Dave Wilkins provides an excellent working definition of social learning (Dave Wilkins definition and blog post, “Social Learning Defined”). Social learning is simply the gaining of insight, knowledge, or a skill through one’s interactions with others and their knowledge, expertise, and skill. While there may be some overlap, social learning, informal learning, formal learning, and socializing learning are different and at times VERY different, possibly antithetical.
Social Learning v. Informal/Formal Learning?
Primarily, social learning can happen in a formal learning environment while informal learning demands an informal environment from the start. In a sense, good formal learning that follows adult learning theory models is also social learning. So what marks the difference from social learning and formal learning? Primarily the approach marks the difference almost entirely. If the training is top-down or from an expert to the masses, then it typically, not always, is formal learning. Furthermore, when combined with the control residing with the training department or the subject matter expert (SME) or some governing certifying body, then it is most certainly formal learning. Social learning is open source, creative commons stemming from the ground up.
Informal learning can sometimes occur non-socially or without any collaboration while lack of collaboration and interpersonal interaction is antithetical to social learning. Social automatically demands one more person’s involvement. Social learning cannot happen in a vacuum or in complete isolation. While social learning can happen alone, one is only alone physically or geographically. For it to be social learning, there must be an interactive and collaborative environment. Social learning includes online forums, wikis, blogs, social networks, communities of practice, conferences and colloquiums, coaching and mentoring. However, informal learning can happen independently and on-demand using books, articles, and knowledge portals. Informal learning can also include informal feedback, developmental reviews, etc.
Social Learning v. Socializing Learning
Social learning is also different from socializing our formal learning models though sometimes simply providing access or an outlet to some social online venue will provide the social learning support necessary for the grass to grow. Social learning is an orientation towards learning. In reality much of learning is social in its nature. Socializing learning, or sprinkling a little social behaviors, is only one small facet of social learning. Furthermore, socializing learning is learning controlled by the facilitator or the trainer whereas social learning is undefined and uncontrolled encouraging, enabling and empowering learning to occur on-demand, just-in-time, collaboratively and spontaneously. The major difference between social learning and socializing learning is the focus on strategy as opposed to the incorporation of technologies. While social learning is not just about the technologies, it is about the technologies in some sense (tweet). Never before have we had the ability or the ease or the simplicity to share, to collaborate, to track, to analyze immediately. So web 2.0 has made all these things better and usable and scalable. So with the technology, social learning requires the development of a good social media policy coupled with an incredible social strategy where learning and development, training, and talent management must be at the table with communications, marketing, and IT.
What is Social Learning?
Social learning in its truest form requires a paradigm shift. Just as Andrew McAffee of Enterprise 2.0 has said, there must be a relinquishing of control to one of facilitation (which includes moderation). It also demands that the paradigm shift change from top down to bottom up, a grassroots initiative that grows organically and exponentially. So just as it once was, top management informing front line leaders, a grassroots approach has the front line leaders informing the top management. Social learning requires, allows, and even encourages learner to learn from other learners, not just the SME. The SME is just one among equals where he has to jostle and demonstrate his expertise, instead of simply having it bestowed upon him by someone or some institution. True SMEs will either engage and demonstrate themselves to be such experts, disengage in superiority or fear, or simply fade.
Just as we can gather some incredible knowledge, know-how, and expertise through our peers in the classroom, it is the same with social learning outside the classroom. How many times have we been in an experience that if we could talk to someone who was in the same experience or had a similar experience we could effectively perform our way out? How much simpler would action plans be if there were somewhere that contained a plethora of action planning ideas that were tried and trued so that some became best practices?
Anything else outside of these is simply socializing learning, a short-sighted look at social learning and informal learning. And frankly to socialize learning only and not to engage in social learning is rather insulting. To say, in essence, that our/your employees cannot be trusted to start, to carry, and to join the conversations regarding whatever conversations are started wherever that conversations begins, goes, and ends (of course within one’s social media guidelines and policy). Instead, we will quickly realize that some of our best realizations, insights, and action items will come through others. As Pratt has said, “If we only knew what we know.”