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Lessons in Social Learning: What Happens in the Classroom Stays in the Classroom

— by Bill Cushard

Social learning

There is an exciting case study in the August issue of Chief Learning Officer Magazine about how Coldwell Banker uses social learning to get to the learning that is occurring most closely to the actual work in the organization. Realizing that discussions in the classroom often stay in the classroom, Coldwell Banker implemented social learning that relies mainly on user-generated content and participation rather than structured content from instructional designers in order to better serve its disperse workforce of independent agents throughout the world.

There are several lessons that I take away from this case study that I think are useful as we think through what social learning could mean in our organizations.

About Learning, Not Instruction

First of all, it is becoming more apparent each day that our roles as learning professionals and instructional designers is changing. It is no longer our role to provide proper instruction. No one wants to be instructed, but just about everyone wants to learn, develop, and have potential growth opportunities in an organization. Our role is becoming more and more that of facilitating the learning process, and there are more ways to do that than creating e-learning modules.

A Free Agent Nation

Coldwell Banker is a company built on the hard work and achievements of a disperse group of independent agents, not full-time employees, to whom it is even more difficult to provide structured training. Even in organizations of mostly full-time employees, a free agent nation has been developing for years. It is too difficult to get to groups like this with structured content. Structured content is a one-size-fits-all solution no matter how you slice it. One class or e-learning module is created for everyone. Sure, each person can get something different out of it, but with so many widely dispersed individuals, there are just too many needs to satisfy. Plus, these independent people have their own experience and expertise and don’t need to told something from “someone at corporate, who has no idea what its like in the field.” Coldwell Banker recognized this and enabled peer-to-peer connections that were already occurring between people out in the field. They just used technology to make this connections easier.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Instructional designers simply cannot keep up with what people need to learn. Once an instructional designer designs a course, by the time it is delivered it is outdated and/or needs to be updated. How many of you have experienced this? All that time spent developing training that is outdated by the time it is delivered. Things move so quickly these days that ISD’ers simply cannot keep up. We need to change what we do by finding alternative ways to enable learning in the organization. Social learning and Web 2.0 technologies are a big part of this.

To Andragogy or Not To Andragogy

When it comes to user generated content, it is difficult for professional instructional designers to embrace the fact that proper learning can occur without proper instructional design methods.  It is a hard pill to swallow, but Coldwell Banker discovered that videos created by subject matter experts in the field often had more credibility than those created by the designers at the Coldwell Banker University. Perhaps we should focus on the fact that we need to help people learn rather than on the belief that people need proper instruction. People want to learn on their own terms. This is an important lesson that we need to learn. We get caught up in the paradigm that we need to instruct others on how to do things. More often than not, this is not the case. People just need to be put in a place in which they can learn. Coldwell Banker’s social learning puts people in this position, and they flock to it.

The Results are Encouraging

The great thing about this article is that it shows results from which we can all learn. People are learning, they are participating, and they are applying what they learned on the job. Social learning is happening whether we like it or not, and it is working (whether some of us like that or not). The question is whether we want to enable it or actively get in its way.

More about employee training and retention on the Mindflash blog.

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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