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What is Social Learning (& How To Apply It In the Workplace!)

Social LearningSocial learning has never been more in vogue. More and more organisations are utilising this revolutionary approach to transform their training initiatives. In fact, more than half of L&D professionals are already using some form of social learning in their online learning programmes. 

So what has caused social learning’s popularity to soar to such heady heights? And is the hype justified? 

This approach has been proven to strengthen learning communities, create a thriving knowledge economy and ultimately drive business productivity. 

For instance, one Harvard Business School study shows that social learning can increase course completion rates by up to 85%. Social learning has also been shown to contribute to an impressive 75:1 ROI over traditional web-based training. Not bad, right?

Before we further expound on its benefits, let’s first start with some definitions. Where did it come from? How does it work?

From there, we will explore the four principles of what makes a successful social learning strategy. And because we love social learning so much, we will share five tips to make these principles come alive in your workplace.

Ready to embark on this next learning journey together? Then join us around the firepit and let’s get started!

What is Social Learning?

Let’s kick things off with a formal definition of this informal type of learning (oh the irony!). 

Social Learning is the active process of learning from our observations and interactions with others. 

Simple, right? To get a better understanding of how this works, let’s once again (formally) break it down.

Learning is the process of acquiring new information through self-study, experience or through formal instruction. In the case of social learning, learning takes place within a social context. It happens through our observations and interactions with friends, family, colleagues or strangers. 

And that is where the formality ends. In fact, social learning is the most informal type of learning. And because it takes place in a social context, we never get tired of it. It has been happening for as long as people have been around, even before any formal instruction took place! 

For thousands of years, we’ve used social learning to create, to build and most importantly, to teach. Without it, we’d still be in the Stone Age, scratching our heads and wondering when the future was arriving. 

Social Learning in the Workplace

Today, organisations across the world have taken inspiration from our natural human urge to interact. What was once a term exclusive in academic circles, is now a keyphrase of modern organisations looking to harness the power of social. 

Within the workplace, social learning can transpire in a variety of contexts. It could materialise from observation of coworkers, casual watercooler conversations or from actively engaging in discussions and sharing expertise.

In other words, expect learning sparks to fly each time a meaningful social connection is made!

Now how can we apply social learning in the context of training? This is where we’d like to introduce the 70:20:10 model for workplace learning. This breaks up the whole pie of learning into three parts:

  • 70% of learning happens through experience
  • 20% is from colleagues and friends
  • 10% from formal training experiences.

As such, social learning makes up 20% of any well-rounded training approach. So how did social learning evolve into the hot concept it is now? Let’s explore its origins.

History of Social Learning

The 1920s: Lev Vygotsky’s Socio-Cognitive Learning Theory

A young Russian named Lev Vygotsky formulated one of the earliest theories linked to social learning. This theory suggests that formal learning experiences are most effective when we are supported by others.

It helps if learning occurs with someone more knowledgeable than us in the subject matter at hand. He also noted that we take in a lot of information through informal interactions with our peers.

You may consider Vygotsky to be the unsung mastermind of social learning. Sadly, his theories didn’t catch on during his lifetime. Thankfully, they continue to be discovered and studied to this very day. Thank you Lev!

The 1960s: Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert BanduraNow let’s move on to the man who is responsible for the way that we think about and understand social learning in a modern context. We present to you, Albert Bandura, a Canadian psychologist who founded the very popular Social Learning Theory in the 1960s.

The theory was Bandura’s counter response to the popular behaviourist models of that century. These models suggested that learning can only happen as a result of our direct interaction with the environment. While Bandura agrees that this is possible, he argues that there is also another way to facilitate learning.

Thanks to his famous ‘Bobo doll’ experiments, he concluded that people can also learn simply by observing others. This is called observational learning, which we’ll tackle in more detail in the next section. 

How does this apply to online learning, you ask? Firstly, it shows that we learn from others, even if we don’t actually go through the motions ourselves. It’s the 20% of learning making its appearance once more. 

By observing and interacting with others, we take on new information and learn new behaviours, without the need to practise them. Of course, the information we take in socially can be refined further. Practice really does make perfect. However, in many cases, social learning is the spark that triggers knowledge transferral.

Three Core Concepts of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

social learning theory

Let’s explore Bandura’s theory in more detail. Here are the three key concepts you need to know:

1. Observational Learning

The theory of social learning tells us that you do not need direct experience in order to learn. In fact, scientists have found that the limbic brain lights up simply by observing others. This is the emotional region of the brain responsible for forming associations between actions and outcomes. 

As such, one can simply learn by observing. This is also the foundation of how we can eventually model our own behaviour from others’ experiences. 

2. Intrinsic Reinforcement

Social learning works because it taps into our deepest motivations. These core motivations can vary from one individual to the next. These are shaped by our personal values and do not require any external rewards. One example would be an inherent desire for a sense of purpose or ‘Epic Meaning’. As such, we are not merely puppets of classical conditioning. Instead, we are empowered and independent agents of action. We’ll toast to that! 

In fact, a McKinsey study shows that employees who are intrinsically motivated are 46% more satisfied and committed in their jobs. In the context of training, highly motivated employees have also been shown to become 6.6% more productive!

Similar studies and frameworks show how intrinsic reinforcements are a better predictor of long-term employee engagement. For instance, the Octalysis Framework discusses how we can apply game mechanics to reinforce the success of social learning. This, in turn, has been proven to improve employee engagement by over 60%!

3. Behaviour Change

You should also bear in mind that social learning can take place without any change in behaviour. As such, there’s always the risk that investing in a shiny new social learning platform won’t produce results. You could share information socially and fail to see any desired actions from your learners. 

So this begs the question… how can social learning be used to drive behaviour change?

There are a variety of ways to encourage your learners to apply their knowledge.

One way is to make sure that your learners are motivated, relaxed and engaged with their social environment. This will increase their ability to apply what they’ve learned socially. 

Another thing to consider is your learners’ existing and potential abilities. Consider the following scenario. Let’s say you’ve asked two people to sit in and observe a pottery making session. One is Emma, who is a graphic designer by day and sculptor at night. The other observer is Adam, who prefers working with his brain than his hands. Afterwards, you’ve asked both of them to create a replica of the potter’s creation. Who do you think is most likely to succeed? 

Social learning theory reminds us that a successful reproduction or change in behaviour will depend on various factors. BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model supports this. It suggests that behaviour change is dependent on three components: 

  • Motivation – humans’ extrinsic or intrinsic desires which drive us to act 
  • Ability – the capability to actually carry out our desired actions
  • Trigger – the mechanisms or levers to set off an action or behaviour 

Benefits of Social Learning

A woman representing an L&D expert/influencer with a megaphone emerging from a phone screen. To the right of her is three people getting her notifications on their phones.

There’s a reason why nearly 1.5bn of us visit Facebook on a daily basis. We’re social animals who crave interaction with our peers. When we get that interaction, we become more engaged. As a result, we are more likely to repeat those actions again in the future and form new habits.

Sounds great! But how does this help a Learning and Development team?

One of the biggest problems you might face when running a learning management system (LMS) is in convincing your learners to keep coming back. But as soon as you add in some social features, your learners will be as fired up as Mount Vesuvius in AD 79!

Take our client GAME as a perfect example. Their learners are using their LMS as a real social network, and GAME is feeling the benefits.

Learners keep ‘checking in’ to chat to each other and post photos of the best costumes worn to their store promotions. In fact, in one four month period their 3,600 learners logged in more than 40,500 times. That’s nearly 12 logins per user!

What’s more, this activity helped to encourage further learning. During the same time period, more than 61,000 pieces of content were consumed. That’s 17 units per learner! 

That’s before you even consider the benefits brought about by having a community of learners helping each other to understand and apply their knowledge. Clearly, fostering these communities is the way forward. 

There are many more benefits to social learning. Check out our article 7 Amazing Benefits of Social Learning

Limitations of Social Learning

Unfortunately, social learning is not without its limitations.

Critics argue that it places too much emphasis on the environment’s role in learning. They suggest that the theory underestimates the equally important role that our biology has to play. For instance, biological factors such as variances of brain matter, personality and attention levels can affect how learning is processed and replicated.

Moreover, there are also other factors such as unconscious biases which may influence the levels of attention, absorption and application of observed social phenomena. 

As such, to address these limitations, it helps to be mindful that social learning is best used when combined with other approaches such as gamification and personalised learning. What’s more, it should be noted that according to the 70:20:10 model, social learning only accounts for 20% of all workplace learning. Whilst it has a role to play in your learning and development initiatives, it won’t solve all your training problems.

Bandura’s 4 Principles of Highly Effective Social Learning

We’ve finally arrived at the section you’ve been waiting for. We’re going to look at how social learning can be used to drive genuine behaviour change. After all, that’s the secret to driving real business impact from your training initiatives. 

There are four steps you need to consider to ensure that your social learning strategies pass muster.

Bandura's Social Learning

Step 1 – Attention:

Before anything else, you need to grab your learners’ attention. Learning cannot take place if your audience is not engaged. As such, for us to observe something, it needs to catch our attention in some way. For example, neuroscience shows that things that are novel or relevant are more likely to capture your learners’ undivided attention. 

Step 2 – Retention:

So you’ve captured the attention of your audience and they are listening eagerly. Now before you start jumping for joy, you need to ensure that your observers are retaining the information. After all, retaining and recalling information is what drives the next step of effective social learning. 

Step 3 – Reproduction:

This is social learning in action. This is the stage where passive learning is freed from its cognitive cage, and enacted in the real world. Your learners’ first attempts will typically involve them modelling the behaviour based on memory retained from the first two steps. However, the quality of the imitation will depend on how physically and mentally prepared they are.

Step 4 – Motivation:

Ah, the holy grail to long-term engagement and behaviour change. Motivation is the key ingredient to reinforce and sustain social learning in the workplace. This is where the right rewards or reinforcements are introduced to help keep those social fires burning! 

All in all, these four steps will help you deliver the right social learning strategies for your workplace. In turn, this is what will drive real and lasting behaviour change. 

How to Apply the Social Learning Theory in the Workplace

Now it’s time to put all that you’ve learned to good use. Here are five clear steps to help you implement a super social learning strategy for your workplace.

1. Capture learner’s attention with a super social training platform

Before pulling together your social strategy, you should examine the tools you have available. If you don’t already have one, you may wish to invest in a social learning platform like Growth Engineering LMS

Now you may be asking: what benefits does using an online platform bring?

Well, it makes the social interactions permanent and accessible to all (depending on visibility settings). It also stops intellectual capital slipping out of organisations, properly rewards top contributors, encourages user generated content, and more!

Here at Growth Engineering, our online technology solutions are designed to embed social learning at its finest. Here is some of the functionality we have to support social learning: 

  • Make use of Clubs to get everyone to share their insights about your formal training content. These are focused discussion groups, built around the topics that matter most to your organisation. As an added incentive, learners earn experience points and climb leaderboards by participating.
  • The ‘What’s Happening?’ Feed – Similar to Facebook’s newsfeed, this is a stream of updates and discussions started by other learners. These posts can be ‘liked’ and ‘commented’ on by others. This amplifies learner engagement. 
  • Comments under learning – Learners can rate each piece of content and leave comments underneath. This is a great way to get the conversation flowing and to see which content resonates most with your audience.

2. Increase retention by personalising your social learning approach 

94% of businesses consider personalised learning critical for success. But why is this? Personalised learning promotes user engagement thanks to its ability to stimulate feel good hormones. 

For instance, we get a good dose of oxytocin each time we positively engage with our colleagues (or participate in some social learning for that matter!). This is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust and security. The neuroscience of learner engagement also shows that familiar surroundings can help release this comfort-inducing hormone. 

As such, keep your learners engaged by invoking familiarity and trust with your training environment. This will fill your learners with the oxytocin boost they need to become deeply engaged social (learning) butterflies! You can do this by personalising your learning programme. In turn, this will help them to better retain, recall and reinforce information whenever needed.

PS: Here are some more ways to personalise your social learning approach!

3. Reproduce desired behaviours with active and personal feedback

social learning We have all heard the overused adage “practice makes perfect”. However, this isn’t really the case if you’re practicing the wrong moves over and over again. 

This is where the value of feedback comes in. Stats show that 4 out of 10 employees are disengaged due to an absence of meaningful feedback. Similarly, 82% of employees appreciate positive and constructive feedback. 

As such, be sure to load up your social platform with features that can facilitate the active support of experts and facilitators. For example, our online learning suite provides the following social features to encourage active feedback:

  • Live Chat – Pop-out chat boxes let learners have discussions in real-time while they get on with work, learning, or pretending they’re not actually watching cat videos.
  • Access to Experts – Learners can ask questions to subject matter experts at any point to check their understanding. The discussions are saved as FAQs for everyone’s benefit.

4. Keep motivation levels high with positive reinforcement

Motivation is a huge factor when it comes to success in social learning. In fact, stats show that motivated individuals are more likely to be productive and go out of their way to help colleagues.

Self-Determination Theory tells us that internal motivation can drive optimal outcomes. This theory highlights our natural desire for human connection (relatedness). This is what motivates us to engage in social learning. What’s more, research has shown that 70% of individuals who seek social affirmation are far more successful in meeting their goals.

Tap into your learners’ intrinsic motivations by gamifying your social learning strategy. The Octalysis Framework can help guide you with this. 

For example, game elements such as Leaderboards and Badges can help fuel the social affirmation your learners need. Furthermore, XP and Levels can drive the desire for personal progress within your online learning platform. 

5. Drive lasting behaviour change with a knowledge-sharing culture

The real power of social learning is its capacity to change not only behaviour, but mental attitudes. This is what creates a culture. In fact, companies with a strong culture report 20% higher employee satisfaction! Similarly, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) reports that the best companies are five times more likely to have extensive learning cultures. 

Research also points out that our brain engages in metacognitive learning when we actively share our knowledge. In other words, we get smarter when we impart our expertise with others! As such, the true value of social learning is not only about absorbing information from others, but also giving it right back. 

Drive behaviour change by creating an active learning and knowledge-sharing culture. This can create amazing results for your organisation. In fact, employees in high-performing companies engage in knowledge-sharing four times more than those in lower-performing firms.

You can do this by providing your users with a social learning suite packed with built-in engagement and feedback tools. These features will help you transform passive social learning experiences into engaging and impactful learning outputs. In turn, your employees will be (social) learning their way towards lasting behaviour change. 

Final Word:

Social learning is the beating heart of most modern day companies. It serves to build-up the knowledge of your colleagues until they’re able to unleash their full potential. Most importantly, it creates a supportive learning community, where knowledge is exchanged on a regular basis. That sounds like paradise to us!

Here at Growth Engineering, we are passionate about driving effortless engagement in training with social learning. Our high impact learning technology suite (LMS, Learning App & Authoring Tool) seamlessly integrates social learning with other powerful approaches such as gamification and deep customisation, to drive real and lasting behaviour change. Learn more about our super social learning suite here

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