What is Social Learning? (And How Your Organization Can Adopt it)

What is Social Learning

If you think back to your days in school, what might you remember about learning? Often, the things that stand out are solo experiences: listening to lectures, taking notes, doing homework, taking tests. These are traditional forms of learning that are slowly being supplanted by more modern understandings of cognitive development, learning, experiences, and understanding.

Today, learning is recognized to be both individual and social. Social learning is a growing movement with a lot of support, pushing both the educational industry and higher-level training in new directions. It’s not just applicable to grade school; people learn throughout their lives, and learning on the job is no different.

What is Social Learning?

Social Learning started as a theory developed by Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American psychologist and professor at Stanford University.

“Bandura developed what famously became known as the Bobo Doll experiments. In these studies, children watched adults model either violent or passive behavior towards a toy, the Bobo Doll. What the children saw influenced how they themselves subsequently interacted with the doll. Specifically, children who observed violent behavior imitated this behavior and were verbally and physically aggressive toward the doll. Children who witnessed nonviolent behavior behaved less aggressively toward the doll. In recent years, some psychologists have called Bandura’s original findings into question, labeling his experiments as biased, poorly designed, or even unethical.” – Psychology Today.

Observations throughout his experiments indicated that learning, in children and adults, was dependent not just on what we’re told; but on what we see around us.

Social Learning Group

You learn by watching, you learn by listening, you learn by doing, and you learn by experiencing. This all holds true no matter your social circles or your influences; social learning can apply regardless of whether the social circle is a team working on a task in the workplace or an individual watching content creators on YouTube demonstrate a skill.

What Are the Benefits of Social Learning in the Workplace?

While many studies into social learning focus on childhood education or education throughout home life and early adolescence, much of the relevant knowledge can be transferred to learning in the workplace.

After all, employees need to learn and grow, right? Training how to do a job or perform a task, training to work as part of a team, learning how to improve one’s skills to grow and progress in a career; it’s all learning.

Social Learning Benefits

There are many benefits to social learning.

  • Numerous studies have shown that humans learn best in groups, with hands-on and experiential projects.
  • Learning is best when done with the influence of others; two people exchanging ideas and playing them off one another leads to new, more internalized ideas for both participants.
  • Vicarious reinforcement can also be a social learning tool. Individuals watch those around them; if one acts in a certain way and is either punished or rewarded for it, others learn by observation what might happen if they behave in that way without having to experience it themselves.
  • Social learning reinforces being part of a social group, which helps teams work together but also further reinforces employee connections and loyalty, which, in turn, reduces turnover.
  • Social learning bolsters teamwork in many ways. For one thing, employees will learn who is an authority on what subject within their organization and will know who to turn to with a problem. Additionally, they will be more comfortable asking one another for assistance where needed and without judgment.
  • Another benefit is that social learning increases comfort. Employees in training will feel more comfortable asking for help and working with their peers rather than struggling to teach themselves independently.

Social learning also helps groups and teams learn and grow, both in their individual skills and performance as teams. This is why so many business-level training and learning packages are presented as group activities. They have a better and more effective success rate when performed as groups rather than individually.

Statistics from Docebo:

“Social learning approaches have a 75:1 ROI ratio compared to formal web-based training. 82% of businesses that use social learning tools want to increase their use in the future. Course completion increased to 85% on HBX, a Harvard Business School online education initiative, when it introduced social learning. Semiconductor manufacturer, AMD, says their shift to social learning saves more than US$250,000 per year in web-based training production costs.”

The general breakdown is a 70:20:10 ratio. 70% of learning is experiential, 20% is through peer interactions, and 10% is through traditional classroom learning.

With potential time and money savings, higher effectiveness in training, and greater returns, it’s no wonder that many modern businesses are investing in ways to implement social learning.

The Four Principles of Social Learning

Social learning theory is based on four core components; these four principles are the foundation upon which all implementations of social learning are established.

Social Learning Principles

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They are:

  • Attention. Social learning works best when the individuals involved can levy their full attention to a task, training material, or experience. The more novel or different the task, the more attention will be drawn to it. Likewise, the more attention others are paying, the more attention you are likely to pay as well.
  • Retention. Internalizing information via experience is the best way to retain that information and pull it back later, in similar circumstances.
  • Reproduction. The best social learning training uses reinforcement via reproduction to increase retention and internalized learning.
  • Motivation. Without motivation, many people will not make an effort to learn or grow. Thus, social learning requires motivation; to get the group moving in the right direction.

With all of these in mind, you can start to see how certain kinds of training, collaboration, and resource-building can turn into social learning opportunities.

How to Institute Social Learning in the Workplace

If your company is looking for ways to implement better training and more robust learning, social learning techniques are often the way to go. Some can be simple, some can be subtle, and others are complex.

Institute Social Learning

Here are some examples.

  • Internal FAQs, forums, and knowledge bases. A company-run and company-built knowledge base becomes a collaborative resource. Employees can feel free to ask questions, answer one another, and point each other in the direction of relevant resources. They can also add their knowledge to a knowledge base, so those questions can be answered, without the necessary presence of the one who knows. As a bonus, if an employee leaves, a knowledge base helps minimize “brain drain” as they take their experience and knowledge with them.
  • Robust communications. Many of the individuals within your organization are experts in their particular subjects. The best social learning tool is your organization itself. Establish free and open communication between subject matter experts and the people who may need that information. It’s essential, however, to ensure company policies are followed. An IT member giving troubleshooting information to a non-IT staff member may cause more problems down the line, for example.
  • Gamification. Motivation is among the most challenging qualities to foster, both in individuals and teams. The threat of losing a job, the promise of a bonus; these kinds of incentives can only do so much. Implementing systems that turn learning into a game, with bonuses and other incentives, can be a great way to promote further learning outside of the bare minimum. It can also foster a sense of healthy competition within the organization.
  • Encourage participation. Social learning only works if everyone involved is contributing. However, many individuals may be passive learners, have social anxiety, or be reticent to contribute. Encouraging them to contribute will benefit everyone involved, however.
  • Allow flexibility. Everyone learns at their own pace. Some people may find a particular skill or subject intuitive, while others may need to start from base principles and work their way up. Setting strict deadlines, tests, and other enforcement of timeliness can inhibit the effectiveness of social learning.

These are all broad systems and principles. Implementing them in your business can be done in a wide variety of ways, from designed training programs to internal mandates to social pressure to communicate. Just make sure to pay attention to the overview of how your employees are learning and training socially, and guide them away from less effective behaviors.

Does Social Learning have Drawbacks?

No single system is perfect, and that is true of social learning, as well. Social learning in business may have several drawbacks, shortcomings, and challenges that you may encounter and need to navigate around.

Social Learning Disadvantages

Here are some examples:

  • Less control. With traditional learning, you can bring in an outside authority or a training program and be relatively assured that it is an authoritative source. With social learning, you may get sources, viewpoints, and information from other sources outside of what you sanction for your business.
  • Questionable authority. People will believe what the people around them promote due to the inherent trust of a closer companion over an outsider. Thus, misinformation and incorrect information can have a stronger grip on your organization. How “expert” are the experts in your training program? Perhaps not remarkably so, if they’re your other employees and not actual authorities.
  • Use of time. Many forms of social learning require just that: being social. They may take place over social channels or even social media. There’s a tendency for individuals to be more social and less focused in these environments, and thus can “waste” time. However, if they’re still learning, this may not be a bad thing.
  • It can be quite difficult to implement social learning in a more geographically disparate workforce. It’s tricky to implement many forms of social learning even for an in-person office; workers who work remotely or from home may have difficulty participating.
  • Guidance is necessary. Social learning cannot be entirely self-guided; there needs to be an authoritative source of information and materials or projects to work towards; to reinforce that learning.
  • Potential stagnation. If your workplace is insufficiently diverse, you may find that some ideas and opinions – especially incorrect ones – may become reinforced and stagnate both critical thinking and lateral thinking. Conflict can breed innovation, and a diversity of ideas helps inspect problems from more angles, to develop better solutions. A uniform team will have fewer resources to learn.

Many of these drawbacks can be avoided in various ways. Bringing in authorities or authoritative materials, using guided experiences, and moderating social collaboration help reduce the risk of poor-quality learning. And, of course, hiring a more diverse workforce helps encourage diversity of ideas and helps in problem-solving.

Is Social Learning Worth the Investment?

At the end of the day, many businesses find that one question drives all others: how can this be made to be profitable? What is the return on investment for social learning practices and procedures?

Workforce Social Learning

The truth is, there’s not a lot of data on how social learning can benefit the workplace. While some major companies see dramatic results with social learning, many more do not. Without dedicated, comprehensive auditing, it’s impossible to tell whether this is a flaw with social learning, its implementation, or the individuals tasked with learning. There are too many variables to control.

Social learning is, luckily enough, relatively easy to implement. Many modern training materials and business resources like web forums, internal wikis, knowledge bases, communications platforms like Slack, and more, are all available as collaborative learning tools.

Should your business invest in social learning? Very likely, yes. Most businesses can benefit at least in some small way from implementing social learning strategies, even if they don’t wholesale replace your existing learning and training methods. It’s just a matter of determining exactly how to do it within your organization.

If you or your company have any questions or concerns regarding social learning or how your organization can adopt it after reading today’s post, please feel free to drop them in the comments section below, and we’ll gladly get a conversation started! Implementing social learning can be relatively simple for some companies; but may require some assistance for others, so we’d be more than happy to answer any of your or your company’s questions or concerns on the topic.


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