Building a social learning strategy

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Written by Randy Emelo on 1 November 2013 in Features

Randy Emelo shows how to make social learning a success

We all talk about it. We all read about it. We all say we're doing it. Yet few are doing it well, and most have different definitions of what it even is.

What is this crazy, confusing thing I am talking about? It's social learning, the hottest thing to hit the learning and development worlds since e-learning.

US companies spent on average $13,675 on social learning tools and services in 2012, an increase of 39 per cent since 2011, according to Bersin by Deloitte1. It and others predict this number will continue to grow as companies seek ways to connect their employees in more informal learning activities and capitalise on the growing use of, and comfort with, social tools.

Does this mean social learning is a new way to train and develop people? Not necessarily. Clive Shepherd, author of The New Learning Architect, says: "It is completely ludicrous to imply that somehow learning has suddenly become social. Social learning in a general sense is nothing new. We are social animals and we crave interaction when we learn, in order to share our thoughts and perspectives, ask and answer questions, give and receive feedback, benchmark our progress, and so on."

I certainly agree with Clive and think social learning has been occurring for eons (we would have just called it learning a few short decades ago). What is new, however, is the technology we use to make this happen. From blogs and wikis to Twitter and even email, technology makes the learning process smoother and easier. As a result, learning can become more personal and more immediate for solving real-time business problems, while, at the same time, become more affordable and scalable so that companies can widen the scope of learning to every employee.

A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study showed that using social technologies in business can unlock between $900bn and $1.3trn in value for companies2. This is a staggering amount of money, and a figure most companies cannot ignore. The interesting part of this statistic is that the researchers say two thirds of the value creation opportunity lies in improving communication and collaboration within and across enterprises, which is something well within our control as L&D leaders.

Social for a reason

When people think of social learning, what they often picture is actually social networking. They envision a tool that people log in to, maybe scan a few pages of comments from other users about random topics, and then post a question and cross their fingers as they hope someone out there answers it. Because social networking sites are not built for learning, this can give a poor impression when people confuse it with social learning. These social networking sites lack any way of tracking information, reporting on it or sustaining it. True social learning software has structure built in that ensures there is a learning focus and a way to track and measure progress.

One thing has become clear over the past few years: social won't work without a purpose, and that purpose needs to be learning. Social learning can only work if there is structure involved that leads people to quality social connections and interactions, all in the name of learning. It is more than just social media or business networking; the interactions need to be focused on one thing: learning.

Most people leverage social learning while looking for something very specific, and each person's journey is personal and unique. People may want a greater understanding of practices in their field, or to collaborate around innovative practice areas that relate to their work. They may want to gain greater understanding of adjacent areas of practice that could have an impact on their jobs. They may even use social learning to pursue skill development in other fields as a part of self-directed career mapping. No matter what the reason, the purpose is to learn and gain knowledge.

This type of social learning is exactly what is occurring in the energy and construction division of URS, a fully integrated engineering, construction and technical services company with associates in nearly 50 countries. Its energy and construction division needed a way to share critical knowledge and insights among its roughly 8,000 employees, who span seven business groups, six major offices and multiple project sites and facilities. It chose River from Triple Creek as its web-based knowledge sharing and social learning solution because it offers a way to involve all employees in structured social learning, regardless of location or job function.

"This programme is becoming a key resource in developing our talent and in connecting critical knowledge across our organisation, allowing us to actively reinforce our learning culture across the enterprise," said Andy Kaminsky, senior vice president of human resources for URS's energy and construction division. On average, 17 people connect during each learning engagement, and 76 per cent of engagements have multiple business groups represented.

The energy and construction division is addressing critical business challenges with social learning, such as capturing knowledge before people retire, overcoming silos of knowledge, finding and leveraging sources of knowledge within the organisation, and creating a cost-effective learning culture. For example, it uses social learning to supplement and support its formal training efforts. When people take part in a formal training course, they are automatically placed into a social learning group on the same topic. This helps extend the life of the learning taking place, and also provides employees with a place to go to connect with their fellow learners and advisors even after the formal classroom training is finished.

Using social learning technology effectively can help companies achieve better collaboration across the workforce, break down barriers among employees, and support broad knowledge sharing among the rank and file. In fact, in a 2013 MIT Sloan Management Review report, companies cited social business software as important to the following organisational objectives:

improve or increase collaboration (71 per cent)

identify expertise and internal knowledge (60 per cent)

improve productivity (56 per cent)

break down internal silos (52 per cent)3.

URS's energy and construction division is accomplishing these objectives with its social learning programme that it calls the URS Knowledge Network. "Business groups are exchanging technical knowledge and creating communities to solve business problems," said Kaminsky. "Smaller worksites with limited development resources are now connecting to a vibrant network of advisors and peers."

All of this has led to the greatest testament that social learning is working: "Employees are starting to see the URS Knowledge Network as a way to get just-in-time knowledge and solutions from multiple perspectives," said Kaminsky.

Strategic action

As URS has shown, social learning can be done and done well. The problem for some companies often comes from a lack of strategy around the process, or a belief that you simply have to provide access to a social networking site, open it up to everyone, and then learning will just magically happen there.

In the MIT Sloan Management Review report, researchers identified three reasons why companies aren't becoming social businesses: lack of an overall strategy (28 per cent of respondents), too many competing priorities (26 per cent) and lack of a proven business case or strong value proposition (21 per cent).

Making the case for social learning and showing what impact it can have on business goals - not just learning goals - will help forge the future of this practice. "When companies can identify a business issue that is a source of pain for them, and then make the connection to see how social learning can help address that pain, that is when the light bulbs finally go on. That is when they get it," said Mike Cooke, chairman and CEO of research analyst firm Brandon Hall Group.

Best practices for social learning are emerging and a sustainable practice is taking shape. With this in mind, consider these strategies for forging your own sustainable social learning culture.

Strategy 1: Provide structure that focuses on learning Too many social learning tools are really just social media tools that allow for big, general broadcasting but are not designed for the intent of learning. The tools used for social learning must be designed with learning in mind. A critical factor to consider is the structure provided within them. Learning structure should allow people to identify learning goals, form groups centred on specific learning objectives, collaborate with one another within the confines of the group, and rate progress against corporate learning and performance competencies. People should be free to do this on their own, without directives telling them what to learn about or focus on. This provides the structure they need for learning, with the freedom they desire to guide their own development.

One example of this at URS occurred for an individual who wanted to get his project management professional certification. He started a learning engagement in the URS Knowledge Network around this goal, and quickly identified five people whom he invited to be his advisors. Within 20 minutes of asking his first question, he received responses from his advisors and generated quality conversation around how to complete his PMP certification. This topic proved popular with others at URS and several more people who wanted to learn about this topic joined the engagement. As of September 2013, there are 25 people involved in the engagement and the original person who started the group has now successfully received his PMP certification. He is now an advisor in the group and is using his newly-found knowledge to give back to others who want to learn.

Strategy 2: Move beyond formal learning To get in on the trend of social learning, many companies simply add a social feed to a formal learning process or LMS and consider their work done. Unfortunately, this is the wrong tack to take. Only being able to ask the trainer a question is not enough. The social aspect needs to be bigger than that. Companies need to have structures in place that allow people to connect with their colleagues and learning cohorts before, during and after a formal training course. This lets people continue conversations after the course is finished, and provides them with peer support when they are actually back on the job and trying to implement the new theories or practices that they learned.

An estimated $1.8 to $1.9 billion will be spent globally on learning management systems in 20134, but I contend that these systems are not doing enough.  Where is the personal context? Where is the support of other learners and of knowledgeable advisors? How do people expand their learning activities into areas outside their current jobs?

In a 2012 Towards Maturity benchmarking study5, researchers found that top learning companies use technology in almost twice as many formal learning programmes than average and they are more likely to allocate their learning resources to strategy, planning, content development, supporting collaboration and informal learning. The key areas here are supporting collaboration and informal learning. Social learning gives people a place to work together and learn from one another in a more informal fashion than an LMS or formal classroom training. This can have a direct impact on their productivity, which is a critical business issue for many companies. It's been estimated that companies could raise the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 per cent through the use of social technology6, which is a huge return on investment that formal training and an LMS typically can't provide.

Strategy 3: Connect learning with real-time work issues Few people want to take time out of work to go and sit in a class that may or may not be useful to them, and even fewer can afford to be away from their job for training that does not directly tie in to their work duties. What people need is a way to find experts and peers who can answer questions about very specific problems or questions at exactly the moment when they need them. People will inevitably ask what's in it for me? and training and learning leaders need to be able to show that social learning will provide them with very targeted answers within the context of their unique situation so that they can do their jobs better and faster. It's more than just reading a book review or combing through thousands of shared documents, hoping to find one that will shed even a hint of light on the problem. It has to be contextualised and individualised learning in order for it to have an impact.

I contend that social learning can have an impact on the entire 70-20-10 learning continuum and bring about personalised learning that has an impact on people's daily work, whether it is through formal learning (the '10' portion of the continuum), peer learning and mentoring (the '20' portion), or experiential learning on the job (the '70' portion). In fact, our clients accomplish this with our social learning software, as exemplified by URS in Figure 1. This shows actual learning engagements in the URS Knowledge Network, and shows how they span the entire 70-20-10 spectrum. Many of these engagements are started by the employees themselves and, as you can see, most have participants in the double digits. There is clearly a social undercurrent that flows through the entire spectrum of learning, and I believe learning at all levels becomes deeper and more meaningful when you add a human element and open it up to all those who have the desire to learn and share.

Strategy 4: Adjust corporate cultures and attitudes Sadly, executives in too many companies still do not see the value of social learning because they do not have a clear understanding of what impact it can have on business objectives and organisational goals. Training and learning leaders need to provide evidence that social learning can affect the bottom line and go beyond just another HR initiative or training programme.

Respondents in the MIT Sloan Management Review study indicated that they have seen operational benefits to using social business software, such as breaking down silos (34 per cent), faster time to innovation (31 per cent) and improving employee morale and motivation (31 per cent)7. Going beyond soft results and showing that social learning can have hard impacts on the business will provide a big step forward to helping adjust how the C-suite views social learning and the attitudes they have regarding it. Once their views have shifted toward the positive, they can help shape the corporate culture so that the positive outlook on social learning trickles down to all levels of the company.

The energy and construction division of URS accomplished this by showing the value social learning has in addressing such business issues as retaining knowledge before people retire and breaking down silos so that people can collaborate and share knowledge with one another at all locations. Connecting social learning to pain areas for the company has been critical to its success and vital to gaining support from company executives.

As we all have felt from time to time, taking the first step is often the hardest part in doing something new. These strategies provide the necessary components for companies to at least get started with social learning. If I may make one last suggestion, it is this: don't overthink it. Social is natural to people and they want to connect with their colleagues. Just give them the tools and structure they need accomplish this, and then get out of their way.


1 Bersin by Deloitte Corporate Learning Factbook (2013)

2 McKinsey Global Institute The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity through Social Technologies (July 2012)

3 MIT Sloan Management Review “Social Business: Shifting Out of First Gear” (2013)

4 Bersin by Deloitte Learning Management Systems: Finding Your Way through the Maze (8 October 2012)

5 Towards Maturity Integrating Learning and Work: Towards Maturity Benchmarking Practice (2012)

6 McKinsey Global Institute The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity through Social Technologies (July 2012)

7 MIT Sloan Management Review “Social Business: Shifting Out of First Gear” (2013)

About the author

Randy Emelo is president and CEO of enterprise social learning and knowledge sharing software provider Triple Creek. He can be contacted via


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