When discussing the "future of learning," there are many advocates and descriptors, but far too few concrete definitions. To one expert, the future of learning is a kind of "workplace community;" for another, it's a new application of "social media" to an existing business process; still others call it "Learning 2.0" or "social learning." Despite this apparent name game, nearly every learning industry analyst and thought leader agrees that integrating social learning into formal learning strategies represents a major change in the way organizations have typically trained and developed talent. What people have yet to agree on is how to get "there" from "here" or what a blended social/formal learning model might look like.

Perhaps a good place to start is determining what a social learning model will not look like. A social learning model will not replace, eliminate, or displace traditional formal learning. Companies will still need to create, deliver, manage, and report on certification and compliance initiatives. Virtual classrooms will still be an appropriate model for certain kinds of content delivery; classroom and WBT courses will still be valid training vehicles for other forms of content. Instructional designers will still determine appropriate gaming and simulation models for certain kinds of content, and mentorship for others.

These various delivery approaches exist because they are appropriate solutions for a number of well-known training scenarios, yet there are also many ways in which they can be improved. Introducing gaming or simulation principles to these models is one way to do so. "Socializing" these learning approaches is another method.

One strategy in moving toward a social learning model, therefore, may be to socialize the formal learning that happens through courseware, curriculum, certifications, and so forth. Training groups can "socialize" their formal learning models in two ways: embedding social media inside formal content and wrapping social media around formal content.

Embedded Model

The Embedded Model involves introducing social media inside formal learning content, such as WBT courses or virtual classroom. In moving from instructor-led training to WBT, organizations have saved significant amounts of money from reduced travel costs, opportunity costs, and training facility costs. We also have made it possible for learners to access course content at a time of need, which has improved performance. While these benefits are well documented and provide undeniable organizational value, there are two major downsides to the WBT mode: 1) as compared to instructor-led training, WBT removes all of the social networking and the fun of interacting with colleagues, and 2) WBT dramatically reduces the social learning benefits that come from diversity of perspective, sharing of real world experience, reflection, debrief, and the general ebb and flow of live training.

Embedding social media within WBT courses provides the opportunity to reintroduce these social exchanges without sacrificing the cost savings or WBT's time-of-need "replay" capability. Imagine a WBT course with embedded comment areas that enable learners to share their reactions to particular course concepts or their perspectives and ideas around new best practices and procedures. Imagine a course in which learners could write embedded blog posts to share their own best practices, techniques, or insights directly inside the course for other learners to see. Imagine a course in which learners could participate in live discussions or rate ideas and see the ratings of others. Imagine a course that is "updated" through new blog posts via an RSS feed into specific pages in the course. These social and dynamic interactions are a large part of what's missing in traditional WBT approaches, but they can be easily incorporated through Web 2.0 technologies.

These same ideas also can be applied to virtual classroom technology. While most virtual classroom solutions are already fairly "social" through features such as public and private chat, video conferencing, desktop sharing and the like, these features could be further extended through deeper social networking capabilities. Visualize a solution that not only allows you to chat with other participants, but also enables you to view their social profile and "friend" them. Imagine a solution that also lets you add your own links and related information, which then become part of the final archive. These approaches might further extend the existing social aspects of virtual classroom tools and drive even more impressive ROI.

Wrapped Model

Another way to "socialize" formal learning approaches is to wrap social media around existing learning resources. Think of this as the "Amazon" model, where social media and social networking are wrapped around a piece of more formal content: in this case, learning objects instead of books. Learners have always discussed and commented on the courses and classes they are taking. And learners are usually quick to tell other learners what they think of a given class. If learners are attending an instructor-led event, they may try to network with other learners before, during, and after the event. Learners also expect updates about changes to a course or training class. Today, most of these interactions happen through ad hoc, unstructured, unsearchable exchanges between individual learners.

Imagine what might happen if we formalized these exchanges through social media. If learners want to discuss formal learning events or curriculum, let's provide them with discussion forums and comment capabilities. If they want to network with other participants, let's provide social networking features and let learners see their virtual "classmates" even when taking WBT or asynchronous learning. If they want to share their opinion on a certification class, let's provide a rating capability so that their opinions are shared with their fellow learners.

By providing a common infrastructure for these exchanges, this content becomes searchable and can be included in reports and analytics that provide more insight into the meta-discourse around formal content. Additionally, learners with real expertise and unique perspectives have a chance to be heard and recognized. This in turn may lead to new forms of talent identification and expertise location. Enabling user-generated content in this way may also reduce turnover by providing a voice for individual employees and validating that they are heard and recognized for their contributions.

Community Model

There are clearly real benefits in socializing formal learning models, but what about providing social media and social networking capabilities in the absence of formal learning? This is yet another model. Think of this as a Community Model, in which social media and networking provide their own value independent of formal learning content. Many of us now reference blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and social networks for information in our personal lives, but far fewer of us have these same options in the workplace. Yet, according to research by both Jay Cross and the U.S. Department of Labor, the vast majority of learning in organizations happens socially or informally. Today, none of these exchanges is tracked, monitored, or influenced by organizations in any way.

Given this, it seems natural to provide an infrastructure to support these exchanges. No matter how effective a training department might be, it will never have the scale of an organization whose entire employee base actively contributes ideas, expertise, and knowledge through vibrant social learning and workplace communities. A workplace community captures the sorts of exchanges that happen outside of formal training and provides mechanisms to moderate, monitor, and report on these interactions, providing invaluable insight into the real issues faced by employees. Formalizing the informal communication within an organization can make employees more efficient and productive, reduce support costs, improve sales, increase retention, and provide better mechanisms for talent identification. While this approach requires more organizational buy-in than either the embedded or wrapped (think Amazon) models, it also provides the greatest impact and ROI.

Many learning professionals are struggling with how to approach social learning, but the models are not really that complicated. In the Embedded Model, we're simply reintroducing the social elements that used to be part of a typical instructor-led class - reflection, debrief, sharing of opinions and perspectives, and the discussion of best practices. In the Wrapped Model, we're providing a social platform for the interactions that already happen around formal courseware. And in the Community Model, we're providing a broader platform to capture social exchanges and social learning across any topic, not just those addressed in formal learning.

These three social learning models are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are quite complementary, which means organizations can begin implementing social learning wherever they are most comfortable. These models also nicely complement organizations' existing investments and models by extending and broadening the scope of current formal learning initiatives - and, in the process, they elevate the training function from the realm of the tactical to the strategic.

Someday, we may standardize on the name for these social learning/Learning 2.0/workplace learning initiatives. In the meantime, we have an occupational obligation (and more than enough information) to begin implementing them. Through an Embedded, Wrapped, or Community model of social learning, we can improve organizational efficiency, productivity, and flexibility by establishing a true learning culture where all employees are actively engaged in both the teaching and learning process.