ATD Blog

How to be a Catalyst for Social Learning

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In my last blog article, I explained how to build trust in social learning. Anyone who serves as an advisor in a social learning setting is responsible not only to serve as a subject matter expert, but to lead the virtual community towards discovery. Consider the following responsibilities of your role.

Set the learning agenda. As an advisor, you must actively push the learning agenda. Once the learning goals and objectives have been established—either by you, your co-advisors, the learners, or through a mutual effort—you must create a learning agenda for how these pre-defined goals will be achieved. People who are participating in your group know they want to learn more, but they are likely unsure how to go about that learning, which is why they’ve asked you to lead. Plan how you will expose the group to the topic or your skill area and what activities and resources you will use to help reinforce that learning.

Drive the learning conversation. As the person who has knowledge to impart on the subject, it is your duty to drive the learning conversation and ensure that everyone is actively participating on a continuous basis. This also means that you should prompt people to share their personal experiences and stories on the topic at hand (the good and the bad). Most people have a career survival instinct that keeps them from wanting to share failed experiences for fear of being seen as incapable or being punished as a result. As the advisor, try to foster trust and create a safe environment by first sharing your own experiences—most importantly those when you failed or faced adversity—and then prompting others to do the same.

Leverage active learning exercises. You will know how your particular skill or area of expertise can be best learned, so be confident in the fact that you can show others how to conquer your domain the same way you did. That said, keep in mind that most participants have busy schedules, so use common sense when assigning or prompting people to participate in learning activities. Most adults learn best with short 5-20 minute exercises like engaging with a brief article, conversation, reflection, abstract, video, and so on. Promote active learning by not only asking participants to read or watch a resource, but also to respond to it with personal stories or practical feedback. Create a sense of accountability and urgency for participants to engage in active learning exercises by assigning deadlines when you want these activities completed.


Model and reward exemplary behavior. You’ve probably heard the saying, “People learn by example,” and in social learning spaces, this idea holds very true. Modeling active learning behavior is necessary to create a social experience where measurable learning is attained. If you want people to share their personal stories and experiences, be sure to share yours. If you want people to put time into crafting thoughtful responses and questions, you must do the same. A commonly overlooked and easy way to encourage sharing behavior is by recognizing when someone does a good job or exhibits a behavior that you want others to emulate. Even posting a quick comment that thanks the participant for sharing her story with the group and bringing the topic to life will help reinforce and encourage positive sharing behavior.

Because you have experience in what you are advising, most of your activities as a group leader will come naturally. But to achieve meaningful learning, I urge you to go beyond the subject matter itself and be mindful of and committed to the learning that you are leading.

About the Author

Randy Emelo is the founder and chief strategist at River, a Denver-based company that builds mentoring and social learning software. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, training, and leadership development, and is a prolific author, speaker, and thought leader on topics related to collaboration, mentoring, social learning, and talent development.

Throughout the years, Randy has embarked on a military career with the U.S. Navy, led leadership development work with nonprofits in the Americas, and helped Fortune 500 companies build mentoring and learning cultures in their organizations.

Randy holds a master’s degree in organizational design and effectiveness from Fielding Graduate University (formerly The Fielding Institute) in Santa Barbara, CA. Randy’s book, Modern Mentoring, is available now from ATD Press. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @remelo.

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