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4 Essential Elements of Social Learning

— by Bill Cushard

Social learningTraining

When we think of social learning, we often knee-jerk react by saying that we need to implement social media technologies in our organizations so people can connect and learn. Then the pundits chime in and say it’s not about the technology, that technology comes and goes, and that it’s truly about the learning — or more importantly, the performance. Okay, fine. But it’s difficult to escape the idea that we need a technology solution to make social learning happen, so it really is about the technology, right?

Not so fast. If you look back to the original social learning theory, you find it is largely about people learning from each other, and it shows how technology is not part of the equation. Social learning theory has four elements, each of which can be applied in our organizations to improve learning and performance without the need for new technologies. Or can it? These four elements are observational learning, reciprocal determinism, self-regulation, and self-efficacy.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is about observing a model for how something should be done, and then performing the task in such a way that it matches the model. This can be done by observing how others do a task or it can be done by “observing” how something is described in a book, article, YouTube video or tweet. However, the key to observational learning is that it must be given attention, people must retain what they have observed, and then they must be motivated to apply what they have learned. All of us learn something this way, and I think learning and development professionals could do a better job creating opportunities for more observational learning in our organizations. Do you agree?

Reciprocal Determinism

This is a fancy way of saying individual learning is influenced by the environment in which it is conducted. Each determines the other. There needs to be a positive learning environment for individual learning to take place, and there can only be a positive learning environment if individual learning is taking place. It’s about the social interaction between the individual and other individuals in the environment. Does this sound like a learning organization to you?


Someone always has to ruin the fun by putting in pesky things like goal setting, discipline for action, and follow-through. In the end, the only way learning occurs — and most importantly, the only way performance improves — is if individuals have the discipline and self-motivation to apply what they learned. What is the learning professional’s role in helping people set goals, creating action plans, and following through on those plans?


This is the little engine that could. Do people believe they can learn and then perform? Do they have the confidence that they can perform the job they have been hired to perform? How can the organization create an environment in which people’s confidence can be fostered, encouraged and cultivated? When people believe they can do a task, they are more confident and have a much higher chance of learning new knowledge and skills and putting them into action.

That’s social learning in a nutshell. By examining the four elements above, learning professionals can build social learning into everything they do and thus, improve performance. After reading this, the idea that social learning is about social media technologies fades, and we begin to think about ways we can create an environment in which people want to learn, believe they can learn, and go out and do it.

Who said theories aren’t practical?

Bill Cushard, Chief Learning Officer at The Knowland Group, is a learning leader with more than 12 years experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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