Social Learning – Tips for Corporate Training

Jill W.

"Learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation, direct instruction, and imitation." - Albert Bandura

How often during your morning watercooler discussions with your colleagues do you leave thinking to yourself, wow, I just learned something new. Socially, we learn things all the time - sometimes without even knowing it. Social learning is inherent to us, whether we're learning things from discussions with our peers, interactions on forums or blog posts, or by simply being active on social media.

This article will introduce you to the concept of social learning, and identify strategies that ensure meaningful learning occurs when incorporating these ideas into corporate training.

What is Social Learning?

Most people, when you say the word 'social', immediately think 'social media', but while social media is a tool used to support social learning, there's much more to it than that.

Albert Bandura coined the term "social learning" in 1977, when he suggested that learning occurred through observing and modelling the behaviors of others, spanning both cognitive and behavioral frameworks.

Key components of social learning theory include the ideas that:

  • Learning is not always behavioral, rather it's a cognitive process that takes place in social contexts.
  • Learning occurs when people observe others.
  • Learning occurs when people model a behavior through observations.
  • Learning is not passive; it must be active.

Today, social learning is used to train employees through modeling positive behaviors; it's an approach that promotes team cooperation and cohesion, and builds a culture of learning, where organizations are creating virtual communities that serve as a platform for employees to share knowledge and ideas.

With advances in digital technology and the influx of social tools, the social element of learning can be easily incorporated into corporate training.

Why Integrate Social Learning into Your Organization?

1. Social learning encourages ownership

Social Learning is employee-driven rather than employer-mandated.

Social learning empowers employees to take ownership over their own learning at work.

We're moving away from subject matter experts and towards "subject matter networks", a term that Mark Oehlert coined as a way to describe organizational knowledge. Instead of looking for subject matter experts from which to design training, he suggests that we should extend knowledge gathering to the entire network of subject-matter expertise.

Once again, the emphasis is no longer on the individual but on the network. And at the end of the day, good networks make for more effective organizations.

2. Social learning facilitates learner engagement

Learning often takes the form of a timely conversation between two or more people.

Jane Hart talks about social learning in organizations as being divided "into stocks (information that is archived and organized for reference and retrieval) and flow (timely and engaging conversations between people, including voice or written communication)".

Social tools like blogs and Twitter facilitate stock and flow.

3. Social learning triggers collaboration and encourages teamwork

Work activities today do not occur in isolation. By enabling groups to work together and share knowledge using social networks, specified business outcomes can be achieved.

This means that sending individuals on a training course and then re-integrating them to their work group can be relatively useless as knowledge is not shared amongst the team.

Contrast this with social learning, where new skills and knowledge are constantly being shared.

4. Social learning supplements other training approaches

Not all learning in an organization comes through formal approaches like workshops or online courses.

Although formal training is still important and necessary at times, employees tend to learn more often through informal means, such as by Googling something on the Internet, watching a You-Tube or video, or simply by asking their colleagues.

By setting up discussion forums and empowering employees to discuss projects, you're facilitating learning that naturally occurs in the workplace.

Think about how much training time can be saved if an online discussion board is set up as a follow-up space for learners to ask questions when they're back on-the-job applying the new skills they learned in a workshop.

5. Social learning provides valuable metrics

There's a myth out there that suggests that social learning is ineffective because you can't measure it. This isn't true.

In The New Social Learning: Connect, Collaborate, Work, by Marcia Connor and Tony Bringham (ATD, 2015), various measurement approaches that analyze how people are learning and working in social ways are identified.

Most notably, data collected from social networking dashboards produce invaluable metrics, overall usage being one of them.

You can look at whether the number of participants is growing, if an increasing proportion of members is actively involved, what types of people are engaging in multiple kinds of activities, if membership is increasingly diverse, and so on. For more information on effective reporting check out the article, Five Secrets of Effective Reporting.

Still not convinced of the importance of social learning in the workplace? Consider this:

  • According to the Association for Talent Development, the ratio between social learning and web-based approaches is 75:1, suggesting that those corporations who integrate social learning into their current training are at an advantage.
  • According to a survey conducted by the Brandon Hall Group, 73% of companies expressed their desire to increase their focus on social learning, and more than 60% wanted to see their employees interact with learning resources on a daily basis.

What Does a Social Learning Structure Look Like?

Social Learning will be structured differently depending on the organization.

However, Julian Stodd has come up with a concept and process that can be easily implemented.

Scaffolded Social Learning "retains the spontaneity, vibrancy, and high engagement quotient of social interactions without taking away the formality and structure of learning within an enterprise setting".

The key here is to have corporations design a curriculum, but leave it up the employees to analyze, brainstorm and interpret the knowledge themselves by using social tools.

Learners are given the opportunity to co-create knowledge, a process that is highly immersive. This is the approach he presents to design Scaffolded Social Learning:


Source: Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

Tips for Incorporating Social Learning into Your Corporate Training

I have already introduced you to the concept of Scaffolded Social Learning, but here are some additional tips for incorporating social learning into your current corporate training programs.

  1. Encourage employees to contribute and enhance their own knowledge base on an individual level and then provide resources and avenues for them to share this knowledge with their colleagues.
  2. Work towards changing your organizational culture rather than your LMS platform. It is important that you assess the readiness of your people to adopt social learning. Begin by looking for projects that need social interaction and collaboration, and slowly integrate social approaches from there.
  3. Apply social learning to group collaboration projects, moderated group discussions (in-person and online), lunch and learn sessions, knowledge share sessions, and through polls and surveys.
  4. Identify champions who can advocate social learning; these employees create awareness or a buzz around the office.
  5. Leverage social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube to inform, update and connect people. These platforms use the concept of 'spaces' to foster discussion among members. Members can ask questions, clarify doubts and find solutions to their problems.
  6. Allow employees to curate resources that they can share with others. Training resources do not necessarily need to come from corporate or HR. It's just as useful, and effective, to empower all employees to suggest topics and resources that they want to learn from.


This article defined social learning, discussed why you should consider social approaches to your training programs, and identified strategies to help you incorporate these ideas into your organization.

At face value, social learning should be easy to implement, right? Don't we always turn to our colleagues when we are stuck? In reality, incorporating social learning into the corporate culture takes a little more work, but the tips and strategies discussed here are a great starting point.

Do you want to incorporate social learning into your organization, or are you looking for an LMS that supports social learning? Contact a SkillBuilder® LMS team member, or start your trial run today.

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.