shop floor or field workers often don’t have a device from work and would have to use their own smartphone or need to be provided with one.
It is also important to define learning objectives respectively a purpose for the social learning intervention. What is to be achieved with the help of social learning:
- Should collaboration be encouraged in a specific group or in the entire organisation?
- Should agile learning be achieved?
- Should the self-confidence or the cohesion of the employees be strengthened?
- Should learning in the organisation be made independent of the employees’ location?
It is essential to be honest and thorough when evaluating your organisation’s suitability and when defining the target audience and learning objective(s). This allows you to pick the best fitted format that will lead to the desired results.
Step 3: Decide on the optimal social learning formats
In order to find the optimal format(s) for your social learning project, we must first take a look at the available formats. For this purpose, I will briefly touch on the most common social learning formats with their application possibilities and advantages .
Traditional social learning formats:
Mentoring programs can be used as part of the onboarding process but also for the targeted qualification of existing employees. In this case, an inexperienced employee (mentee) or a small group is supervised by an experienced employee (mentor). The mentor usually works in the same department or has the skills to be acquired. He or she imparts know-how and corporate culture and helps the mentee to plan his/her individual career within the company.
Mentoring programs are very adaptable. Mentees can be mentored on site or virtually, mentoring programs can be small or large and can achieve various development goals from onboarding to succession planning1. From a good mentoring program, both mentee and mentor benefit. In addition, the loyalty with the company and thus the employee retention is promoted.
On the job training (OTJ)
On the job training can take place directly in the actual work environment. It can also be a simulated task under real world conditions.
OTJs deepen the acquired knowledge and show the difference between theory and practice (learning by doing). Because knowing something in theory does not automatically mean that the theory can be applied in practice.
Face-to-face event, webinars, joint research task
Classic learning formats such as face-to-face event, webinars, joint research task are also part of social learning.
Employees learn from and with others through the exchange of experiences, group work and much more. In this way knowledge is deepened. At the same time, the teacher may see whether the knowledge has been received and, if necessary, make individual adjustments.
FAQ databases or Wikis
FAQ databases and Wikis are internal collections of instructions, knowledge and information made by employees for employees.
The knowledge is not lost and all employees can benefit from it – even if the employee with the respective know-how has left the company.
Social learning formats that require a platform
Social media platforms
Internal social media platforms are established for employees to exchange information with each other. In addition, the management and individual departments have the possibility to disseminate information to all employees.
This format is well suited for current topics, discussions and opinion-forming. Knowledge is shared and made available to all, making it easier to find. Internal social networks thus ensure a democratisation of learning and communication. Collaboration is encouraged because contact persons for specific topics are easier to identify and can be addressed in a straightforward manner.
New trainings, videos and processes can be advertised and linked here. Internal social networks also serve to promote important events.
Last but not least, being able to express one’s own opinion and be heard means an appreciation for the employees.
Internal video platform allow employees to upload and share self-created videos with instructions, tips and tricks etc.
A short video can not only describe things but also show them. If the videos are created by colleagues for colleagues (user-generated content), they also offer a higher identification potential. For millennials, learning through video has already replaced learning through online encyclopedias. A video database thus corresponds more to their learning habits than an in-house wiki. Otherwise, it offers the same advantages if the videos are well tagged and can thus be found easily via the search function.
Collaboration platforms for joint learning
A collaboration platform offers various possibilities for social learning. Usually there is a possibility to discuss and ask questions to one person, groups or all. The platform can have a (video) chat function and an integrated webinar tool. Learning materials and completed tasks may be made available in all electronic formats. Groups can be formed and attendees may collaborate on tasks.
Joint learning, guided or supported by a collaboration platform, enables a diverse learning and collaboration programme.
Step 4: Check the feasibility of your social learning training concept
For the feasibility of social learning, your organisation should not only consider the above-mentioned prerequisites: “Does the social learning approach fit my organisation’s philosophy and culture?”, but also have an infrastructure / instance that checks the quality of the user-generated content and corrects it if necessary. Of course, the published articles, information, instructions, tips and tricks must comply with your standards and operating procedures. Validation should therefore be part of the collaboration platform / collaboration processes.
You also need a platform, portal or other infrastructure that makes the knowledge easily and quickly accessible so that learners do not spend too much time searching for information or scrap learning.
Before you start the implementation, first check the feasibility of your concept in your organisation:
- Does your target audience have the skills they need to participate in your program? Can they handle a webcam, for example?
- Do they have the equipment and software they need to produce their contributions? Or can you purchase it? For this you need a realistic calculation.
- Do they have the time to participate?
- Do you get the staff and resources that you need for implementation?
Tip: Look for an executive sponsor for your program.
If you come to the conclusion that your training concept cannot be implemented in this way, shed light on the underlying reason. Maybe it is worthwhile to start with a smaller solution and to establish the concept of social learning step by step in the organisation?
Step 5: Evaluate your concept
After you have composed and rolled out your social learning concept to your organisation, don’t forget to evaluate it regularly. On the one hand, this allows you to readjust if a part of your programme is not as helpful or successful as thought. On the other hand, you have the opportunity to present figures to your management that will show them your programme’s return of investment.
Properly implemented social learning will enrich your organisation and increase collaboration. Benefit from the collective intelligence and expertise in your organisation. Social learning not only promotes networking among your employees, but also makes them feel appreciated. It is their expertise that counts. Active participation promotes loyalty with the organisation, leads to higher retention and to identification with one’s work.
However, keep in mind that it must fit for your organisation. Employees must be given time and scope for creativity and you must have the resources for quality control.
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1„Professionelles Mentoring in der betrieblichen Praxis“ by Ursula Liebhart, Daniela Stein