Friday, April 10, 2015

Integrating Social Learning in the Workplace


I have been writing about social learning and its related concepts – communities of practices, working out loud and skills for the networked world for quite some time now. Social learning has become a buzzword in the workplace learning space, and every other organization is claiming to have “social learning” as a part of the mix. The catch is that “social learning” cannot just be implemented or enforced. One cannot inset social learning in the training calendar and feel happy about it. It has to be integrated into the culture and the organizational way of working and being. And therein lies the problem.

This post focuses on the challenges organizations face when attempting to integrate social learning and synthesizes some of the key concerns. Social learning is much more a cultural outcome than a process or a program to be followed. Organizations are fairly adept at implementing training programs, providing LMS access and checking for completion. However, social learning neither has a completion criteria nor can it be enforced. “Social learning” cannot be assigned as one would a course or a module. Nor can one be sent off to attend a class on social learning. So, social learning continues to loom like a specter over L&D’s head, who are usually given the dictate of implementing it.

On the face of it, social learning is or at least should be the easiest thing to implement in the workplace. Don’t we always turn to our colleagues when we are stuck? Don’t we WhatsApp or message our not co-located peers for the latest proposal, solution, client inputs? Then, why does social learning become the proverbial stumbling block on every L&D team’s radar?

It is primarily because of the way our organizations are structured and operate. The operational as well as the cultural norms of a majority of our organizations date back to the days of Taylor when standardization was a much sought after aspect to bring about efficiency, reduce errors and shorten turnaround time. Organizations thrived on predictability, best practices, efficiency and repeatability. 

Now, fast forward to the 21st Century bombarded by shifts in technology, changing nature of work and an evolving workplace. The history of outsourcing to off-shoring to automation is now well known. However, while technology advanced forcing us to work differently, the human mindset and the accompanying organizational management models did not. The evolution of the mind takes years, and we got stuck in a time warp. Organizations like Kodak, Borders and Blockbuster faded into irrelevance. Those who could embrace this technological onslaught thrived, and their names are household words today. Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Pandora… .

How is this change related to social learning? In a profound and almost philosophical way. History tells us that social learning has been the “only” way people learned in the past. The only technology then available was the “fire” built outside caves and other such places where the nomadic hunters of yore gathered at the end of the day to share stories. Cave paintings are further proof of the visual skills and the social nature of learning. People wanted to share what they knew in various forms. Social learning is not a 21st century invention. Vygotsky and Bandura’s theories dating back to the 1970’s explain the social nature of learning in a great deal of detail. The fundamental pillars of social learning have always been trust and a willingness to share and cooperate.

What we have lost today are precisely the art of communicating with openness and trust. Cooperation and collaboration to use Harold Jarche’s words. And this takes us back to Taylor, command and control, hierarchy, and the other well-known and esteemed pillars of modern day management. In an effort to mechanize processes and capitalize on efficiency, the practices and principles that led to the rise of Industrial Age organizations successfully killed the natural instincts of human beings – to learn, to share, and to cooperate.

By propagating the treatment of individuals as replaceable cogs, by reducing their humanity to naught, organizations of that era thrived by de-humanizing the human. However, this “efficiency” came at a price. The side effects of hierarchy and top down management – obsolete principles, hunger for power and unnatural competitiveness – desensitized the organizations. This has led to mistrust, cheating, shirking. Which in turn led to a further tightening of the so-called processes, bureaucratic systems and managerial oversight. Knowledge hoarding became one of the means of accumulating power and staying in control. Skills were no longer freely shared. “Social” became a bad word within the walls of the serious, process-oriented, sanitized interiors of the corporate world.

Then came the 21st century with its dramatic shifts and trends. The world has shifted and we are in the midst of the Creative Economy, and organizations realize that they are ill-prepared to face this change. Predictability gave way to complexity and often, chaos. The five forces in the diagram below turned the old order upside down.

Suddenly, the old order is no longer functioning as well as they had done. Best practices no longer suffice. Exceptions and novel challenges are the norm. There is no time to get trained for the skills needed. Learning and working have become one and the same. New words and concepts have cropped up – crowdsourcing, collaboration, digital skills, personal learning network, social learning, social business. Organizations moved from being a building in a fixed location to a distributed network of employees and geographically dispersed offices. Collaboration and cooperation became vital to the survival of the organization and the individual.

Organizations thus felt the pressure to enable social learning and collaboration in some form. And jumped onto the easiest of the bandwagons – that of new, glossy technology. New platforms, new devices, uber connectivity. However, what most organizations forgot is the culture change required. Organizations fell prey to the vendors of social platforms believing that technology could solve the problem.

However, as organization after organization floundered in their attempt to enable enterprise collaboration and social learning, the phrase social learning took on a slightly desperate note. It was something organizations knew they had to do, but wasn't quite sure how to go about it. The general cry was one of cynicism and despair. One half said, “See the platform is a ghost town; no one writes even one line. I knew all these new-fangled ideas wouldn't work.” The other more believing and forward thinking half said, “Ok, so we have a platform, and no one participates. Where did we go wrong?”

The truth of the matter is that a platform is not the solution. Changing the organization culture is. Easier said than done of course. How does one change years of built in mindset and handed down wisdom? How does one convince managers and VPs to give up the very power they worked so hard to achieve? How does one convince individuals victimized by the Bell Curve, rewarded for being competitive, taught to hoard knowledge to suddenly give up all these for wishy-washy words like trust, values, collaboration and sharing?

IMHO, it is not only a question of organizational strategy but also of organizational philosophy.

Changing from a command and control, hierarchical set up to a networked and open wirearchy is neither easy nor quick. It requires concentrated change management strategy that includes above all, bringing the human back into the organization. It means demonstrating trust, practising open sharing, following transparent processes. It means being unafraid to fail without losing commitment to success. It means redefining success criteria. It means being in alignment with one’s goals and purpose. It means walking the talk – all the time. These statements are of course easier to write down and sound pretty good on paper. However, when one attempts to translate these into practices and manifested behaviours that will make sense in an organizational set-up, suddenly one is confounded by the existing processes and priorities that are most often in direct opposition to the spirit of the statements.

To transition from a hierarchical to a networked and transparent culture requires a conscious untangling of all the unspoken assumptions and biases that inform the present culture and values. Without an explicit understanding of the assumptions across the board, it is not possible to change any one them. While culture is perhaps one of those make or break things, there is really no defined framework or model for culture. It is as elusive as it is org specific. Hence, culture can only be perceived from the standpoint of manifested behaviours and actions taken by the top management and the employees.
For social learning to thrive (i.e., for individuals to share freely, work transparently, learn from each other, critique without malice and so on), the culture must be supportive. What does this mean? Here are a few changes organizations need to make if they truly believe that social collaborative learning is the way to go: 
  • Senior management must walk the talk; if they don’t have time to engage on the collaboration platform, the rest of the organization will not have the time either 
  • Transparent sharing of information must be the default mode; if employees cannot be trusted with organizational information, then the wrong people have been recruited 
  • Collaboration and cooperation must be rewarded; if the measurement system continues to reward competitive behaviour, then that is what will be perpetrated 
  • Individuals need to feel empowered; open and honest sharing cannot be driven by fear and a carrot and stick approach. Open and honest sharing comes from employees feeling respected and appreciated. 
  • Sharing of knowledge is a discretionary effort; unappreciated employees will hold back on their DE. Genuine appreciation, support and coaching need to define management attitude.


In summary, integrating social learning in the workplace requires:
  1. In-depth analysis of existing assumptions and biases
  2. Critical assessment of the management model and methods
  3. Honest look at what is holding people back from collaborating and sharing
  4. Evaluation of the modes of reward and feedback being practised
  5. Drawing up a desired future state vision (in collaboration with employees)
  6. Defining of a clear change management strategy with special emphasis on management responsibilities
  7. Implementation of the strategies with the leadership and top management "leading" the way 
  8. Redefining of processes and systems to support the change (adhering to the old rules while expecting new behaviour is not only counter-productive but also damaging)
  9. Celebrating small successes; rewarding genuine effort
  10. Tracking the impact and sharing it with the organization  

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