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Between younger workers' demand for professional development opportunities and the increasing need to prepare employees for coming changes in technology and business processes, companies face growing pressure to provide a wider range of training options. In response, more organizations are implementing social learning programs that enable their own workers to be part of the solution.
Both employees and job candidates put a high value on learning opportunities today, according to HR and recruiting professionals. So it's not surprising that a number of companies now see learning programs as key components of their talent acquisition and employee retention strategies. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employees are more inclined to leave a job if they do not have opportunities to update their skills.
At the same time, many businesses are seeking alternatives to instructor-led training, which is often regarded as expensive and out of step with the technically facile Generations Y and Z.
Jeremy Ames, CEO of Hive Tech HR, a Massachusetts-based HR technology consultant, says encouraging employees to sit in a classroom can be the toughest aspect of learning and development today. Even traditional computer-based training, where learners watch a course online and take a quiz at the end, "has become more and more challenging [in terms of] getting people to both focus and allocate time in their day for it," he said.
However, the idea of workers producing their own training content isn't new. For some time, easy access to both information and video production tools has allowed companies to closely involve their employees in developing educational efforts. Nearly a decade ago, for example, the Cheesecake Factory began using employee-produced videos to teach the finer points of both front- and back-of-house skills. Initially, such efforts were considered "social learning."
Since then, the concept has evolved along with technology. Companies today can identify internal subject matter experts who take ownership of a topic and share their knowledge throughout the organization. HR tech vendors like Degreed build platforms dedicated solely to social learning. Others, such as Cornerstone OnDemand and SumTotal, incorporate social tools into their existing learning modules.
Many subjects, many channels
Eric Sharp, Degreed's co-founder and chief technology officer, defines the social approach as "learning that transverses multiple forms of media, has a peer-to-peer element and can ultimately be measured and utilized as tangible skills." L&D leaders, he said, "are finally remembering that meaningful learning happens across multiple screens, in interactions between people, on the job through experimentation, practice, trial and error, and ultimately inside people's heads."
"In today's business context, social learning is less about technology and more about connection," added Mike Pino, digital learning strategies and technologies leader at consulting firm PwC. "Informally, social learning can happen when people share articles, photos or notes on some material. Social learning is about connecting and reflecting afterwards in order to make sense of something through a relevant exchange."
Put another way, social learning takes advantage of people's innate tendency to learn, whether through formal coursework or other means. "Social learning happens whether or not it's formally sponsored by an organization," said Pino. "Work doesn't happen in a vacuum and, in spite of the long-standing myth of individual genius, much of what we've achieved in organizations happens by building on past ideas and achievements."
Nowadays most people learn through methods beyond instructor-led and online courses. A study by Degreed and Harvard Business Publishing's Corporate Learning unit found that less than half -- about 44 percent -- of people took some kind of course in 2018.
Still, social learning is making its way into the business world at a temperate pace. "It's definitely a slower transition than I would have thought, but it has started," said Ames. Attention spans are dropping, he observed, and "that's really meant that the old-school approaches to learning are no longer working."
Social learning's realities
Is social learning effective? Experts say yes, though it's not a panacea. "Social learning isn't more or less effective than traditional learning," said Kristen Fyfe-Mills, associate director of communications at the Association for Talent Development. "It's a part of a holistic approach to learning that meets people where they are and provides additional flexibility that may be required in certain circumstances."
Besides being flexible, social learning has the advantage of being affordable. Building learning into a worker's job is less expensive than maintaining a stable of instructors or consultants, experts say. In addition, Pino said, social learning is already established at many organizations in one form or another. "In my mind social learning may, and usually does, happen informally across organizations, irrespective of size or industry," he said.
That isn't to say social learning just happens. "Most organizations that we see using social learning will have a strategy and use it to help scale learning efforts," said Fyfe-Mills. Learning, she noted, works best when the topics are relevant to the individual and the efforts intentional. "Social learning should be approached from that lens as part of a broader employee-learning strategy and offering," she believes.
Equally as important is that successful social learning programs are, well, social. "Social learning only works if people participate," said Kent Walker, senior vice president of sales at learning management system provider Brainier. "Two critical factors to consider are, first, 'do I have leaders who are willing and motivated to share their knowledge in this type of format?' And, second, 'can I seed the social platform with enough content to get people started and to keep them engaged over time?' Just setting up a page is not enough."
In addition, social learning doesn't work in every situation. Highly regulated industries like healthcare may face legal or compliance issues if they attempt to implement social programs to cover certain areas that require hands-on learning, such as CPR training or processes on a manufacturing floor, said Fyfe-Mills. In such situations, "there will be some point at which the person is going to actually need to practice doing the thing to gain confidence and proficiency at it," she said.
"Whether social learning will work is dependent more on the context in which it's used, the support it receives and the follow-up or implementation of the learning that happens," Fyfe-Mills added.
Social learning provides companies with another way to satisfy the workforce's need and desire for new information. In terms of need, many experts say employers have no choice but to upskill their workers. Citing a World Economic Forum study, Sharp said more than half of the global workforce will require significant, skill-related learning within the next five years. In terms of keeping top talent in the house, many organizations have come to recognize that increasing learning opportunities positively affects corporate culture. PwC's research, Pino said, "shows the desire for employees to learn."