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A Strategic Approach to Social Learning

Some organizations use social media in formal learning because they can, or because it’s fashionable. Managers and executives often ask trainers, “What can we do with social media?” simply because the tools are available. Other organizations want to stimulate the ongoing use of internal sharing platforms by piggybacking on formal learning processes. However, these are not strategic reasons to integrate social media tools into formal learning. All use of social media should start with a clear learning objective and a good sense of timing and direction, even before thinking about which tools to use.

Base Initial Design on Learning Objectives

When designing learning processes, it is always important to start with clear learning objectives. These objectives drive the entire learning process as well as evaluation of its success. Bringing social media tools into the process has only one goal: to achieve the learning objectives. 

Working with the objectives, you will initially design the learning process in the normal way, creating a basic architecture of learning activities. Let’s say the objective of a training module is for employees of an IT company to be able to measure the common risks of international projects. As the designer, you’ll start by thinking about the correct order of the necessary learning activities to achieve this objective: 

  • Learners will need to properly define the term risk.
  • Learners must be able to identify common risks in the environment.
  • Learners will need to know how risk is measured in terms of probability and impact.
  • Learners must be able to effectively calculate and rank risks.

With a traditional training mindset, you might create an exclusively in-class experience to work through this basic learning process. With social media tools, you can profit from the benefits described previously, but you’ll first need to do a little more work.

The Right Time and Direction

To determine when, how, and what tools to use, think about what does and does not need to happen in the classroom or any traditional moment when learners physically gather for instruction. The flipped classroom principle can be a good starting point. Instead of receiving knowledge or instruction during class time, learners first study the material by themselves. That way, class time can be put to better use with coaching, feedback, or skill-based exercises. Everything that can be placed either before or after the in-class moment should be.

Building on the IT risk example, there is no need for you to deliver a definition of risk during classroom time, when participants can get this knowledge via some other means. Learning about participants’ attitudes toward risk may still be of interest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the discussion needs to happen in a classroom.

Similarly, you may be tempted to use class time to talk about the most common risks seen in the environment. But perhaps someone else in the learners’ environment is better equipped to answer that question. Consider whether it might be more motivating for learners to utilize their networks and figure it out for themselves. Such an approach may also create more “sticky learning” than listening to a trainer or following an e-learning module.

When it comes to teaching how to measure and rank these risks, some knowledge could be delivered prior to the classroom moment. Trainer-facilitated discussion of probability and impact in this example remains important. The need for expert guidance or reflection on one’s own attitude through effective peer coaching may be a good reason to facilitate the discussion in a classroom. Nevertheless, if there isn’t a compelling reason for the instruction to occur during class, social media tools may help you take it outside the classroom.


Once you’ve added more detail to the basic design, you should think about in which direction the learning should occur. Do you need to push out content in one direction to the learners, or should the participants be sharing with you? Is there any benefit to creating many-to-many sharing for any of the learning activities?

Choosing the Right Tool

Now you need to decide what type of tool you need. Is a community-based tool to facilitate discussion and sharing appropriate? Do you need something to help learners find, share, and use content? Are learners going to co-create their own content? Or is a tool that will simply make the process quicker advantageous?

For example, you might post the initial content on risk on a community tool such as LinkedIn or Yammer, easily allowing participants to share their comments in well-organized discussion threads before they get to the classroom. You could also ask participants to use their own networks of project managers to find out what risks are the most common. Working in subgroups, individuals might then co-create a presentation to share ideas with others.

Once you know what learners should be doing, when, and with what type of tool, it is worth looking at what tools they already use, or can easily start to use. There’s no point in asking people to join LinkedIn when they already have a Yammer network or Microsoft SharePoint space available internally. Companies that have invested in setting up such social platforms will prefer that you use their tools; this is OK, provided the tools will help you achieve the learning objectives. Be careful as well to consider if learners will have access to the tools from within a company firewall—don’t ask people to watch a YouTube video if the IT department has blocked access. If people have never used social media tools for learning before, it might be easier to get started with a simple “one-click” platform such as Padlet rather than ask everyone to create a profile on another platform. 

Failure to consider these issues will lead to a lack of motivation for your social media–based learning process, or just make it too difficult for learners to begin. When the above steps are completed, you will have a good idea of the best social media tool to create long-term learning that is more effective, efficient, and motivating.

Using Social Media Tools Strategically

Here are some questions to ask yourself when creating a social media strategy for your next training project.

  • What is my learning objective?
  • To achieve that objective, what learning activities need to happen in what order?
  • What topics are best discussed before a formal learning moment? What topics are best discussed after a formal learning moment?
  • For each activity, which social direction (many-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many) is required?
  • What is the most appropriate tool?
  • How will I present the benefit of using the tools to the learners?

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from the TD at Work Improving Formal Learning With Social Media.”

About the Author

Dan Steer is a freelance learning consultant, trainer and speaker living and working in Belgium. He believes the world would be a better place if everyone was competently doing what they loved, and it is his mission to help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating infinite learning opportunities; @dan_steer.

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