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Practical Ways Social Learning Can Enhance Formal Learning

— by Bill Cushard

Course development
In a recent Chief Learning Office Magazine article,  How to Create a Dynamic Social Learning Space, Julian Stodd makes the point that social learning is not a replacement for formal learning, but a “supplement” to it. In a practical sense, this is true, and the good news is that learning experience (LX) designers do not have to think about how to replace formal learning with informal or social methods. However, LX designers do need to think about how existing formal learning can be augmented by social learning.
Social learning is happening in our organizations already. People talk, ask questions, look up ideas on Google or Twitter. But that type of social learning is entirely led by the individual. LX designers should not venture into the realm of individual-led social learning. People will decide for themselves what they want to learn, and you have nothing to say about it.
On the other hand, when it comes to social learning, an LX designer can look at his/her existing formal learning designs and ask, “How can I leverage collaborative social learning to augment, enhance, or otherwise improve learning in the classes I design?”
Social Learning is About the Conversation
I recommend looking at an existing formal learning session, whether designed for the classroom or designed in Mindflash for self-paced learning. In that class, ask yourself where it calls for a group discussion? An Ice-breaker? A review at the end of the session? An action plan? What about an activity in the middle of the class? If these group discussion or activities can occur in a formal setting, why can’t they occur in a social learning environment?
Julian Stodd states, “Any organization will have to learn how social works for its specific situation. A perfect way is to identify a project suitable to try it out on.” This is great advice. Instead of looking to implement social learning on a global level, bite off what you can chew. Look for a specific task, project, or course activity on which you want to try social learning. Start with activities at the beginning and end of your formal training courses. Here’s how:

Before Training
For example, let’s say you have created an e-learning course using  Mindflash for a new product launch. The new product has some cool features from which your customers will benefit. Your sales force knows your customers well and could certainly discuss the problems that customers are having that a new product could solve. Before you have people take the class you just designed, you could host a discussion on  Yammer or  Tibbr or  Moxie Software or other enterprise social network (ESN), guided by specific questions you create, aimed at getting the sales force talking about the problem(s) this new product solves. This way, when the sales force takes the course, they have already set the context for the problem(s) they will help solve with his new product.
After Training
What about after training? What if, in the same group of sales people, you host a discussion about how they could approach customers with this new product. Now that the sales force has learned the features and benefits of the new product, they can discuss the approach and potential road blocks that might arise. Peers will chime in and suggest ideas. This technique could be particularly useful for regional account executives out in the field. Moreover, this is a great way to sustain the learning and turn it into action because the conversation is ongoing and the conversations also become a resource for future reference.
Keep it Simple: Start with the Conversation
As suggested in the article, “It’s not the space that’s hard to generate; it’s the engagement.” So how do you get people engaged in social learning? Start with the conversation. Assign a specific task that motivates learners to want to participate. Asking sales people how they would sell a new product, is a specific, useful, and specific task aimed at encouraging peers to share stories and learn from each other.
If social learning was working well in your organization, what would it look like?
Bill Cushardauthorblogger, and head of learning at Allonhill, is a learning leader with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill.

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