How can we Overcome Barriers to Social Learning?

In a previous article on social learning, I discussed different ways and sources of learning as well as some basic activities often overlooked as social learning. I also considered that technology available from social media now affords us an updated view and enables faster and wider reach.

The article asked, “Has the term just increased in popularity because of the technology available? Do we have to use technology?  Or, should it actually be called Techno-Social Learning – because it’s inferred that Social Learning uses one of the Social Media tools, yet we have learnt socially for many years.”  I covered off why it’s in the limelight now and why I am so interested in it.  You can read that article again here.  We are now going to move on to what the barriers are to using it, and how they can be overcome.

Why do people see barriers to it, and what are they?

As mentioned earlier, whilst there are plans to increase the use of social learning, the CIPD Annual L&D survey (4) revealed that there is a nervousness around learning technologies.  Often an assumption is made that social learning needs some sort of technological intervention, and people shy away due to a lack of confidence in understanding how it works.  However, when you consider Twitter, Linked In, or contributing to blogs, how difficult was it to start using those – reasonably intuitive?

Another reluctance is when the business case is not available, or lacks the courage in its conviction.  It needs to show the source of pain, and how social learning can address it (5);  in any learning intervention, the outcomes need to be linked to the overall business goals and objectives, so why is it different for Social Learning?  It could be because of the perception that it is difficult to measure the impact that it’s having.  We will review measurement impacts later in this article, as it doesn’t have to be a blocker.

Next would be the permissibility; culturally is the organisation one that allows these kind of interactions?  The question here would be, do you stop people conversing around the coffee machine, or water cooler?  Where is the difference between a verbal sharing of information to support learning, and one that is written down? In fact one-on-one conversations can be turned into one-on-many and interacting online generally means that there is more control, by using curation.

There could be a fear factor, from Leadership and Management as well as learners themselves.  Is there an element of hierarchy, with people feeling they can’t advise or comment on something someone more senior has posted?  Are management fearful of a loss of control? This leads into security and what if people say bad things?  This spills out into another debate, because as a business why wouldn’t we trust them:, we hired them, and likely many of them will have been working for you for years!

A big challenge is recognising what opportunities already exist, however ad-hoc or unexpected they may be.  There could already be social learning initiatives already in operation, be they formal or informal that could have the potential to develop into something more solid and managed.

How can it be implemented successfully?

Having looked over some of the barriers and challenges, it’s clear we need to address these, but what about the learner – why would I want to learn socially? What is in it for me? We need to give learners a reason to use the chosen option and to facilitate their recognition of how they can learn in this way, or even better, show them how they are already learning in this way.  One way to do this is to ask “What did you learn today?”. Take a journey back through the whole day and you are sure to find something, if not many things.  There are even organisations that use walking streets as a source of learning – check out StreetWisdom.

Storytelling is a further way to bring learners in, both in how the social element is working, as well as in the learning itself.  It’s a key element of Julian Stodd’s Social Leadership model (6). Building further on that, connecting using real time issues that learners are interested in, and want to contribute to improving will really drive usage as that desire to see an immediate, worthwhile result is satisfied.

One of the main barriers we described was the lack of recognition that social networking sites are an opportunity to learn, so to those “non-believers” we need to demonstrate how it can work.  Leadership and Management need to be 100% backing the initiative, and there needs to be a pull for the learners, and as described, a real reason to get involved.  Both of these may require behaviour changes, which should not be underestimated in overall establishment of the mechanic.  An opportunity to demonstrate in its simplest form is to call out the social learning’s gleaned within the classroom at the time they happen, ask at the end of sessions what was learnt from colleagues, be that with internal or new external networks.

There are options to build in “badge” schemes, where reward for contributions are made public, which can drive a little competition within the group, and highlight experts – like those many of us are familiar with on social tools such as Trip Advisor.  As well as motivating individuals to increase their contributions, using badge schemes and monitoring interactions is a possible way to measure the impact, using transactional data (1).  This can be pieced together with surveys to review engagement and attitude as well as direct questions on information learnt or retained.

Quick Idea!

I picked up a YouTube clip recently whilst looking for ideas for our team day.  Discussed the concept, kept what we liked, ditched what we didn’t and developed our own Ice-breaker.  In social terms, someone externally shared their idea, we pooled our experiences and views to collaborate on developing the idea.  There was no teaching there, we learnt using ideas from our social networks.

There are many other fundamentals to watch out for too, in fact, Jane Hart describes 12 of them (7).   The stand outs for us are having a clear owner, involving people as you set up to gain early adopters, be ready to narrate and keep it fresh.

Knowing how to get the information is key too.  We’ve talked about purpose, contribution and rewards, but when using it, where is everything? How do people actually use and access it?  People don’t retain information they know they can get hold of easily on the web these days, and that it the same principle as learning from others.  When you know there is somewhere you can go to get the information, and you know how to navigate to it, it makes the whole process much easier.

We in the L&D community share and learn from each other using Twitter for #LDinsight, this principle could be transferred to organisations, and if public sharing isn’t favoured then the same can be done using Skype or Lync – and the results recorded and stored.  Support may be needed: for example, there is always an L&D Connect facilitator reminding participants of the question topic, to keep the content relevant, and this is where curation comes in.  Putting in mechanisms to keep the information relevant and appropriate, and using the right people to do that.

According to the HCM/SABA report (1), Product Knowledge, with 53.9%, was the area for which learning content is best suited for Social Learning Technologies.  An ERP system implementation means a new product is being installed, so learning more about how to use that product lends itself very well to a social approach.  Learners want to explore more about the possibilities, why things work and don’t work, what else it’s capable of, how it interacts with other functions.  They learnt what they need to do to get their job done, and now want to explore further, so it’s a perfect opportunity to capitalise on.

Quick Example!

A social option could be setting up a scheme where the Subject Matter Expert for each ERP area owns each “community” and therefore curates the content, ensuring learners are not bombarded with similar questions, but also validates the content, to ensure relevance and accuracy.

We are firm believers in the blended learning approach.  Complementing this approach with social elements means our blended programmes are designed with teams supporting each other along the way.  Our core is ERP training, to use new systems.  Our foundation for this is the 10% instruction.  We bring in 20% learning from others by embedding in classrooms, briefing sessions or virtual groups.  Finally adding support mechanisms so that for the 70% of time they spend learning on the job, they can access material to support that continued learning.

About the author – Sheela Hobden

Sheela is a highly experienced learning professional. Creative and organised, with the credibility to engage and influence stakeholders at all levels. Strength to challenge and drive agendas with different client groups, supported by sound business acumen gained from a range of industries. Specialising in change, communications and learning initiatives, having experience in business acquisitions and mergers as well as projects.

Sheela is Consulting Manager at CLS Performance Solutions

(1)    HCM Advisory Group.  “2013 State of The Industry Study: A pulse on social learning”.  Chicago. HCM Advisory Group
(2)    Dan Pontefract blog
(3)    Jane Hart blog 
(4)    CIPD. “Annual Survey: Learning and Development 2015”.  May 2015. London, CIPD.
(5)    Emelo, R. “Writing on someone’s wall is not something new”.  November 2013. CLO.
(6)    Stodd, J. “The Social Leadership Handbook”.  2014. London. The Printing House.
(7)    Hart, J. “12 steps to successful social learning”. Slideshare

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