The hype surrounding social learning can sound like an old carnival hawker at times. Social learning: The tonic to ease your troubles! With just a click here and a thumbs up there, everyone can know everything, and your company profits will shoot into the stratosphere!
Unfortunately, we know this is not the case. It takes much more than just a few lazy clicks of the mouse to make learning happen. And it takes even more commitment from companies to ensure their culture supports ongoing and applicable learning throughout all areas of the employee base.
It's easy to understand why people would want social learning to be the miracle cure. Numerous studies have shown that knowledge gained and retained from classroom training is less than desirable. We've needed to do something about this problem, and as technology advanced, learning leaders thought they found the golden ticket.
For a number of years now, organizations have been striving to provide the knowledge traditionally gained in classrooms in more efficient and cost-effective ways to try to make learning stick. Hence the emergence of eLearning about 20 years ago and the continued focus on content-driven learning approaches since.
Over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual "microtization" of that learning content (i.e., learning content broken down into smaller chunks of easily consumed information). Shorter content tends to be more attractive to today's worker, who often doesn't have the ability to carve out more than a few minutes at a time to engage with said content. It seems like the perfect solution, right? Unfortunately, it did not do much to improve knowledge gained or retained.
Then along came the emergence of social elements, beginning with social networking. Systems like Facebook and LinkedIn conditioned us to "share" and "comment," and to do so openly. "Wow," people thought. "This is going to change everything!" And indeed, it did...to a degree. Sharing and commenting have become expected, core features of social systems to the extent that one could argue that a system that doesn't allow for sharing and commenting probably isn't really social, or at least is seriously limited in capability.
But we still were missing the mark for real social learning.
Innovative companies began to marry "microtized" content with sharing and commenting capability in an effort to address social learning needs. The result is a nice combination. If I see a 3-minute video or read a blog that I like, I can quickly share it with my network, with the thought that they too might enjoy it and potentially learn something new. Some folks in my network may even reply with a "Thanks for sharing," or "Interesting read."
Okay, so what's wrong with the above? Nothing, per se. It's just lazy to assume that simply allowing people to share and comment is sufficient. The ability to do so is nice, but its true power is revealed if those who are sharing and commenting are also subsequently collaborating. (Yes, there is a difference between commenting and collaborating.)
I may watch an interesting video and simply think to myself, "Hmmm, that was pretty interesting." I may even take some terminology from the video and begin integrating it into my vocabulary. However, that does not mean that I will begin changing behavior and begin to do things differently.
It is the noticeable minority of people who are capable of changing behavior without the mentoring, coaching, and/or feedback of others. That's why if you really want to do social learning right, you have to do more than simply enable the ability for people to share and comment around content; that won't get you to your desired goal.
Sharing and commenting are important components, but as people are sharing, they must also be provided the opportunity to collaborate with others. What's the difference? Commenting is just shouting out your opinion about the information at hand without any desire to engage in a dialogue with others around it. On the other hand, collaborating is actively taking part in a conversation with others about the topic or item being shared, learning from their insights, asking questions about their experiences, sharing what you've encountered on your own, and formulating deeper understanding and knowledge of the information because of the insights of others. As you can see, there is a vast difference between commenting and collaborating.
People who really want and/or need to learn must have access to those who have walked the path before them. They need to be able to connect with people who are able and willing to provide contextualized advice and support around how to change one's behavior, not just their vocabulary. When this happens, you will have finally wrapped your arms around true social learning.
Allow me to end with this word of caution: It can be tempting to believe that the social learning box can be checked by simply providing people with content and the ability to share it. In my opinion, that is a bad assumption. I might call that social content sharing, but it falls short of social learning. To support a meaningful social learning experience, we need to push for collaboration, not just a thumbs up or thumbs down.