Where Social Learning Thrives

This article was co-authored with Steve LeBlanc, one of my favorite collaborators.

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.

Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder. It is inspired by leaders, enabled by technology and ignited by opportunities that have only recently unfolded.

If a culture is focused on service, the most pressing question is, “How can I help you?” How can I help you succeed? How can I help you ask strong questions, take wise risks and deliver great content? How can I help you prosper? Most importantly, how can I help you learn and make new connections? How can I help you serve the larger group, of which we are both a part?

Yet in most classrooms, young people are prevented from helping each other learn and succeed. In some communities, concern for property values and yard maintenance outweigh assisting neighbors. In many companies, talk of competitors and departmental politics overshadow someone’s need for mentoring or gaining fresh perspective. Over 60 years ago, W. Edwards Demming encouraged management to drive out fear and break down barriers between departments, and still worry and walls are the two constants that most organizations share.

Part of why we are not better at helping one another learn and grow is that our attention is spread thin. There is so much going on. We haven’t built this notion of serving into the business cycle; into our daily work. Nor have we dismantled the myth that fear and embarrassment somehow motivates people to learn. By choosing wisely where we place our attention, we have more attention and enthusiasm to give. Or as Clay Shirky put it at Web 2.0 Expo NY, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”

Social learning is accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity. No one gets offended when we don’t follow a project outside our domain. No one notices when we temporarily filter out the rants of people beating their own drum.

It’s the technology of social learning, and social media in general, that allows us to regulate our attention to those areas where we can gain the highest return on investment, and put our best contributions out into the world. It’s the culture of social learning that helps identify how those contributions are important to us all.

Requests for help, feedback and insight can be made without burden, without coercion, without fear. It takes time, though. You don’t simply announce a culture of service one day in the hope that everyone will figure it out.

Growing a culture of service is more like planting a garden than building a shed. A garden requires tending, whereas a shed is built once. A social learning culture requires design, training, guidance, leadership, monitoring and celebrating successes, large and small. People need to know where the organization is headed and why it matters. It’s not easy for people to make the shift from a culture where they fear they are not good enough and need to improve, to one where they feel safe enough to want to improve for the enjoyment of it. Some will think it impossible for a whole culture to shift from fear-based fixes to joy-based learning, from coercion to inspiration. Others have witnessed it and will cheer along.

The trail is being blazed by some unexpected players, including IBM and the CIA. We do not know all of what it takes to make this cultural shift work. There is still a kind of magic in the soup. But from our own work and the illustrative examples from groups like the 2.0 Adoption Council, we are seeing stunning examples of where it works. When done well, the results are nothing short of magical.

Think of asking someone out. A trip to Spain is a larger request than a local dinner, which is larger than meeting for coffee. The larger the request, the more pressure and the more difficult it is to back out. The smaller your request, the more fun you make it to participate. Whether courting customers, friends or romance, demonstrate your interest by listening and connecting. Help them succeed.

The easier the tools make it for people to tell us what they need, the easier and more enjoyable it is to be genuinely helpful. The technology and culture of social learning can create an environment where you are enthusiastically supported, where your sense of wonder returns and creativity blossoms — where people thrive.

[photo credit: Swan’s Wings, lassi.kurkijarvi]

Originally published on Fast Company’s Learn At All Levels by Marcia Conner and Steve LeBlanc.


Steve LeBlanc (@sleveo), public speaker, corporate trainer and holistic healer sees opportunities everywhere for learning and helping people connect.

Marcia Conner (@marciamarcia), works with senior leaders to put collaborative technology into action. Her new book, The New Social Learning with Tony Bingham address how to thrive with social business and more.

Where Social Learning Thrives
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