social learningDid you ever wonder how you learned to be a manager? Do you ever think about how you and the other managers in your organization try to improve as managers and leaders? It likely doesn’t have much to do with classrooms, lectures, or e-learning programs. 

Enter Social Learning 

I came across the idea of two broad forms of learning; Cartesian learning and social learning theory. A Cartesian view assumes that "knowledge is a kind of substance and that pedagogy concerns the best way to transfer this substance from teachers to students." Many classroom and e-learning programs are based on a Cartesian view of learning; nuggets of information, sometimes called learning objects, are transferred to learners who then become better at doing whatever it is they need to do. 

Social learning, on the other hand, is "based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions." I believe that the majority of a manager’s actual learning and development occurs through this type process. 

For example, just reading this article could be considered a Cartesian learning event. The impact is relatively small. However, if you discuss it with colleagues—trying to make sense of the concepts and figure out how they might help solve a current challenge, such as helping the middle managers in your organization learn and develop while keeping costs low—this becomes social learning. The impact for yourself, your team, and perhaps even your organization will be far more significant. 

Don’t Mistake Social Media for Social Learning 

Another concept frequently used in relation to social learning is the idea of social media. YouTube, Wikipedia, and blogs are fantastic examples of social media, in which consumers and producers of content are one and the same. An extremely useful aspect of the social media paradigm for learning and development is that everyone can categorize, rate, and provide qualitative information about the content. 

When I spoke with the former Head of Learning at BT Group, he described a YouTube like system they had built using SharePoint. Employees were encouraged to create and upload how-to videos, which were being watched, and used with great benefit, by many others in the organization. The project, called Dare2Share, proved to be immensely successful, with hundreds upon hundreds of high quality learning objects created, categorized, rated and consumed by employees. Though this is a fantastic use of social media, as applied to learning and development, the creation, sharing, categorizing, and rating of learning objects in a YouTube like system is not social learning. 

Why Social Learning Isn’t Informal Learning 

Another term that has become quite popular is “informal learning,” which is sometimes erroneously used interchangeably with social learning. Informal learning has been defined as "the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and values from daily experience and people around us." I think of informal learning as any learning that occurs outside of a structured learning environment, whether it is through a Cartesian, social, or any other educational process. 

For example, if you attend a class and the teacher shows a YouTube video introducing some concept, this is a formal learning experience. On the other hand, if a colleague happens to send you a link to that same YouTube video, which you then watch, this is informal learning. The only difference is the context during which the learning took place. 

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There are studies that indicate 75 percent of the learning that takes place in an organization is informal. Which begs the question: Why is so much of our leadership and talent development budget devoted to very formal learning programs, which are mostly based on the Cartesian view of learning? 

What About Communities of Practice? 

Many educational structures that leverage group discussion may, but do not necessarily, result in social learning. Communities of practice, defined as "groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" are platforms through which managers have conversation around problems or actions. 

The learning in these communities of practice can go both ways—either Cartesian or social. If people simply tell one another what they do, or what the other should do, then this is Cartesian. If people support one another in the process of figuring it out for themselves, or making sense of what they should be doing, then this is social learning. In fact, this will rapidly become peer coaching if the process is semi-structured, the group is small (not larger than six in practice), and the relationships, the trust and the honesty reach a certain a level. 

Power of Peer Coaching 

An interesting piece of research was published in early 90s by Showers and Joyce on the evolution of peer coaching. They showed that peer coaching had the same impact if the groups were led by a senior experienced leader or external consultant as when they were led by a member of the peer group. In other words, the impact was due to social learning rather than Cartesian learning. Similarly, the impact diminished rapidly if participants tried to tell one another what they should do rather than helping each other figure it out for themselves. 

Why is this so powerful? 

Several years ago, in his book Managers Not MBAs, Henry Mintzberg, a well-known management thinker, wrote that "thoughtful reflection on natural experience, in the light of conceptual ideas, is the most powerful tool we have for management learning." So unlike formal learning, communities of practice, or other learning opportunities, peer coaching begins with reflection on recent managerial experiences in light of conceptual input. The result is that managers learn from and coach each other. What’s more, by doing so, organizations develop the capacity to develop themselves.