Social Learning - Is there really any other way?

Dec 30 2011

I've been practicing, or should say learning and experiencing, KM since the early 1990's when my team was asked to create this new capability for BP. If I would have heard the term 'Social Learning' back then we might have used that instead of Knowledge Management. However, our tag line was "Performing Through Learning" and in retrospect I think we at least got that right.

Over the past 2 years I've been fortunate to do some knowledge management consulting and lead a couple working groups with members from over 30 organizations on the rapidly evolving topic of Social Learning. My 'aha' from this work is if you are facing a complex problem that has no single answer, the best chance of success is to learn fast with others.

Some people call this collaborative learning. For me, it's simply participative learning, aka Social Learning. I realize now, looking back at our successes in KM in BP in the early days and in many organizations since, all of the great performance results came from groups of peers and teams learning together from their experience .  All of the knowledge management solutions, tools and techniques we created, borrowed and adapted, from Peer Assists to Action Reviews to Communities of Practice, were in fact social learning tools that used the collective experience of groups of people  to generate new learning that solved difficult problems and complex challenges.

The results of research and practice by myself and others now make it clear how and why social, participative learning by a group more often than not trumps the lone expert when it comes to applying learning to improve performance.

One reason for this is when dealing with ambiguity, there is not one right answer. In these situations, cognitive diversity fuels better results. In plain English, this about engaging with others who think differently than you and your team and using the information and knowledge gained from the conversation to inform your thinking. Think about're bringing different perspectives and experience to the challenge.  Einstein was on to something when he said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Now think about learning experientially with others who think differently than you. Now you've got a real force-multiplier for thinking and learning that can deliver extraordinary results...that's code for changing behavior!

By far, the most profound practice and example of social learning  I've come across is something called the online MiLSpace Leader Challenge.

Tony Burgess, LT, Colonel, US Army, is a faculty member at West Point and part of the team that created the MilSpace professional development system. In Tony's words, "A MilSpace Leader Challenge is an interactive, video-based vignette that features a dilemma-type scenario that a leader has experienced.  We ask leaders in combat to tell us stories on video about their most challenging experiences—hard hitting, dilemma-type situations that weren’t necessarily covered in their training.  We then bring those video clips into the online community and ask members to put themselves in the leader’s shoes and to succinctly respond:  “What are your considerations…What would you do?”  (in 500 characters or less)."

After they read the entries of others who contribute, which by the way may include responses from other experienced leaders that have been in similar situations, they are then prompted to watch and listen to the rest of the leader's story where they explain what they actually did and what the results were.  In most cases, the stories shared aren't pretty nor do they have happy endings... these are real experiences in a messy and extraordinarily-challenge environment called the real world, which for them, is often a battlefield. Interesting, since real experience is where learning experts think most of the learning people need to perform comes from: the 70/20/10 learning model.

And participative learning doesn't stop when the video ends. The young leaders are asked to meet up in small groups to talk about what they learned and discovered  from each other....another force-multiplier for social learning!

These new  leaders don't become expert military leaders overnight as a result of this social learning experience. But it's clear through speaking with some of them that this approach is greatly accelerating them up the learning curve.

Obviously this can apply to the business world or our own personal challenges. I've recently used this technique with a group of business leaders to address the challenge of using social learning to accelerate global business. Over the next couple of months I'll share some of the practices, insights and findings from this awesome experience in this blog.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts and experiences when it comes to social learning and there really any other way?

Hope you have a wonderful new year full of great learning opportunities!





To me, the most important aspect of "Social Learning" is that it is finally being adopted by traditional Learning & Development groups who have realized that effective knowledge transfer and improved performance requires much more than classroom training or CBTs. As others have mentioned above, we've already developed effective knowledge transfer processes such as after action reviews and communities of practice. It is a shame that these concepts are taking so long to migrate between the disciplines. With the critical knowledge gaps in today's new hires, rapid and effective knowledge transfer is essential. One challenge we find is that some learners hesitate to actively engage in group-based social media, perhaps due to fear of appearing ignorant or asking about things they "should know". To help overcome this barrier, I've compiled a guide describing how to ask good questions. New hires, seasoned employees and experts all can benefit.
(wrote on 01/01/2012 01:37:11:) Hi, Kent - It is really wonderful to read your blog -- and to have a tiny bit of insider knowledge, as I got to meet your "learning at speed" community. And, I was pleased to see a screenshot of Tony's learning video online at KMWorld. That is incredibly powerful. Are you having a sort of deja vu (or, perpetual vu?) about dialogue as you think about social learning? I harken back to the 90s when we sat expectantly in circles and "tried on" dialogue. It was scary at the time (amorphous, really), but now it seems critical to a > social learning capacity. Not the circles -- we're so virtual today -- but the conversation and reflection among people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. I'm delighted we social learners are embracing conversation. I'm really looking forward to reading your blog. Happy new year! Kate Katrina Pugh AlignConsulting Columbia University Information and Knowledge Strategy Author of Sharing Hidden Know-How (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011)

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