It is no secret that the human aspect, the social interactions, the contacts with one or more “knowers” play a determining role in learning.
Throughout our lives, we interact with others, listening to them, observing their actions and naturally, this is an important part of our development process.
Built on this evidence, many approaches have appeared: Social Learning, Collaborative Learning, Peer Learning…
But what is the real impact of these approaches on companies?
In this article, we could talk at length about the theories underlying these approches, such as the social learning theory, information processing theory, learning by mimicry, the forgetting curve… but behind the theory, unfortunately, lie many unfulfilled promises.
Far be it from us to say that these theories are not important, especially when it comes to designing a specific training program. However, they will always be subject to development, adaptation, replacement or combination. In fact, it will be difficult to find the magic recipe to exploit (not to say hack) the social and human dimension of learning. And you can be sure that you will hear about it very quickly when it happens.
That said, there is no doubt that one day it will happen. After all, some social networking applications have already been very successful in exploiting some social and human mechanisms with likes, followers and a Pavlovian conditioning to a little red dot on our notifications tab or in the corner of an application icon on our smartphone homepage. Learning, on the other hand, is infinitely more complicated to harness in this way than our need for belonging and social validation.
If we want to tap into the social and human dimension of learning, a more impactful approach might be to simply start by providing human-based development opportunities, such as giving back to front-line managers the tools they need to support the development of their teams. in other words, let the magnificent machine that is the human brain do what it does and focus on providing opportunities.
Indeed, if our goal is to have an impact on the company through learning, cultivating the human dimension of learning (social learning and so on) must first and foremost be a powerful vector of organizational change rather than a simple pedagogical tool or gadget.
As we will see, it is a way to change how and by whom the “story” of the company, it’s product or services, it’s people and it’s vision is told. Is it still only up to the company to write and tell the story, from the top down? Or is it up to the company’s employees to make it their own?
“Storytelling is our specialty. It’s the basis for everything we do as a species”
Yuval Noah Harari
2. The role of Social Learning in a company
There is no need to define the terms Social Learning, Collaborative Learning or Peer Learning, their names are self-explanatory. These learning approaches have a common goal: to give back to corporate learning it’s essential human dimension.
However, cultivating the human dimension of learning goes far beyond being a simple packaged approach with various pedagogical tools that could increase learner engagement and information retention. It can be a powerful vector of organizational change if envisionned in the right way and will have a real impact on a company at every level and in a multi-dimensional manner.
Manage the increasing complexity of the business environment
When we observe the evolution of complex organizations, be it a company, a state or other, we realize that they often follow the same logic. They first structure themselves in clear hierarchical systems (a monarchical system for example) and then evolve by decentralizing control in order to absorb the growing complexity (democracy with universal suffrage for example). And indeed, it is hard to imagine that democracy would have existed without centuries of monarchy before it to lay the foundations. We also notice that exactly the same phenomenon has been happening for some years now in the business world. Little by little, the management of companies is becoming “flatter”, connections and contacts between employees are increasing, more and more specialists are involved or consulted in the decision making process and hierarchical systems and roles are increasingly blurred.
Indeed, arising from the need to structure and control organizations of unprecedented size and complexity, often bringing together thousands or even tens of thousands of individuals, we set up clearly established hierarchical structures to federate the individuals who compose it around a common story and thus impose correlations in human behavior. As a result, the human dimension of learning, which had been predominant until then, was relegated to the background to make way for a more formal, systematic and standardized training that constituted a story that was exclusively told by the organization in a top-down fashion.
Social learning and storytelling, a powerful vector for organizational change
Today’s business world faces many challenges in developing its employees. The scarcity of talent, the lack of key competencies in the company, the departure of employees with key competencies, the lack of internal mobility opportunities or development opportunities in general, the inability or relative difficulty to plan and develop the strategic competencies that the company will need in the future are increasingly threatening companies, regardless of their size.
These challenges have been well identified for several years now in the HR world, and most companies are already making the transition to more “hybrid” structures.
In terms of learning, this is characterized by the emergence of new approaches. We hear about collaborative learning, peer learning and social learning, among others. So many approaches for the same objective: to preserve the indispensable human dimension of learning by increasing the number of connections between individuals within the organization via learning.
And in the same way that democracy would not exist without centuries of monarchy and the rise of sharing tools and the exchange of ideas(notably through books and printing) between individuals that usually have no impact on decision making, formal and standardized training is the basis on which innovations will be able to support and even amplify the human dimension of learning within complex organizations.
It is now not only up to the organization to tell the story, but also to the individuals who make up the organization to take ownership of it, adapt i and even rewrite it.
3. The dimensions of a social learning approach in companies 🤖
User-generated content (UGC) and user-curated content (UCC)
The participative web (also called web 2.0) which designates an evolution of the web has allowed any Internet user to produce and share content. Social networks are the predominant emanation. On these platforms, users create content they find interesting and share it with people who are likely to be interested. And although the first use cases of the participative web date back to the end of the 2000s and have now become an integral part of our daily lives, they are struggling to penetrate the corporate learning sphere.
When it comes to digital learning, there are two particularly interesting use cases:
The curation of educational content by users (User-curated content)
The creation of educational content by users (User-generated content)
While content curation involves the orderly integration of external content into your learning environment, it is also possible for content to be generated internally with a User Generated Content (UGC) approach. User-generated content and curation are complementary.
Not only do they help bridge the time between the emergence of a training need on a particular topic and the creation of an adapted formal training (also known as Time to Learn), but they also allow to combine non-specific training with specific training. They also allow easy access to content on issues that are not very common, that concern only a few employees and for which it would not be cost-effective to invest time (internal from a trainer or external) in producing content. Furthermore, content and ideas that are not part of the company’s storytelling.
By sharing content between collaborators, links are created, opportunities for exchange are born and together, emplyees can start to take ownership of the storytelling of the company, making it more alive, more coherent and more in line with the context in which the company operates. The Internet is to the modern company what the book was to monarchical nations.
The key role of managers, business experts, coaches and mentors
Some individuals will have a special role to play in the approach, but it’s important to remember what may be another characteristic of tomorrow’s enterprise: our roles (not to be confused with our positions) are becoming increasingly blurred. Although we are all learners, we can also be mentors, coaches, managers or business experts…
Cultivating the human dimension of learning is therefore also about giving each role the space to express itself fully at different times and throughout their career in the company.
Managers of course have a key role to play in the development of their teams; it is up to them to provide guidance, recommendations and to assess skills.
The business expert also has an important role to play, as he or she can bring knowledge to the various employees of the company. Whether it is about organising events, sharing or creating training content, he/she has an expertise that is important to the company and that should be transmitted. Moreover, he often combines both a specific expertise around a skill or a group of skills, he also has specific knowledge to the company and is therefore very well placed to combine the two and thus have a real impact by giving more meaning to the training according to the training environment of an employee.
Motivation: Learners and communities
Today’s technology has given employees the means to access and share information anywhere and anytime to accomplish tasks.
However, these means alone are only a small part of the human dimension we should seek to cultivate in a company. It takes community work to build a human dimension. When identified, supported, and nurtured effectively, learning communities create a continuous harmony where employees follow each other in a sequence of reflection, problem solving, access to “knowers”, and hands-on work to achieve learning goals.
The development of learning communities can play a key role in improving, increasing the competence and involvement of employees to make the company more resilient from a human and competitive point of view.
In particular, they allow team members to express their knowledge and connect on common passions. The benefit is not only in developing new experiences and skills in individuals, but also in the organization as a whole.
Let’s not forget that learning communities can exist online or offline, can already exist informally in a “hidden” way and only need to be formalized. They can be small or large, and benefit from different network effects in different contexts.
Therefore, the identitification, creation and maintenance of learning communities is essential for a company to thrive in uncertain market conditions, create a culture of excellence and to respond well to change. The approach must facilitate the flexibility to honor the uniqueness of each individual in order to make the most of them.
Assessment and appreciation : the essential role of the human aspect
Assessment is essential to any relevant learning system, but again, it should not be overly complex. In particular, it is important to distinguish between assessment and appreciation, because appreciation is just as important as assessment. For example, how many times do you have to change a wheel before you are perceived (appreciated) as competent? 10? 100? 1000? This goes back to the evaluation of others but also to the self-assessment that we make of ourselves. There is not necessarily an assessment as such. In the case of an exam, for example, it’s an assessment but the scale of this exam depends on the appreciation of the trainer(s).
If there are critical functions that it is normal to evaluate finely thanks to precise scales, for more general competences, it is good to rely on a more human approach that relies on the appreciation of experts, peers, managers or other trainers… They have indeed a crucial role to play when it comes to developing the competences of their collaborators and teams and they are the ones who are best placed to appreciate the competences of the latter.
4. Social Learning and human aspects of learning, in short🧬
Social Learning, Collaborative Learning or Peer Learning… it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep the human dimension of learning in contexts that are constantly evolving and being digitized by providing real human-based development opportunities.