7 steps to creating a social learning community

The benefits of social learning

The potential for social media to transform how we learn at work has captured the imagination of L&D departments across the world, and with good reason.  Organisations who embrace a more open and social learning culture are reporting significant increases in productivity, efficiency and speed-to-competence of new joiners and movers.  However, social learning requires a leap of faith on the part of L&D practitioners. We need to move away from the traditional ‘command and control’ approach to the provision of learning and instead put greater emphasis on discussion, inquiry and knowledge sharing.

So what are the key benefits of social learning? Here are just a few:

  • It helps dispersed learners in global organisations to network and share experiences
  • It provides access to a wealth of user-generated and curated resources
  • It supports communities of practice and inquiry
  • It’s scalable: colleagues from across the world can connect, question and share
  • It’s trackable: organisations can measure activity and ROI
  • It’s cost-effective: secure corporate social networks come at a minimal cost per user
  • It’s social! So reduces feelings of isolation associated with self-directed learning

7 steps to social learning success

Now that’s all well and good, I hear you say, but how can we make this happen? What will motivate our time-poor colleagues to share their knowledge and expertise? This is an important consideration as lack of participation is arguably the number one reason why work-based social initiatives fail. To help you implement a buzzing social learning platform which colleagues enjoy using on a daily basis, try following these 7-steps…

  1. Define needs and goals. Are you looking for an enterprise-wide system where colleagues can post questions and answers on any topic? Or are you looking to support collaboration and knowledge sharing within a targeted group (e.g. new starters or managers)? Think about what you want to achieve and set some realistic success measures.
  2. Choose the right platform. People have high expectations of social networks, based on their experience of using services like Facebook and LinkedIn. So make sure you choose a platform that’s easy to use and offers the functionality (e.g. community areas, leader board, rate & review and curation tools) to meet your needs. To test the water, run a ‘pilot’ project with a relatively small group of users before rolling out the platform to the rest of the organisation.
  3. Identify your social ‘champions’. The ultimate goal of social learning is to create a self-sustaining community where learners are motivated to share their insights, observations and expertise. But people can be shy about getting involved at first, so it’s good to identify a few champions who can stimulate activity in the early days and inspire others to participate. Ask your best champions to become ‘curators’ i.e. contributors who post links to interesting new content and answer questions on an on-going basis.
  4. Promote the platform. Use all your communications channels (email, newsletters, face-to-face events, posters etc.) to promote the platform and notify learners when new content is available. People pay attention to leaders, so ask senior managers to endorse the platform and encourage their teams to get involved.
  5. Set clear goals. Make sure your community understands the purpose of the initiative and the value of sharing questions, answers and links to relevant materials.
  6. Reward participation. Give your best contributors positive feedback and recognise their achievements in performance reviews. As noted earlier, the main reason why social initiatives founder is due to lack of participation. So give the community the chance to express itself freely and take a light-touch approach to moderation. Remember that the vast majority of colleagues will use work-based social media responsibly, so don’t stifle the initiative with too many rules and regulations at the start.
  7. Get feedback and refine your strategy. Social learning is a continuous and evolving process. Once your platform is up-and-running it’s important to get feedback from learners and identify ways to improve the service.

How it works in practice

Social learning initiatives tend to work best when targeted at a group with a shared set of needs and interests. So for example, giving graduate trainees a dedicated space where they can post questions, network with one another, and share their experiences is an increasingly popular application of social learning in big organisations. Here are some other examples of social learning in action.

  • Sales teams – sales teams are often dispersed, finding it hard to meet in person. A social platform can be used as a ‘hub’ which provides access to product news, core learning materials and allows reps to share ‘war stories’, best practice tips and client feedback. Gamifying the platform with points, a leaderboard and badges can be a good way to motivate learners and encourage some friendly competition.
  • Induction – social learning is perfect for induction as it helps engage, creates a sense of community, and provides new starters with a tool that matches their expectations of how they interact with social technology in their daily lives. It also provides a ‘safe place’ where ideas can be tested and questions asked away from day-to-day working pressures.
  • Management capability – Management capability can be aligned and supported with a community of practice. In addition to learning and toolkit access, new ideas and ways of working can be shared and feedback gathered from dispersed teams. Managers can pull in relevant industry information and market developments to share amongst their community.
  • Healthcare – Healthcare professionals at all levels (consultants, nurses, clinicians) can come together and share around a particular specialty area to work in conjunction with other learning CPD initiatives and enhance the growing importance of team learning in this sector.

People have always learned from one another, as asking for help from peers and experts is the obvious way to boost our ability to complete any given task. So social learning is not a new phenomenon. What’s changed is that we can now facilitate this process on a massive scale via social networking technologies. This is why many organisations now include a ‘social’ element in their learning and change programmes as a matter of course.

This article is an extract from the Total Learning System whitepaper, which was first published on the Brightwave website.


About alexreeve1
I'm a consultant based in Brighton (UK) who has been leading the design and delivery of e-learning, web, instructor-led training (ILT) and blended projects for a wide range of public and private sector organisations since 1997.

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