Learning From Each Other & With Each Other — The Enigma of Social Learning in Corporations

I’m convinced that there’s an enigma around social learning in corporations.

Recently I presented at a workshop and I had a realisation. Corporate Training teams don’t understand what social learning is and their internal business clients don’t care much about it.

To many organisational Training teams, social learning incorrectly means:

  • Adding an online discussion forum plugin to the end of an existing online course mistakenly believing that people will engage in it
  • Creating an enterprise social network group as an afterthought for their course members that has little to no interaction, engagement or activity
  • Forcing employees to interact with their online community to click on ‘Likes’ or ‘Replies’ or ‘Follows’ so that the Training Teams can show management a boost activity and engagement data on their system usage reports.

That is, there is little by way of facilitating, guiding, empowering, inspiring cross-business unit conversations, collaborations and communities around business content; nor inspiring employees to build new skills to seek and search for information and people inside and outside the company to do their work.

In my observations and experience, this is because Training teams as well as business teams, may not be aware of how to incorporate social learning practices within their workplace to encourage knowledge and experience sharing.

Most important of all, they may not role model these practices themselves.

The Missing Piece in Social Learning

Recently, I was chatting to Rachel (not her real name) who lamented her experience within online communities in Slack (and others) had left her somewhat disheartened, overwhelmed by noise and inclined not to participate anymore.

Since then, I have had some Training Teams proudly tell me that they do not participate in these online communities — or their enterprise social network — citing lack of time, lack of value and also some feel that participation is for those who want their “ego stroked”.

Rachel mentioned that there was no “host” made to welcome and introduce people, connect people to others and link ideas and themes. She felt that at times, the online discussion boards were channels in which people could enter into when they were bored, and check out what people were saying, lurk, present what they were working on but with little meaningful discussion, debate or conversations that yielded anything worthwhile such as achieving some sort of end goal.

That is, she felt that there was little to no spirit of community.

As a results, she started to decline using the online boards because she didn’t derive any personal or professional value from them.

As Rachel was talking, I recalled my own excitement with online learning communities in the massive open online courses (otherwise known as the connectivist MOOCs) that I had been involved in the past such as Alec Couros’ Educational Technology MOOC (many of the people who undertook this STILL keep in contact with each other and there’s an Alumni); Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning and Jeff Merrell’s Exploring Personal Learning Networks cMOOC .

These connectivist MOOCs created an unforgettable and moving learning experience for me because I received personal and professional value out of them through interaction with a wonderful community of people from around the world who were there to do one thing — learn from each other and with each other.

For participants of these cMOOCs, the jigsaw puzzle piece fell into place when we realised the power of networked learning with a community of peers. We had a ‘host’ or a facilitator who posed questions to us around topics (but who never directed, lectured or told us answers) and we were encouraged to reflect on the reading, explore, create, solve and participate.

We couldn’t wait to meet again every week to reconnect and learn something new — learning was exciting and motivating because we were part of a global learning community.

Don’t neglect the missing piece when it comes to learning — that is, build a community.

What’s This Got to Do With Training Teams?

I believe that some company Training Teams think that social learning has to be forced or pushed onto employees.

Or, it’s about how to get their employees to use these social networks by forcing discussions, asking people to interact, or automatically subscribing them to groups.

Actions like these are community BUSTERS and should be ringing ALARM BELLS immediately.

This is NOT in the spirit of collaborative learning because the choice to participate is TAKEN AWAY from employees. This KILLS collaboration.

In effect, the cMOOCs I participated were not exactly a Community of Practice but they were more like a Community of Inquiry. (Wikipedia defines this as a “group of individuals involved in a process of empirical or conceptual inquiry into problematic situations). I wrote about these distinctions in a previous blog post called cMOOC, Social Learning Guided Program or Community of Inquiry All The Same because I saw the value of these cMOOCs within an organisational context to solve business problems — and how Training teams can support the business to build communities of inquiry.

That is, communities of cross-specialist teams who can work on business problems together while being guided by an online facilitator who knows how to inspire people to engage, present open questions, connect ideas and themes and above all, facilitate co-operation between team members to support and respect each other’s goals.

In effect, training facilitators are doing this already in organisations who run workshops and events anyway. What I was proposing was also building these skills into business people across the organisation so that they can facilitate online discussion around pesky organisational problems.

However, I always run into problems with some Training teams who see this as too time and resource intensive. It means they actually need to get INVOLVED, build and engage in these communities. It is also difficult to influence if they hadn’t experienced this type of learning themselves because they need to go through it to understand it.

Instead, they focus on the wrong things such as:

  • The question of what social technology platform to use when, where or how is IRRELEVANT.
  • The question of ‘how do we get our people to use <insert enterprise social network system here> is WRONG.
  • The blinkered view on arguments such as “but people won’t complete the program or completion rates are low therefore this won’t work for us”, is FLAWED.
  • The perception that your people don’t know how to use <insert your enterprise social network system here> is SHORT SIGHTED.

So What Are We To Do?

We need to flip our thinking entirely and focus on the worker to find out how they are currently sharing their knowledge, skills and expertise with each other both within and external to the company. Consider how we can help them build, find and engage in their own communities so that they can be personally motivated to contribute and participate because they are deriving value and benefit from it.

We need to stop focussing on the technology, tools and platforms as the drivers of collaborative behaviour and instead focus on the motivations of the individual.

We also have to stop the arguments as to what has worked in the past or what hasn’t and instead, take it down to the most basic common denominator and that is:

“How do we support ourselves and our people to work, connect and learn from each other and with each other at their place of work — wherever that may be?”

A starting point is to take a holistic view of the business environment your employees are currently working in to understand where the gaps are that prevent them from connecting with each other.

By doing this, we are then able to see how they can build networks across the organisation to tap into the people who can help them in their work as well as learn, grow and adapt for their next role.