What is social learning (and how to adopt it)

• 11 min read

Social learning can help today’s organizations keep up with the pace at which their business moves

More and more, organizations are turning to social learning to deliver exciting e-learning experiences to their customers, partners, and employees. The concept is more than just a buzzword and is now increasingly used by forward-thinking organizations to foster collaborative learning and its application in the flow of work to drive organizational performance and the effectiveness of L&D activities.

While there remains a need for formal training environments to meet specific learning outcomes, the necessity for organizations to leverage platforms that enable social and informal learning, where learners network, share, collaborate, and exchange ideas to solve problems, is paramount.

Humans are by nature social animals, which is why social interactions are crucial to our development at every stage of our lives. Observational learning is all about the interactions we have across all facets of our lives: we talk to people, we listen to what they’re saying, and then aim to apply or consider the insights that person is bestowing upon us (and vice-versa).

For organizations, the ability to formalize the informal knowledge that exists within their ranks (and rewarding their best contributors for doing so) boosts engagement and encourages more knowledge sharing. At the end of the day, those contributions deliver more insights and knowledge into a repository designed to develop an already skilled workforce and improve the performance of the business.

Today, delivering truly effective and engaging learning experiences that amplify the success of an organization’s learning strategy is crucial to a business’ bottom line. Deploying social learning concepts and technologies as part of the learning mix is no longer an option, it’s a necessity.

Need proof?

  • Social learning approaches have a 75:1 ROI ratio compared to formal web-based training
  • 82% of businesses that use social learning tools want to increase their use them in the future
  • Course completion increased to 85% on HBX, a Harvard Business School online education initiative when it introduced social learning
  • Semiconductor manufacturer, AMD, says their shift to social learning saves more than US$250,000 per year in web-based training production costs

What is social learning?

Social learning is based on a theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura that proposes learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and occurs purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement.

Consider the social aspects of our everyday lives. Today, we learn by watching, listening, and doing; by blending visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles to understand new concepts, retain that knowledge, and apply them to everyday challenges, at work and at home.

This is Bandura’s social learning theory. The approach abandons traditional learning models, favoring a more common sense, real-life approach to learning. Compared to traditional formal learning techniques, social learning focuses on how we interact with our peers for just-in-time learning and skill acquisition—a maxim of the 70:20:10 learning framework. The methodology suggests that about 70% of someone’s learning happens via on-the-job experiences, 20% through interactions with their peers, and just 10% in traditional, instructor-led classroom environments.

There are a number of modern social learning tools powered by technology, including social networks and the software we use every day to communicate and interact with people across our personal and professional lives. For example, Docebo’s “Coach & Share” module creates an integrated environment for organizations where their people can meet and communicate seamlessly, but also ask questions, give answers, and then rate the value of their experience.

Leveraging social learning with e-learning content is the new norm: forward-thinking organizations are using it to drive engagement with their L&D activities, leading to positive growth in job and organizational performance. Moreover, social learning manifests in on-demand informal learning settings where learners collaborate, share, and exchange ideas to solve problems.

Why does social learning matter?

In traditional learning environments, most people recall only 10% of the information taught within 72 hours. Consider the impact that lack of knowledge retention could have on your organization. For example, a salesperson may have trouble recalling the lessons they learned from an annual sales kickoff event by the next week. That could cost the sale and have a negative impact on your bottom line. Not good, right?

Social learning helps organizations reverse these kinds of potential outcomes. After all, one of the concept’s main goals is to drive knowledge retention. Instead of relying on traditional models with low recollection rates, social learning encourages learning in working environments and allows learners to pull knowledge from experts within the organizations instead of having knowledge pushed on them (like a formal learning system would).

Simply speaking, people learn by example and by direct experiences. That’s why it’s easy to understand why 73% of companies surveyed by the Brandon Hall Group expect to increase their focus on social learning. The same research concludes that social learning approaches deliver a 75:1 ROI ratio compared to web-based formal training to unlock and spread knowledge across an organization.

Enterprises and social learning

We know now that social learning takes place through interaction between peers, naturally in the workplace, but it’s also encouraged by social learning tools, such as Learning Management Systems (LMS).

We must also consider how social learning can impact talent retentionSince we all are social beings, we also need to feel like we’re part of a group. When we share our knowledge, such as by teaching something to someone else, we naturally feel like we’re part of something bigger. By coincidence, this is how organizations improve employee satisfaction, engagement, and attachment to the company itself.  

For enterprises, there are several reasons to adopt social learning in the workplace, including:

  • Shorter orientation times for new hires: It can take up to 2 years before an employee is “fully productive.” For some employees, they may require as long as 6 months to simply feel fully comfortable in their new position. Social learning accelerates this process by acclimating new hires to their co-workers and internal subject matter experts quickly, encouraging them to feel comfortable asking questions and creating connections across the entire organization more effectively.
  • It promotes constructivism: Constructivism is a standard that promotes learning as an active and constructive process in which learners become teachers. It assists in creating a workforce full of stakeholders that are engaged with their training as a result of informally training their peers.
  • It improves communication in the workplace: Communication should be clear in every workplace, at every level of the organization. It can be easy to lose meaning over email and other electronic communications, increasing the need for face-to-face interactions. Social learning facilitates collaboration organically, especially in an e-learning environment, in which insights are shared and valued across the entire organization.

Bandura and Walters’ description of social theory

People learn by observing the behavior of others, their attitudes, and the outcomes of their behaviors. Albert Bandura hypothesized that social learning spans the gap between behaviorism and cognitivism. To break that down simply would be to suggest that social learning theory explains how we learn when we are in social contexts—that people learn from their environment via observation, imitation, and modeling.

Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. Bandura‘s intention was to explain how children learn in social environments by examining and imitating the observed behavior of others. He believed learning could not be fully explained via simple reinforcement, but instead that the presence of other people in learning experiences was also incredibly influential on learning outcomes.

Need an example of this concept in a modern sense? Consider the explosive popularity of websites such as YouTube. Users upload their own content, on whatever topic they choose, and their credibility is determined by the popularity and rating of that video from those within the YouTube community.

“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.” – Albert Bandura

Bandura’s 4 principles of social learning

The behaviorist formulated four principles of social learning.

1. Attention: We can’t learn if we aren’t focused on the task at hand. If we believe something as being novel or different, it’s more likely that that concept becomes the focus of our attention. Social contexts reinforce these perceptions.

2. Retention: Humans learn by internalizing information. We recall learned information when we need to respond to a situation similar to the situation in which we first learned that information.

3. Reproduction: We reproduce previously learned information (behavior, skills, knowledge) when required. Practice through mental and physical rehearsal generally improves responses.

4. Motivation: We need motivation to do anything. More often than not, humans are motivated by someone else being rewarded or punished for something they have said or done. This generally motivates us to do, or avoid doing, the same thing.

Social learning theory

Social learning theorists, Bandura and Walters describe social learning theory as follows:

  • Learning is not purely behavioral, but instead a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. It’s why learners prefer to learn in groups, in which an interchange of knowledge and perspective creates new knowledge personal to individual learners.
  • Learning occurs by observing a behavior and then observing the consequences of putting those behaviors into action.
  • Learning involves observation, extraction of information from those observations, and making decisions based on the expected output or performance of that behavior. Therefore, it would suggest that learning can occur without any observable changes in behavior.
  • Reinforcement plays a significant role in learning but is not entirely responsible for it.
  • Learners are not passive recipients of information, but instead, cognition, environment, and behavior all influence each other (reciprocal determinism).

Benefits of social learning in the workplace

While social learning has its roots in the beginnings of human history, it’s only now becoming so popular (especially among corporations) because technology has caught up to the point that its benefits are measurable and able to address common concerns related to its efficacy in the workplace.

Social learning technologies now have a huge impact on a number of core enterprise processes, including recruiting, onboarding, training, and developing talent. The best thing for organizations is that the results are quickly measurable, as social technologies have a direct and obvious effect on performance.

As more learning opportunities present themselves in the workplace, a collaborative social learning environment establishes opportunities for troubleshooting, problem-solving, design implementation, research and development, and innovation to find answers, even in the absence of a coach or mentor.

In an ideal world, a result of this would be an improvement in workplace productivity, while those within the organization constantly develop.

How to adopt social learning in the workplace

It’s important to remember that social learning is not necessarily about learning in groups, but rather learning through the example of others. With that in mind, here are a few ways social learning can be introduced to the workplace

FAQs and forums: Create a simple place (or forum) where employees can ask questions and get answers from within the organization to promote a social culture of collaborative learning.

Organization wikis: An inter-organizational wikipedia is a great source of knowledge, especially for new employees or those who aren’t familiar with every facet of the organization. Allow subject matter experts to edit wiki content as it is critical to keep information relevant and up-to-date, and encourage users to pull that information whenever they need it.

Leverage expert knowledge: There are undoubtedly people within your organization that have questions and people with the expertise to answer those questions. Create communication channels where experts can use their knowledge to help others and encourage users and other experts to rate answers, making sure that only the best ones are used (and shared).

Gamification and rewards: You can’t force people to learn, but you can give them the right tools and incentives to make sure they don’t waste opportunities. Gamification and rewards can help create these incentives. Gamification gives learning administrators a way to track learner progress and performance. Well-performing users and experts who regularly offer their knowledge can be rewarded to incentivize participation.

How to make social learning effective in the workplace

Today, organizations that learn together, grow together.

Social learning is arguably the most widely used learning strategy among adult learners. By sharing performance experiences, lessons learned, solutions to business challenges, and the creative ideas needed to solve them, learners are able to gain a wider spectrum of knowledge within a social learning environment.

Here are just a few things you can do to make social learning effective in your organization.

Make onboarding faster (and easier): New employees can kickstart their learning process by getting answers to questions from their peers at any time, starting from day one. Better than that, scheduled training can happen anytime, so your new people don’t have to wait for it to start being productive.

Ask questions and get answers at the point of need: Asking questions and testing solutions on actual problems in real time is one of the most effective ways to learn a procedure.

Get them to contribute (even if someone’s a passive learner): Not everyone’s over the moon about the idea of having to get in front of their peers to ask a question. With virtual channels, you can give those who are a little shyer a way to contribute to the conversation without making them step out of their comfort zone.

Learn at your own speed: Not everyone learns at the same pace. If answers to particular questions are available online at any time, they can be reviewed over and over again until the concept is retained effectively.

Create a Community of Coaches (or just take part in whatever capacity you want): People in the organization are experts in their own particular area. Everyone should be encouraged to take part in a discussion, at any level. Encourage employees to engage freely and develop knowledge that makes them experts across various facets of the business.

Show off your talent: iI the organization is creating expertise, that knowledge should be shared. Make note of contributions by senior team members, experts, or other role models that can be facilitated and encouraged by an environment that rewards top performances with measurable recognition—doing so can go a long way in growing talent within the organization.

Social learning features available in Docebo Learn LMS

Formal learning accounts for only a fraction of learning. That was one of the main drivers behind Docebo’s development of Coach & Share, our social learning module based on the 70:20:10 learning framework. Coach & Share is an extension of our core LMS, Learn. Not only does it give organizations a new way to deliver their material, but also gives them a way to shift their learning culture and transform it into an opportunity for personal growth with social learning.

With Coach & Share, Docebo has created an integrated environment where people within any organization can seamlessly meet, communicate, and exchange knowledge. They can ask questions, get answers, and rate the value of their experience. Within the Coach & Share ecosystem, content is accessible organization-wide. This gives businesses a way to formalize the informal knowledge people have, while rewarding their best contributors and driving users to engage. And when people are motivated to share and absorb knowledge, it improves performance across the entire business.
The best part? Docebo’s social learning capabilities give you a way to established a semi-structured approach to collaborative learning, building virtual communities that encourage your learners to contribute to idea forums and curate new knowledge into an organization-wide knowledge center that acts as a repository of ideas that can be added to and tapped for years to come.

Adopting social learning just makes sense

Moving to a social learning framework can be as simple as the click-of-a-button. But technology is only half of the story. To effectively deploy a social learning strategy that works, organizations must recognize and adapt to a shift in culture, in which L&D is transformed from a necessary evil to an opportunity for personal and professional growth. This is particularly true among organizations that suffer from employee engagement and retention issues.

Social learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix to your e-learning issues, but it does produce benefits that go beyond the effectiveness of your learning strategy. Today, social learning in the workplace isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.