Defining Social Learning

Two years after we published The New Social Learning, I still hear people say “there is no definition” or worse yet, defining it in truly silly ways. A post with a slide of my definition is consistently one of the most popular posts on this site so I thought people might appreciate more on how I define the terms and what social learning is not. I’ll frame this in the questions I’m often asked.

How do you define social learning?

I define social learning as participating with others to make sense of new ideas. Augmented by a new slew of social tools, people can gather information and gain new context from people across the globe and around the clock as easily as they could from those they work beside.

“Social learning is not just the technology of social media, although it makes use of it. It is not merely the ability to express yourself in a group of opt-in friends. Social learning combines social media tools with a shift in the corporate culture, a shift that encourages ongoing knowledge transfer and connects people in ways that make learning a joy.” Excerpt from Where Social Learning Thrives (an article I wrote with Steve LeBlanc originally posted on Fast Company’s site).

What isn’t social learning?

Social learning is not technology. Re-read especially the first sentence above: it’s a very human way people have communicated throughout our history.

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 learning socially, 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, 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 contribution.

What do you see as the impact of social technology on learning?

Learning can easily occur anytime, anywhere, and in a variety of formats. It always has, but augmented by social tools, now it’s easy for others to see and learn from too.

Social tools can enable organizations to strike a balance between surfacing the knowledge people need and giving them the ease and freedom to learn in a healthy and open way.

We look across the tweet stream and tuck away lessons of finessed customer service calls, graceful endings to overlong presentations, and recoveries from cultural faux pas in front of visiting clients. Together we are better. Together we participate with others and learn nonstop.

Why hasn’t social learning become a mainstay of corporate learning?

Let’s not mix up learning with the assistance of social technology and learning socially. This question implies people aren’t using social media to learn. I think we could all agree almost everything in organizations is learned with other people, even if not across social tools. And if you believe people aren’t using social tools to learn, look closer. They may not be learning what you want them to learn but people are constantly learning what they want to online, be it what their friends and families are up to or what people that influence them are doing right now.

How do you personally use social technology to learn and grow?

Every day I connect and learn from people across the world through social technologies. Some of these people I’ve met in person, increasingly they are people I didn’t know before social media. From  them I glean new insights about topics I set out to learn as well as get introduced to new topics and related information I didn’t realize would help round out what’s important to my life and in my work.

What advice do you have for someone trying to incorporate social technology into their work and how people think about learning at their company?

Get clear on how you personally feel about social media. If you can’t imagine why anyone would want to read an update from you, ask a few people. Reflect on the types of things you enjoy gleaning from others. Consider intentionally finding and sharing information that sparked your interest. If you have doubts about the tools and their value, those you’re working with will sense your inauthenticness. Perhaps there are things you can learn from yourself through this reflection. Use it as a time to improve yourself.

Then get started. Find work that you find lackluster but have to do anyway, and challenge yourself to create a way to do it with other people across the social transom. Taking that step will also teach you so much. Like walking, it might require tripping a few times and getting back up, stronger the next time before you can run. There are many of us out here, happy to help, ready to welcome you with open arms in exchange for giving us the opportunity to learn from you too.

What are the silliest things said about social learning?

Instead let me list 10 Things Said About Social Learning
… that you shouldn’t fall for.

1. Social learning is new.
2. Social learning requires digital tools.
3. Social learning needs social learning policies.
4. There’s not data to support social learning, and no way to show ROI.
5. It’s always informal (or never informal).
6. A vendor can sell you social learning.
7. Social learning only works for white-collar workers.
8. L&D needs to initiate a social learning program before the organization learns socially.
9. For social learning to provide value you need a new LMS. Or an upgrade. Or an LMS at all.
10. Social learning doesn’t effect you.
What else would you like answered? I’ll do my best to answer in the comments or in subsequent posts.


Related post you may find useful:

Kindle Highlights Social Learning shows you the most highlighted quotes from book, The New Social Learning

Information about the book including  Chapter Summaries and how to download a free sample of the book (Forward, Introduction, and Chapter one where there is more definitional detail)

Social Media for Training with a nod to Jane Bozarth’s terrific book Social Media for Trainers

[Image: Flickr user opensourceway]

Defining Social Learning