Social learning theory was first described by Alex Bandura in the 1960s as a cognitive process that takes place within a social context. Today, L&D professionals increasingly use social learning as a powerful tool for leadership and organizational development. It is ideally suited for learning soft skills and improving organizational performance. However, there are three misconceptions (untruths) about social learning which lead to ineffective and inefficient social learning based programs.
So, is it E-Learning?
During trade shows we promote CoachingOurselves, our management and leadership social learning program, with a pop-up banner displaying a group of participants seated around a table involved in a discussion. We then explain to interested people how CoachingOurselves groups use our discussion guides on management, leadership or organizational issues to drive learning outcomes.
At a recent tradeshow one visitor asked us, "So, is it eLearning?" despite the fact that nothing in our photo resembles participants involved in an eLearning program! We cheekily responded, "Yes! It is exactly like eLearning except participants are having discussions in small groups and they aren't staring at a computer screen." The visitor, oddly satisfied with our explanation, responded, "Oh wow, that's really innovative!”
And maybe our visitor’s request wasn’t so strange given the context. As we all know, elearning has been the prevailing method for the last 20 years providing people with a wealth of learning at their fingertips and from the comfort of their home or office.
However most learning and development, especially eLearning, focuses on content. This is known as Cartesian Learning: knowledge as a substance and pedagogy as the transfer of that substance from an expert to a learner. ELearning enables Cartesian learning to scale for vast numbers of learners across the organization.
But in social learning, new understandings and learnings are catalyzed through natural social processes, usually discussion. To facilitate social learning, organizations typically offer threaded discussion forums or chat groups in the hope that these will enable social learning to scale throughout the organization.
This is untrue. Discussion forums or group chats are perhaps the least effective and least efficient medium for social learning.
Why might this be so? Well, human beings are far more effective at verbal discussions compared to ‘chatting’ on an internet discussion forum. During a typical 90 minute verbal discussion, participants will exchange approx. 7500 words. It would take 22 hours of continuous ‘chatting’ on a discussion forum to achieve the same quantity of words! Not only is the quantity of discussion less, so is the quality. The intense back-and-forth exchange of ideas and the building of new understandings rarely occurs in an online discussion forum.
Technology can be applied to scale social learning but beware of the untruths promoted by the technology lovers. Threaded discussion forums or chat groups are the least effective medium for social learning. Social learning is a pure human process best accomplished through verbal discussions (in person or through video conferencing). This is highly scalable with widely available technology (i.e. video conferencing or teleconferencing.)
Group size, that is. Social learning requires at least two people but what is the maximum number of people for an effective social learning group? We’ve observed 8 or even 10 participants per table during some workshops at learning events and conferences. Initially, we expected that by having more participants in a group there would be a wider variety of perspectives resulting in more learning for everyone.
This is untrue. There will be a wider variety of perspectives but the learning is less than if the group size was smaller.
Social learning happens best when participants learn through reflection and dialog, primarily in regard to their own experiences. In other words, the more time each participant has to share their own experiences the greater the learning for that participant. Larger groups mean less time per participant. Even worse, larger groups tend to have more superficial discussions than smaller groups and tend to focus on subjects other than themselves because of a lack of trust or comfort discussing sensitive themes (i.e. myself) in larger groups.
Group composition and size are crucial to successful social learning for management and leadership development. Candid, honest and free flowing dialog is the key and in our experience, this happens best in groups of 4 to 5 participants. Beware of the workshop or program with more than 6 participants per group!
Learning from Experienced Senior Leaders
A senior leader imparting their wisdom to the younger generation is a common approach to organizational learning. The younger generation absorbs their leader’s wisdom simply by listening to the stories and as a result, the managerial performance of the younger generation improves.
This is untrue. Listening to the experiences of others does lead to “aha moments” and new insights but the most impactful learning and behavioral changes happen when participants learn from their own experiences.
This is analogous to one-on-one coaching; a coach does not improve the performance of a coachee by telling them what to do and what not to do. A coach helps their coachee figure it out for themselves through reflective questioning. The process is the same in social learning groups where participants take on the role of coach and coachee interchangeably throughout the discussion. They openly share their personal challenges and share their insights and experiences with one another.
This occurs most naturally in peer-groups because peers tend to have similar managerial challenges, relate to one another more easily than to their superiors, and are far more candid with one another than when the “boss” is not in the room. Beware of mixing hierarchy in social learning groups!
With these untruths in mind social learning is a powerful approach to leadership and organizational development. Learners collaborate to create solutions to today’s complex issues leading to improved organizational performance. The modern L&D professional should learn to maximize the powerful benefits of social learning in their programs yet beware of the common misconceptions (untruths) which lead to diminished results!