To understand social learning, we must first understand social
media. Social media is a set of Internet-based technologies
designed to be used by three or more people. It's rarer than it
sounds. Most interaction supported by technology is narrowcast
(one-to-one), often with a telephone call or an email message;
niche-cast (one-to-small groups), for instance using email
distribution lists or small-circulation newsletters; or broadcast
(one-to-many), as in large-scale online magazines or a radio show.
Social learning is what it sounds like - learning with and from
others. It has been around for a long time and naturally occurs at
conferences, in groups, and among old friends in a caf as easily
as it does in classroom exercises or among colleagues online who
have never met in person. We experience it when we go down the hall
to ask a question and when we post that same question on Twitter
anticipating that someone will respond. While social media is
technology used to engage three or more people and social learning
is participating with others to make sense of new ideas, what's new
is how powerfully they work together. Social tools leave a digital
audit trail, documenting our learning journey - often an unfolding
story - and leaving a path for others to follow.
Tools are now available to facilitate social learning that is
unconstrained by geographic differences (spatial boundaries) or
time-zone differences (temporal boundaries) among team members.
The new social learning reframes social media from a marketing
strategy to a strategy that encourages knowledge transfer and
connects people in a way consistent with how we naturally interact.
It is not a delivery system analogous to classroom training, mobile
learning, or e-learning. Instead it's a powerful approach to
sharing and discovering a whole array of options - some of which we
may not even know we need - leading to more informed decision
making and a more intimate, expansive, and dynamic understanding of
the culture and context in which we work.
The new social learning provides people at every level, in every
nook of the organization and every corner of the globe, a way to
reclaim their natural capacity to learn nonstop. Social learning
can help the pilot fly more safely, the saleswoman be more
persuasive, and the doctor keep up-to-date.
The 36,000-foot view
For a long time, many of us have known learning could transform the
workplace. We longed for tools to catch up with that potential.
Only recently have changes in corporate culture and technology
allowed this eventuality to unfold.
Clay Shirky, who writes about
web economics and teaches new media at New York University and
author of Cognitive Surplus, points out, "Prior to the
Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way
people sat down and talked together was the table."
At its most basic level, new social learning can result in people
becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able
to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges
that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of
participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.
Social learning happens using social media tools and through
extended access and conversations with all our connections - in our
workplaces, our communities, and online. It happens when we keep
the conversation going on a blog rich with comments, through
coaching and mentoring, or even during a workout at the gym.
Social learning is augmented by commercial tools, such as Facebook,
Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and wikis, and with enterprise
applications and suites of applications including Socialtext,
Socialcast, Newsgator, and Lotus Connections. With some custom
development, learning also can grow on enterprise social platforms
such as IBM WebSphere Portal Server, Microsoft Sharepoint, SAP
Netweaver Portal and Collaboration, and Oracle's Beehive.
Don't conclude this is all new, though. Social software has been
around for almost 50 years, dating back to the Plato bulletin board
system. Networks such as Compuserve, Usenet, discussion boards, and
The Well were around before the founder of Facebook was even born.
Only technology enthusiasts used those systems, though, because of
clunky interfaces that didn't readily surface or socialize the best
The new social learning is enabled by easy-to-use, socially
focused, and commercially available "Web 2.0" tools and "Enterprise
2.0" software that move services, assets, smarts, and guidance
closer to where they are needed - to people seeking answers,
solving problems, overcoming uncertainty, and improving how they
They facilitate collaboration and inform choices on a wide stage,
fostering learning from a vast, intellectually diverse set of
people. These new social tools augment training, knowledge
management, and communications practices used today. They can
introduce new variables that can fundamentally change getting up to
speed, provide a venue to share spontaneously developed resources
as easily as finely polished documents, and draw in departments
that previously hadn't considered themselves responsible for
employee development at all.
Social tools are powerful building blocks that can transform the
way we enable learning and development in organizations. They
foster a new culture of sharing, one in which content is
contributed and distributed with few restrictions or costs.
Most of what we learn at work and elsewhere comes from engaging in
networks where people co-create, collaborate, and share knowledge,
fully participating and actively engaging, driving, and guiding
their learning through whatever topics will help them improve.
Training often gives people solutions to problems already solved.
Collaboration addresses challenges no one has overcome before.
The new social learning makes that immediate, enabling people to
easily interact with those with whom they share a workplace, a
passion, a curiosity, a skill, or a need.
What it's not
Another way to think about the new social learning is to compare it
with what it is not.
The new social learning is not just for knowledge
workers. It can empower people who work on shop floors,
backstage, on the phone, behind retail counters, and on the
battlefield. It is not your corporate intranet, although features
of social learning may be included there. Document management,
calendaring, blogs, and online directories may contribute to
learning socially, but they are often task oriented rather than
It's not at odds with formal education. Students
often use Twitter as a back channel for communicating among
themselves or with instructors. Teachers can also use social media
before and after classes to capture and share everyone's ideas.
It's not a replacement for training or employee
development. Training is well suited for compliance, deep
learning, and credentialing. Formal development programs are still
needed to prepare employees to progress through the organization.
Social learning can supplement training and development in the
classroom or online. It complements training and covers knowledge
that formal training is rarely able to provide.
It's not synonymous with informal learning, a term
often used to describe anything that's not learned in a formal
program or class. The broad category of informal learning can
include social learning, but some instances of informal learning
are not social - for example, search and reading.
It's not a new interface for online search, which
could only be considered social because other people developed the
content you discover. Finding content with a search engine does not
involve interpersonal engagement - a hallmark of social learning.
It's not the same as e-learning, the term used to describe any use
of technology to teach something intentionally. That broad category
can include social tools and, if it's organized using an online
learning community such as Moodle, can be quite communal.
It's not constantly social in the same way a party
is. Often people are alone when they are engaged and
learning through social tools. The socialness refers to the way
interaction happens: intermingling ideas, information, and
experiences, resulting in something more potent than any individual
Note: This article is excerpted from The
New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.
Tony Bingham is the president and CEO of ASTD.
Together with the board of directors and supported by a staff of 90
and a wide volunteer network, Bingham is focused on helping members
lead talent management in their organizations, demonstrate positive
business impact, understand the power of social media on informal
learning, close skills gaps, and connect their work to the
strategic priorities of business. Bingham co-authored
Presenting Learning: Ensure CEOs Get the Value of
Learning, a book to help learning professionals articulate the
business case for learning more persuasively, position themselves
as a strategic partner, and communicate a compelling story about
the impact of learning on business results.
Marcia Conner is a partner at Altimeter Group, a
research-based advisory firm that helps companies at a crossroads
tackle the world's toughest business challenges. Working with
organizations and industries to leverage disruption to their
advantage, she applies experience from across disciplines to
accelerate collaborative culture, workplace learning, and social
business. Conner is a fellow at the Darden School of Business,
founder of the popular Twitter chat #lrnchat, and writes the
Fast Company column "Learn at All Levels." A 20-year
veteran of the enterprise market, Conner was vice president of
education services and information futurist for PeopleSoft, senior
manager of worldwide training at Microsoft, editor in chief of
Learning in the New Economy magazine, and a fellow of the
Society for New Communications Research.
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.