Don’t Be Lazy With Social Learning
Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The hype surrounding social learning can sound like an old carnival hawker at times. Social learning: The tonic to ease your troubles! With just a click here and a thumbs-up there, everyone can know everything, and your company profits will shoot into the stratosphere!

Unfortunately, we know this is not the case. It takes much more than just a few lazy clicks of the mouse to make learning happen. And it takes even more commitment from companies to ensure that their culture supports ongoing and applicable learning throughout all areas of the employee base.

It’s easy to understand why people would want social learning to be the miracle cure. Numerous studies have shown that knowledge gained and retained from classroom training is less than desirable. We’ve needed to do something about this problem for a while, and as technology advanced, learning leaders thought they found the golden ticket.

For a number of years now, organizations have been striving to provide the knowledge traditionally gained in classrooms in more efficient and cost-effective ways to try to make learning stick. Hence the emergence of e-learning about 20 years ago and the continued focus on content-driven learning approaches.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual “microtization” of that learning content—it’s been broken down into smaller chunks of easily consumed information. Shorter content tends to be more attractive to today’s worker, who often doesn’t have the ability to carve out more than a few minutes at a time to engage with it. It seems like the perfect solution, right? Unfortunately, it did not do much to improve knowledge gained or retained.

Enter Social Learning

Then social elements came along, beginning with social networking. Systems like Facebook and LinkedIn conditioned us to “share” and “comment,” and to do so openly. “Wow,” people thought. “This is going to change everything!" And it did—to a degree. Sharing and commenting have become such expected, core features that a social system that doesn’t allow for sharing and commenting probably arguably isn’t social, or at least is seriously limited in capability.

But we still were missing the mark for real social learning.


Innovative companies began to marry “microtized” content with sharing and commenting capabilities to address social learning needs. The result is a nice combination. If I see a three-minute video or read a blog that I like, I can quickly share it with my network, with the thought that they too might enjoy it and learn something new. Some folks in my network may even reply with a “thanks for sharing,” or “interesting read.”

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, per se. It’s just lazy to assume that simply allowing people to share and comment is sufficient. The ability to do so is nice, but its true power is revealed if those who are sharing and commenting are also subsequently collaborating. I may watch a video and simply think to myself, “Hmmm, that was pretty interesting.” I may even take some terminology from the video and begin integrating it into my vocabulary. However, that does not mean that I will begin changing behavior and doing things differently.

It is the noticeable minority of people who are capable of changing behavior without the mentoring, coaching, or feedback of others. That’s why if you really want to do social learning right, you have to do more than just give people the ability to share and comment on content.

Collaborating Is Different Than Sharing

Sharing and commenting are important components, but as people are sharing, they must also be provided the opportunity to collaborate with others. What’s the difference? Commenting is just shouting out your opinion about the information at hand without any desire to engage in a dialogue with others about it.

On the other hand, collaborating is actively taking part in a conversation with others about the topic or item being shared, learning from their insights, asking questions about their experiences, sharing what you’ve encountered on your own, and developing a deeper understanding of the information because of the insights of others.

People who really want or need to learn must have access to those who have walked the path before them. They need to be able to connect with people who are able and willing to provide contextualized advice and support around how to change behavior, not just vocabulary. When this happens, you will have finally embraced true social learning.

Remember: It can be tempting to believe that the social learning box can be checked by simply providing people with content and the ability to share it. That is a bad assumption. I might call that social content sharing, but it falls short of social learning. To support a meaningful social learning experience, we need to push for collaboration, not just a thumbs up or thumbs down.

About the Author
Chris Browning is president of River, a Denver-based SaaS talent development software company focused on mentoring, coaching, and social learning. He has more than 20 years of management, business consulting, and organization development experience, and has also worked in the nonprofit sector in development, counseling, and life-coaching capacities.

Chris holds MBA and BS degrees from the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached through LinkedIn, Twitter (@cbrowningco), or

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