Learning in the workplace can be as easy as popping your head over the cubicle, an impromptu chat with co-workers in the breakroom, or writing emails to peers while sitting at your laptop in your backyard.
Regardless of the road taken, the goal is to tap into tips and ideas among co-workers. This kind of casual social learning, where two or more people talk about their jobs and at least one of them leaves knowing a little more about the best workplace practices, is a valuable, inexpensive tool for many savvy business leaders. The jackpot is when multiple workers learn tips from each other.
How it works
Dante Villarreal, vice president of business services at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said the casual social learning style not only makes life easier for employees to do their jobs, but also boosts the bottom line. Many times, the practice comes naturally and other times it needs to be pushed a bit, he said.
“I think that it happens in every business,” Villarreal said. “However, the more intentional a business culture is to fostering social learning, the stronger the business will be.”
Leaders who are most successful in spreading this social learning process create an atmosphere for it to flourish.
“Businesses that are intentional make sure that team members have access to each other and have some opportunities to work alongside each other to discuss projects, issues and problem-solve together,” Villarreal said.
Businesses around the country are seeing the benefits of social learning. In fact, the technique was among Forbes’ top business trends in 2018.
Since a lot of employees are working remotely, physical access to peers, and the most direct way to learn, is dwindling. To help provide a bridge among employees, business leaders often set up mentoring programs, coaching meetings, problem-solving teams, social software, and talent directories listing who does what best in the business. The result boosts employee engagement and fosters self-direction.
Management Business Solutions (MBS) uses social learning to train employees on a regular basis, says CEO Floriza Genautis, whose company is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Social learning has been “around for a long time,” she said, adding that MBS not only uses the technique to improve workflow, but it’s also a key tool for grooming interns for future job openings at the 12-year-old staffing solutions and recruiting business.
“We have a pretty open setting,” Genautis said. “A lot of the things we do is to bring in interns and we do a lot of shadowing to be able to understand the open environment and to learn from each other.”
Interns are encouraged to ask questions and they’re given a chance to see how things are done. The process also gives employees, at all experience levels, a first-hand look at best practices.
“It really engages individuals to see how the corporate setting works, collaboration and understanding of how the workplace runs,” adds Genautis. “It helps a lot in bringing in the new workforce and the millennials and it’s a great pool for us to hire people.”
The concept of the informal learning process focuses on the idea that employees will learn what they want to learn and they learn best from their peers in daily experiences at work. It heralds back to Benjamin Franklin’s advice about wisdom: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Marcia Conner, co-author of “The New Social Learning,” supports this kind of business culture.
“Organizations need to provide millennials with ways to contribute and connect non-stop,” Conner says. “The smart ones won’t settle for anything less — and those who will are unlikely to be the leaders of your future.”
Conner advises against writing baby boomers off as not willing to change their ways and embrace new ideas about learning in the workplace.
“Older workers may be willing to work in traditional ways, but many are excited about the opportunity to share their knowledge and continue to learn what new technology offers,” she said. “This is your best chance to unearth the range of their insights based on their years of experiences.”
Promoting social learning starts from the culture in the organization by providing opportunities for interaction, openness and a chance to learn, watch and listen to each other. There’s not enough awareness of the importance of social learning in the workplace, she added.
Fruits of labor
Tammy Carnrike, who is chief operating officer at the Detroit Regional Chamber, said she recently saw how effective social learning can be when millennials and baby boomers at the Chamber worked together on a project, brainstorming an idea for NeighborHub, a new partnership program with General Motors that provides grants and in-kind business support to nonprofit organizations proposing the most innovative and collaborative solutions to issues in Detroit neighborhoods.
Carnrike created an open work atmosphere by telling employees what she was looking for on a general basis, giving them the autonomy to take the freedom and run. Carnrike says she was overwhelmed with how involved the employees became and how well the self-direction worked out. They were also able to share their learning experiences.
“We sometimes take for granted and don’t stop to think about social learning and how present it is in the workplace,” Carnrike said. “It’s very prevalent and might not be recognized. I think it’s intergenerational. There is learning that goes both ways, whether it’s millennials and even baby boomers. As a baby boomer, I’ve learned from watching them. Social learning goes both ways. I think there’s a positive impact.”
Carnrike said she was blown away by the ideas from the intergenerational team, where everyone brought unique skills, creativity, ingenuity and techniques to the NeighborHub project.
“They used their own talents and thoughts and found a way to align it with the mission and goals of our organization,” she said. “I provided them with the structure that this is what is needed and I gave them a timeline. It was about giving them autonomy. They just ran with it and did something so unbelievable. I learned so much from them.”
Employees can also learn the kinds of work habits they don’t want to emulate by watching behaviors from peers who struggle at their jobs.
Carnrike said social learning can give employees a chance to learn good tips and knowledge, and it can also show employees the kinds of work practices they want to avoid.
“They learn behaviors and skills that aren’t positive and they learn that’s not what they want to be,” Carnrike said.
While some studies show that nearly half of corporations use social learning in the workplace, Carnrike said, there’s usually room for more opportunities. She doesn’t believe there’s enough awareness about how important social learning is and the necessity for creating a culture that fosters the technique.
“I think there’s a need for more trust and awareness and how learning can come from different ways and not all learning is in a classroom,” she said. “Let’s pay attention to the impact of what we can learn from the people around us in different situations.”
More than a decade ago, the Education Development Center, Inc. conducted a two-year study of workplace cultures involving major corporations such as Boeing, Motorola, Siemens, and Ford Electronics. The review supported other studies that said 70 percent of what people know about their jobs, they learn from their peers.
Cherished characteristics employers look for are a drive to keep learning, an ability to share information and an inclination to understand that other employees will add to their knowledge bank. Considering these factors, employers want people who have a knack for learning quickly on the job.
A social learning study conducted by the Brandon Hall Group pointed to a need for organizations to address what social technologies mean for employee learning functions and gauging attitudes.
Tapping into social media is another facet of social learning and it can be as easy as reading an informational blog, attending work-related social events and communicating by video conferencing. Ironically, employees might feel they will get in trouble for having conversations with their peers, reading blogs or going on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube at work. Discouraging these behaviors can stifle the social learning process.
In fact, weaving social media into the teaching process adds one more dimension to workplace learning, explained Sarah Kimmel, vice president of research and advisory services at Human Capital Media, based in Chicago.
“About 70 percent of learning is happening online,” Kimmel said. “How do you make online learning social? One of the ways you do that is having cohorts doing the online learning together. The cohorts can pose questions and have a discussion. That’s where you really start to see the biggest difference—the inclusion of technologies with a social component the same way you get in a classroom situation.”
Some people would argue that all learning is social, she said.
“I think what’s different right now is that learning leaders are looking to design learning in a way to maximize the benefit,” Kimmel added.
Adding a degree of competition among employees and breaking them into teams are a couple of approaches she recommends.
“There’s an awful lot going on out there with social learning,” she said.
Kimmel pointed to HCM’s 2018 Learning State of the Industry study, based on questions posed to representatives of 500 companies, of which 57 percent had more than 1,000 employees.
Asked about what their greatest learning and development technology challenges were for the next year, 19 percent said social learning tools and platforms were a priority, a number surpassed only by the 22 percent who ranked authoring tools and systems for content development higher.
The respondents chose social learning tools and platforms ahead of using facilities and classroom tools.
Less expensive approach
Jack Van Tiem, the Detroit territory vice president at Kelly Services, said having others watch an experienced professional practice their craft is an effective, efficient way to train employees and it’s cost-effective, especially compared to the sometimes expensive, instructor-led training approach.
The social learning approach puts employees in the driver’s seat by allowing them to take responsibility for their own personal learning. Formal, instructor-led approaches are often done during certain allotted training programs and many times workers must interrupt their work to attend training, which may sometimes occur outside of the office.
“Training by social learning can be a relatively inexpensive and easy practice to implement within an organization,” Van Tiem added. “At Kelly Services, we use social learning and coaching sessions to help train new team members for customer engagements and interactions. Providing feedback is critical in supporting their development in their role.”
Kelly Services uses social learning at every opportunity, he said. In fact, the 75 employees in his office are so familiar with social learning, they don’t use the term to describe what they do, because “it’s engrained in what we do.”
It’s important to identify professionals who are experts in their fields to ensure the highest quality of learning and to avoid having employees pick up bad habits from what they see, Van Tiem said. It’s also a good practice to periodically assess the student’s retention and ability to replicate what they learned.
Not for everyone
He has noticed that social learning has several strengths, including giving employees the ability to learn by getting direct experience in doing what needs to be done and by observing how specific situations were handled.
“Workplace social learning involves the collaboration of many people and provides a forum for participants to share ideas to resolve an issue, transfer knowledge, and for group reinforcement,” Van Tiem said.
Some people learn best by doing and experiencing and others absorb more by listening and reading. With all its many benefits, Van Tiem noted that social learning techniques may not be the best approach for all employees, because it can be difficult for some workers, with “extreme modesty or fear of judgment,” to interact effectively with their peers.
“They don’t seem to fare well in social learning environments.”