Social and Collective Learning: Can it really be created?


Social learning has become a bit of a buzzword in the L&D world nowadays. Organisations that I speak to want to know more about it and most importantly how to foster it in the workplace.

​The first question that I always ask is whether they know what social learning means. I find that a lot of people use such terminology that is buzzing around rather flippantly and do not necessarily know what it actually is about. This, more so than anything else, I find is the case for coaching, mentoring, digital learning and of course social learning. The response that I typically get across the board is social learning being about getting people to learn from each other. To be fair, this is not an inaccurate representation of what social learning is. However, what tends to be flawed is the part on fostering social learning. Too many companies ‘force’ it.

A lot of theorists have speculated what social learning actually is. I will spare you the academic detail but to summarise, in a L&D and organisational context, there is very little agreement on what exactly it is. I believe that social learning is multifaceted and so is the terminology that is associated with it. Collaborative, group, collective and co-operative learning is all vocabulary that is utilised in relation to social learning. Although there is fine differentiation between the terminology there is very little conclusive agreement on this.

However there are some characteristics that we can take from these terminologies to give us an overview of what effective social learning could entail:

  1. An activity that involves observation and replication of a behaviour. We learn socially by attending to a situation and its outcome and then deciding whether to replicate that behaviour (or not).

  2. Social learning cannot be designed like a regular L&D intervention. Structures can be put into place in order to encourage people to learn from each other however it cannot be forced.

  3. Social learning relies on the individual. One of its premises is that the person should actively take ownership of their learning and seek ways to develop themselves.

  4. Social learning is not just about technology. Although technology greatly supports social learning, it is not an interchangeable concept with digital learning. 

So the key question – can it be created?

Not really is the simplest answer. Social learning practices can definitely be encouraged but creating it is virtually impossible.

First, an examination of the culture of the organisation is essential since social working practices need the right blend of cultural ingredients to foster. If your organisation’s culture focuses on blame and limiting mistakes then social learning will probably not happen. People will be less prone to try new things and discuss their learning as a result of this process.

​The organisation needs to have very strong values of individual development. From a tactical point of view clear PDPs need to be in place together with regular exploration of development opportunities with line managers. The company needs to live its L&D values and this ethos of development must permeate across the entire organisation.

Finally, senior leadership must be strong, visible and in support of these practices. Leaders need to be engaged with social learning – they should be driving discussions with their team members in order for other employees to model the behaviours that they exhibit.

What is your understanding of social learning? Do you use it in your organisation and in that case how?

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