In this series of three articles, i want to explore social learning from the perspective of the individual and the organisation in today’s workplace and then take a look to the future, to where social may take us.
Social learning takes place in the grey space between the formal worlds of work and the informal social spaces that we inhabit outside. It is typified by rapid dialogue, by semi evolved ideas and opinions and by an ease of engagement, irrespective of technology, time or place. Social learning may sit within a curriculum but as an activity it rarely has formal structure. That’s not to say that it is without purpose, rather that it tends to look for emergent knowledge rather than the discovery of pre formed ideas.
The emergence of social learning has followed a fairly simple path: first we saw the purely social applications of new technology with the development of community sites based around specialist activities and interests, often involving common functionality such as the collection of ‘friends’ and the ability to express ‘likes’. Be it music, gardening or looking up old school friends, social spaces generated high levels of engagement, far higher than we were seeing in any formal workplace learning environments.
At the heart of social learning is a new dynamic, that the proletariat are in charge of the messaging. Whilst we have always been able to allow discussion and debate within classroom based training, there is something fundamentally formal about how we learn at work. The physical space as well as the messaging is owned by the organisation. Behaviours are, or should be, ‘work’ behaviours, there is a hierarchy of organisation and power and all conversations and interactions take place within that formal structure.
In social spaces however, we rely more on our social capital, our ability to shape and broadcast messages, take part in debate and listen. Our position is less formal, more fluid, with leadership emerging as a more contextual behaviour, changing between conversations and people as we move into and out of our areas of expertise.
As learning moves further away from abstract, codified experiences, discrete chunks of ‘learning’ time and more towards an activity that is continuous and integrated more firmly into our everyday working lives, as we become more agile learners in this new economy of knowledge and opportunity, so the skills to be successful in social environments take a new pre-eminence.
Social learning is all about user generated content, less about the study of textbooks, although we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of well designed social learning experiences. Whilst at the moment much use is being made of the forums and freeform debate that is possible in social, i believe that as we see greater uptake and utilisation we will see more formally defined experiences, still retaining the unstructured and inclusive features of social spaces, but with more closely defined learning outcomes and probably greater demands on the learner. Social will become more of an approach that is applied to a subject than an end in it’s own right.
Right now, the challenge for individuals is to build their social capital, to become experienced social learners. Most of the challenges around the uptake of social relate to trust, integrity and the need to understand the ground rules in spaces that are familiar and yet strangely different from what we are used to. For experienced online denizens, this may be easy, for people less accustomed to the occasional rough and tumble and hazardous pitfalls, it’s daunting.
The purpose of social is to engage with learners more deeply, to allow a closer symbiosis between groups, between subject and learner and between organisation and team. We need to ensure that we don’t just create a new, disenfranchised group of disengaged learners, lost because of a lack of understanding or confidence in the new space.
At it’s best, social learning is fun, it’s challenging and it’s vibrant. At it’s worst, it’s threatening, abusive or disenfranchising. The ownership of this challenge falls to the individual, to learn new skills and to the organisation, to adopt the correct stance to these spaces, which is what we will explore tomorrow.
My new book, ‘exploring the world of social learning‘ explores these areas in greater detail, taking a practical view of how to implement a social learning strategy in your organisation.