The past decade has seen some significant transformations in learning and development. One major shift has been toward the use of social media and broader social approaches, such as action learning and unconferencing. This shift has taken place as part of a broader move from formal toward informal and social learning.
However, there is still a tendency to interpret social learning as a process rather than an outcome, meaning the increased knowledge and skills of a social group. Refocusing on the social outcome is an important opportunity. Most organizations succeed or fail depending on the effectiveness of their teams and groups rather than because of the quality of their individual employees. In other words, the learning of a social group is more important than the learning of the individuals.
This fact is demonstrated by a meta-analysis of 33 research studies on teamwork training interventions, which emphasized the benefits of team-based training: “Bringing a group of highly-skilled individuals together is not sufficient for teams to be effective. Rather, team members need to be able to work well together in order for the team to successfully achieve its purposes.”
Some efforts to develop groups are, of course, already being made. In particular, organizational learning aims to develop the whole organization as a single, complex social group. However, little real progress has been made with this process since it was proposed in Peter Senge’s 1990 book, “The Fifth Discipline.”
In addition, even with the additional capabilities provided through enterprise social media, enabling a whole organization to learn together is always going to be challenging. A lot of the time, it will also be unnecessary. The individual employee is too small a unit to work with, but the whole organization is too big. The most useful and impactful unit to focus on is the group.
However, enabling the learning of a group does often start with the individual. Firstly, we can be smarter about who within a group is trained. Organizations may not need everyone within a group to learn something, and the group member best placed to learn it may not be the most obvious person (e.g., the team manager or an already over-committed expert). Therefore, we need to review how we can best share learning across the individuals within a group.
In addition, a major part of an individual’s learning when we focus on the group has to be on working alongside others. This learning includes who the people are, what they need, and how an individual can adapt his or her behaviors to fit the individuals, the group and organizational norms.
Then, we need to review the learning required across members of the group. This process is complicated by the fact that most organizations consist of multiple types of groups. Most typically, these groups are hierarchical functions, horizontal project teams, communities and networks. Functions and projects prioritize the achievement of tasks, while communities and networks emphasize the fulfilment of individual potential through appropriate connections with other people.
Learning in functions and projects focuses on work, tasks and direct skill requirements. In functions, learning focuses more deeply on the discipline, while in project teams, it covers a broader set of needs relating to the customers and their requirements. In communities and networks, learning is about the people involved in these groups. In communities, it focuses more deeply on the people who are involved, whereas in networks, it acts more broadly, helping them learn about other people who could be brought into the network.
Learning and development has long focused on using communities of practice and, more recently, on using personal learning networks to support learning. We now need to start focusing on supporting the learning of new and existing business communities and networks. Learning also needs to focus on the interactions among groups, and here, learning and development can use and build upon approaches already used within organizational development.
These, then, are the opportunities to redefine or extend social learning to include a focus on social outcomes, and, in particular, on the different types of social groups.