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  • Harnessing the Power of Social Learning in 2011 and Beyond

Introducing social learning for employees, partners and customers is a source of concern for many companies because of its unstructured nature and lack of an immediately apparent context in a formal company environment. Chief learning officers know they must address several business issues, including loss of control over learning, soft or non-existent metrics, and how to leverage the broad community of experts. In short, they want to know that investments they make in social learning tools and resources will produce the desired results.

Truth is that social learning is occurring, and results are happening with or without explicit understanding of how and when they occur. What leadership is really striving to know is how to harness the power of this phenomenon that has been going on for decades in a similar fashion, only now technology is speeding up the exchange of information from the crowd at an amazing pace.

For example, a learner might go online, perform a web search on a particular topic, or read blog postings on a topic. This is social learning or “learning from the crowd”—and it is inevitable. Increasingly, people turn to the web, using their mobile phones and other devices to get information precisely when they need it. Interestingly, they tend to trust this group-sourced information, even when comparing it to information they used to get only from “official” learning sources like training courses.

What is social learning? Let’s check Wikipedia for a definition

When a person consults his friends, peers, experts and others to get information on a topic that he is curious about, he is engaging in social learning. He aggregates the information from various sources and makes his own meaning from what he has learned.

For example, consider a young baker who wants to make a pie from scratch. She needs to know how to make a nice flaky crust. She goes to a recipe website to get the ingredients and instructions; reads a Martha Stewart blog post on the merits of using butter instead of vegetable shortening; watches a video on YouTube to learn how to handle the crust; and consults a cooking forum to get special tips from other cooks on keeping the dough from getting stiff when rolling it out. Armed with all this good information, the novice baker is ready to try her hand at making her first homemade pie.

A few decades ago, our young baker (“the apprentice”) would have learned the art of making the perfect pie from working with her grandmother (“the master”) side by side in the kitchen. Long regarded as the best way to learn, the master/apprentice relationship all but disappeared with the industrial revolution. Now the Internet and social media enable this relationship again by allowing the learner to access expert information and to get close to the expert with a few keystrokes.

The underlying basis for social learning is social networking, which has four main components:

  • Forums encourage people to share information through conversations on topics that interest them. Forums tend to be very interactive, with lots of questions, answers, personal opinions and back and forth dialogue.
  • Blogs are similar to a daily newspaper, where one person is providing his expertise or opinion on some subject. The best blogs are informative or entertaining and have a large following of readers. Twitter is simply a microblogging tool where the content is ultra-condensed.
  • Media are the means of communication of the participants’ ideas or knowledge, often through videos on YouTube, presentations and articles posted to a shared folder, and content on a website.
  • An online encyclopedia is a tool that enables participants to access and interactively build a library of trustworthy general information. Of course, Wikipedia is a prime example here, but many industries and organizations have their own forms of an encyclopedia.

All four of these elements together can provide online communities of people with the means to interact with and learn from each other.

Social learning complements formal learning and fills the gaps

Each of us makes meaning out of information in our own way. We start with what we know and build on that with different pieces of information that we obtain to create new opinions and new capabilities. Therefore, a foundation of formal learning has to be at the base of any social learning application. When participants in a social learning network share a common base of knowledge, it’s possible for learners to build new knowledge based on what they obtain from each other.

A world-class example where thousands of members of a social learning community build on a base of common knowledge is the Cisco Learning Network . Participants all have base level knowledge about Cisco Systems networking products, but many members have a far higher level of knowledge, which they happily share with others. (It’s the old master/apprentice relationship at work.)

A social learning network can be quite helpful when formal learning (i.e., structured courses) isn’t fully addressing a need, or can’t respond to a learning need quick enough. This is precisely why the Cisco Learning Network is so popular. Although Cisco provides formal training courses, the curricula can’t possibly cover every detail a student would want to know on a complex topic like networking. Moreover, when Cisco releases new products, the training could lag new product introduction by weeks or months. By turning to the learning network, IT professionals can help each other fill gaps in their knowledge and information.

In any social network where members contribute content to a forum, there usually are a couple of people who are popularly viewed as content experts. Others seek out, trust and propagate the opinions of these experts. In return these “experts” are rewarded with community recognition, and sometimes formal rewards, thus perpetuating the natural human tendency to help others and be recognized.  

A social learning network supercharged with business processes

A social learning network in a business context can be made even more valuable when it supports or enhances critical business processes. For example, Next Step Learning and Hewlett-Packard have jointly created a social learning network that also incorporates important HP business process automation and enablement for a worldwide community of HP trainers. Far from being an unstructured “free-for-all” learning network, the Instructor Resources Center (IRC) is a business hub for more than six hundred widely dispersed instructors responsible for training HP employees, partners and customers all around the world.  

To create and sustain a high level of global standards for classroom instruction, HP uses this virtual “teachers’ lounge” to ensure instructor readiness. Not only can instructors share among themselves what is happening in their far-flung classrooms, but they interact with HP on several additional business elements:

Credential Management – Instructors are able to manage their certifications and other credentials through the community site. These credentialing processes are supported informally by the social network and formally by training program managers.

Courseware and Teaching Materials – The community is supported by a complete life cycle management process that ensures all teaching materials, lab aids, tools and presentations are complete and up to date. Members of the social network have online access to these materials based on their credentials or other business need. If issues pertaining to course materials arise, the social network can quickly communicate to the instructors as well as the worldwide program management team. When courseware updates are posted, they are immediately available worldwide.

Global Standards – By leveraging social media tools, community members have access to HP corporate materials like logos, presentation templates, training readiness materials, marketing announcements, upcoming product releases, news and events—all coming from a single trusted source.

Team Dynamics – Organizing the business processes and the network of contributors into a social learning community enables virtual teams to come together to accomplish tasks or work on initiatives; for example, to improve courseware quality, drive training readiness and facilitate new product introductions.

“We launched the Instructor Resource Center in November 2008, and now it’s hard to imagine how we would do our jobs without it,” says Heidi Freeman, Learning Channel Program Manager for HP. “The forums are very active as our instructors share their experiences and ‘best practices’ from the classroom, and this makes the learning experience so much better for our students. And from HP’s standpoint of managing our intellectual property and collaborating with our growing team of instructors, the IRC is the perfect platform to support our global learning programs.”

It’s time to harness social learning networks

As educators in a modern world, we need to harness the power of social learning. It’s imperative to complement formal learning programs by allowing people with similar needs and interests to learn from their peers and knowledgeable experts. We have to enable learners to use the best of what they already know to get to where they want to go. Moreover, supercharging the networks by incorporating business functions and processes can provide an even higher payback and just might be the incentive needed to justify the investment in resources.

Key Takeaways

  • The elements of social networking such as forums, blogs and online media are the underpinning of social networking. These elements allow people to interact with and learn from each other.
  • A foundation of formal learning has to be at the base of any social learning network. Learners start with what they know and build on that with different bits of information to create new knowledge and capabilities.
  • Social learning is complementary and supplemental to formal learning, filling the gaps when people need instant knowledge.
  • Social learning should be augmented with process automation to achieve measurable business results.

Tom Robinson is the Chief Information Officer of Next Step Learning of Alpharetta, Georgia. In this role, Robinson has been instrumental in developing social network-based resource centers for Next Step Learning customers. Write to him at

Rick Carter is the vice president of Global Business Development for Next Step Learning. Carter is responsible for replicating the success of social learning networks across NSL’s worldwide client base. Contact him at

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