The benefits of social learning in an organization are indisputable. We have seen an impact on performance and productivity, learning engagement, and the ability to retain high performers.
- It taps into the knowledge already in your organization.
- We humans are well adapted to learning from each other. We’ve been doing it since the dawn of time.
- Peer-to-peer learning creates a space where the learner can feel safe taking risks without a sense that their boss is evaluating their performance while they are learning.i
However, just jumping into social learning without careful planning and preparation could cause your efforts to fall flat. We want to give you a few things to think about before you get started.
The first step in implementing social learning is assessing your organization’s readiness. For your project to be effective in driving business objectives, your organization must value learning. It must be a learning organization—"skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” ii A simpler definition is “one that facilitates learning and continually transforms itself.” iii
The important factor in this definition is the transformation, meaning that learning drives action.
"…new ideas are essential if learning is to take place……Without accompanying changes in the way that work gets done, only the potential for improvement exists.David A. Garvin Building a Learning Organization
The Pursuit of Knowledge—with a Purpose
Becoming a learning organization as a business strategy arose during the quality management movement in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That trend began as the practice of using statistical process control and root cause analysis to improve manufacturing processes but soon grew to encompass any business process. Its focus was continual improvement to reduce waste and lower costs, but its foundation was the pursuit of knowledge.
We recall the comments of W. Edwards Deming, a revered leader in quality management, at a workshop in 1993. The first was a rhetorical question in response to an attendee’s remark:
How could you know? Have you measured it
There is no substitute for knowledge.
Building the Culture
If your organization doesn’t have a supportive culture, a social learning program won’t change it. However, if your executive leaders will take the lead, social learning will help you get there.
However, there are other factors to consider. We list here eight organizational attributes that will help you build a healthy learning culture, beginning with the most important.
- Executive Buy-in. The top management team must adopt social learning and take part in it—and to model the behaviors they want to see. Your people will know if your top team isn’t committed and will assume it's just another feel-good program.
- Business Alignment. Learning goals must align with business goals. New skills and behaviors are essential to the constant improvement and innovation required to stay competitive—and if your program doesn’t support the business, you won’t get executive support. Alignment is a responsibility of the CLO and the executive team.
- Transparency. Communicate the goals, values, methods, and results of your efforts. Let your people see inside the gritty details. Make the successes of learning in innovation and improvement visible to the entire organization.
- Trust. Trust is more than ethics and transparency. Nothing says we trust you as much as being allowed to fail and try again. Your people need to feel safe in pointing out issues and implementing solutions.
- Learner Focus. This mindset is the WIIFM of social learning. Your people need to see that their commitment to learning benefits their growth and will eventually lead to more opportunities.
- Tangible Rewards. We don’t mean awards and bonuses. Learning is about advancement in careers. Promote from within as much as practicable and use new assignments and projects as rewards. The best reinforcement of both knowledge and achievement is the opportunity to use new skills and principles on the job.
- Manager Engagement. Give line leaders the learning, support, and opportunity to be the heroes of the transformation. Make it possible by supporting and expecting collaborative learning in work teams and projects.
- Resources. Learning content is essential, but there is much more, including support, coaching, and feedback—but the most critical resource is time. When you give people time to learn, they will reward you with higher productivity.
You will know when it’s working. We recall a conversation in an organization that was striving to build a learning culture. The CHRO asked an analyst if he could complete a new assignment by a specific due date. The analyst replied, “Yes I can. First, I have to learn how to do it.”
The boss replied with a smile, “Do it.”
i. Blake, Kelly PalmerDavid, Erika Andersen, Liane Davey, and Monique Valcour. “How to Help Your Employees Learn from Each Other.” Harvard Business Review, December 18, 2018.
ii. Garvin, David A. “Building a Learning Organization.” Harvard Business Review, July 1, 1993.
iii. Pedler, M., Burgogyne, J. and Boydell, T. The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development. 2nd Ed. London; McGraw-Hill. 1997.
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