Social learning has become a popular name given to multiple collaborative online tools for sharing knowledge, building relationships, and interacting with content and with other members of the online community. The claim is that by using social learning tools, learners learn independently, more quickly, and more efficiently, and become more productive and effective. Content in these systems is mostly user-generated and user-rated for interest, relevance, and helpfulness. Most commonly, the tools used by organizations for social learning purposes are wikis, discussion boards, blogs, video-uploading platforms, and podcasting.

How Does Social Learning Work?

Regardless of their levels of expertise or tenure, all employees can benefit from sharing information, creating connections, and getting access to the cross-cutting organizational body of expertise and knowledge of other employees, anywhere, anytime. That’s because every employee with access to an Internet connection and a computer is a potential use and beneficiary of social learning as a development tool.

For example, you can help new employees gain information easily and quickly to help them onboard more smoothly. To develop more seasoned employees, let them discuss and learn from their peers across the organization and expand their network of internal contacts. And to help your internal subject matter experts grow and develop, encourage them to easily document and share their knowledge of organizational products, services, processes, procedures, workarounds and shortcuts, and systems. Finally, all employees can share expertise and intelligence gathered from outside the organization such as vendor information, industry news and knowledge, client needs and feedback, and competitive insights.

Can you develop managers and leaders using social learning? Certainly! Managers and leaders can use these tools to improve team and organizational performance and gain insight into key employee concerns and interests. They can also use them for building and developing teams as well as providing performance support mechanisms to teams and individual staff members. So social learning is an employee development method that is appropriate for just about everyone in the organization.

How can you implement social learning?

Here are eight social learning implementation tips to get you started on your path to success.

  1. Social learning is here to stay. Face the fact—social learning is not going away. It’s going to grow in prevalence and importance, so we might as well take the leap and embrace it.
  2. Change will happen. Social learning is in its infancy, and it will continue to evolve.
  3. Social learning is not enough. Blend it with other development methods—social learning is complementary, not meant to replace other methods.
  4. Take baby steps. Avoid the all-or-nothing approach—phase it in slowly, incrementally.
  5. Help it grow. Create some seed content and get some early commenters to get the conversation started. This grassroots effort will build momentum and lead to culture change over time.
  6. The learners are your target. Maintain your focus on the learners, not the system, the content, or the bells and whistles. It must serve the learners’ needs and address their expectations, or they won’t find it valuable and won’t use it.
  7. Listen to users. Ask them questions and be open to changing what you’re doing along the way.
  8. Balance flexibility and control. Strike the delicate balance between allowing full freedom for the open-space “sandbox” experience and measuring metrics so rigidly that it inhibits or restricts the ease of participation, collaboration, and users’ interaction with content and each other.

Have you or your organization experimented with social learning as an employee development method? Please share your thoughts, experiences, and questions.

Get the full story in my book, Employee Development on a Shoestring.