Social learning – pervasive or choice?

@julianstodd Tweeted an older posting of his on the nature of social learning here and its importance for an organisation in terms of compliance, standardisation and ethics. A few things struck me about the post, not least, its narrow definition of social learning as being collaborative (and hence notionally equal, non-hierarchical) where learning is an emergent property of such collaboration. He also seems to suggest that social learning is a choice that organisations can choose to do or not do rather than a description of how people learn and behave in organisations, departments and teams.

So the issue of control and compliance is addressed in the case of a valve:

Take that problem with a valve: firstly, the organisation has a legal obligation to train you to change it safely. They have to discover the best way, then they have to have that way accredited and verified, then they have to train you, let you practice and sign you off as competent. Within this legal framework, there is little space for social learning, which would be more likely to ask why not try this other way?

You could include a space for more experienced engineers to contribute feedback and thoughts, although this can easily breach legal guidelines (if one of them says ‘just hit it with a hammer’).

Except we know from research that compliance to regulation is negotiated in the workplace – that social learning takes place regardless of organisational intent. Social learning is happening – people are learning the trade from ‘experts’ in interpreting, in that research, and negotiating health & safety compliance. Social learning is not something that is a choice when people work together, it happens anyway and organisations or L&D functions should not forget that. So @julianstodd’s conclusion framed in terms of a case for adoption of social learning is, to me, flawed.

However, it is good to see in the post the recognition of the darker side of social learning:

but there is a darker side to this too in the form of bullying or, in a lesser form, hustling in these spaces. Some people have strongly developed skills in putting their view across forcefully and the transition into the virtual world of social can reinforce the way they do this. It’s well known that people can tend to say things in emails or texts that they would never say in person. We tend to be less inhibited, giving greater potential for conflict or misunderstanding.

This aspects of social learning and communities of practice is often absent from debates on the concepts.

An interesting post providing a partial but useful discussion piece.


2 thoughts on “Social learning – pervasive or choice?”

  1. Hey Peter, you’re right that i’ve taken quite a narrow view of ‘social’ here: a timely reminder to me to challenge my own perspectives! I guess that i’m using it in the way that my clients to e.g. to ‘implement social learning’ as a project, perhaps rather than the concept of ‘social’ or communal learning that we may subscribe to (sometimes organisations refer to this as ‘tribal’, although definitions/jargon seem somewhat interchangeable and i suspect i’m not helping the debate…)

    My own thinking in this areas is evolving rapidly: from initial pieces, such as the one you look at, where i’m pretty much focussed on the practicalities of ‘how to implement’, through to some of my recent thinking around the need for Social Leadership (as a layer of capability around traditional leadership approaches) [] and the wider question of how the very nature of work is changing in the Social Age [].

    Some of this is captured in this piece as a manifesto for the social age (although, like most of my blog writing, these are iterating ideas!):

    The points that you highlight around the ‘darker side’ of social learning still concern me: disenfranchisement through either lack of access or low social capital is a significant risk and one that needs addressing, as well as wider questions of moral and ethical frameworks in global social learning spaces (for example gender and sexual equality in communities that cross legal/moral physical cultures), although that’s a bigger debate!

    I do agree that my viewpoint in the original piece was narrow, although i think i tend to recognise that ‘social’ is everywhere. I think we agree that it’s something L&D should focus on: for me, that focus has to be built around developing (a) their recognition that it exists and (b) specific methodologies to ‘do’ it.

    Thanks for making me think about this again (and to @Fdomon for prompting the thinking!).

    I’d enjoy staying in touch and sharing some of these ideas further, best wishes, Julian

    • Hi Julian

      Thanks for the reply. Its a good point on differentiating between the concept of social learning and the intentional activities to support and enhance social learning in organisations. I’ll follow-up on your more recent posts and the manifesto. I’ve been working (academically and practically ;-) ) on the social in and between organisations in relation to learning and knowledge management where these issues of disenfranchisement from and empower to learn are key issues. The cultural and ethical issues are fascinating and, as you say, part of a larger debate.
      I’d absolutely agree about the need to rethink the role of the L&D function in terms of recognition of and supporting social learning – I’m often surprised how wedded to formal learning interventions many L&D practitioners can be.
      Anyway, i enjoyed you post which made me think & reflect – always a good thing to do – and hope to share more.
      Best wishes


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