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!





Hi Kent, Great blog post! I do think that many organizations fail to recognize the imperative to develop successful "learning" abilities and you make a fine connection between the social aspect as a mechanism for fostering social learning. I wish that folks would take a moment to consider that whole "knowledge advantage" side of things, where organizational learning leads to new knowledge which leads to organizational learning which leads to new knowledge....all of which of course supports innovation and organizational development. And how long have "we" been talking about that -- since back in Senge's ponderings, at the very least. Anyway, just wanted to drop by (again now that your comments are up and running) to say that I very much liked your blog post. Dan
Hi Kent, I am with you on this and will be following you ... I do hope you blog a little more often then you Tweet SocIal Learning or Social KM is of course what my Knowledge Cafes are all about. All the best in 2012 and maybe we will get to meet :-) Daviid
Thanks for you comments, David. K cafes are an awesome example of social've been leading the pack for a long time :) and it's so good to see these and their morphs in action in many gatherings...i use this all the time in my Learning & KM Council, conferences and just about every group meeting where we want to leverage our collective experience! Kent
You got quite a few nice responses. Great to see you waving the social learning banner. Let me know if you come across anyone who has gone as far as I have in actually rebranding their efforts to Social Learning.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on social learning on your new blog, very exciting to have another voice in this space. What we are witnessing in the social learning space is just the beginning, and it's mostly happening outside of organizations (in expert forums, networks and blogs like this). What needs to happen to make this flourish inside organizations? Here's a couple of pointers that come to my mind: * instill a lifelong passion for learning and a selfless commitment to teach * acknowledge and reward a new set of informal roles (wikipedia-style) * increase the density of the internal network (will increase knowledge flows) * allow (critical) reviews of existing knowledge assets * grant permission not to know (and to learn from mistakes) * develop social collaborations skills (technical, cognitive, social) * provide access to external knowledge assets (be open to new sources of knowledge) * encourage participation in external expert networks (like what you do here) * instill an abundance mentality (probably requires a generational shift) * promote an authentic dialogue across the organization (from the top down)
Joachim, Your 'conditions' for social learning to flourish resonate with me and align with my findings and recent experience. In particular, instilling a desire for lifelong learning really stands out as a necessary condition for success and i'm going to focus my next blog on this topic. It's interesting that many of the recent examples where users are creating their own learning content or sharing their hard earned knowledge through social learning tools have this one this in common - the users are self-guided learners, driving themselves to learn collaboratively and share their experience (and how-to's) with others they think may it useful. Leaders in orgs can create demand for this by setting expectations and rewarding those that are proactive learners who don't wait around for the company or L&D department to tell them what training, knowledge or experience they need. Thanks for sharing your insights! Kent
Thanks Kent and Happy New Year! I believe his Social Learning blog will be directly related to my current MSc research into “Increasing Resilience through Conditions that Enable Informal Learning for Incident Commanders.” Your network is going to generate great stuff! I’ll try to contribute a little as it goes along. David A. Christenson, MA US Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
My first attempt at blogging was before "Blogging" was a word, during virtual team working days. This was back in the early nineties. As a leader of an early virtual team, I felt that I needed a way to let everyone know what I was doing and experiencing (meeting and planning wise) and I intermingled this with how I felt about it all (and the impact this had on our work and my own life). The response I felt from the team was one of distinct discomfort. The depth and frequency of logging my reflections was presenting them with "too much information". Plus they believed that they had to read my missives and continually adjust what they were doing accordingly (to adapt to the knowledge of an ever-changing tide "at the top"). My "learning" at the time was that in a context where virtual team interactions were more transactional than transitional - let alone transformational - information was preferred to knowledge and knowledge was preferred to wisdom. Nobody knew what to do with wisdom when they were geared up and motivated to progress down a prepared pathway like a good group of soldiers – even if the leader realised they had landed on the wrong island. (Thanks for the metaphor, Steven Covey.) Over time, learning to share my deepest insights to the advantage of others has required my also learning to be receptive to their deepest insights (and related concerns). I recall the death knell observation of one participant in a one-way “sharing” I was monitoring awhile back. “X is an interesting man. Too bad he is not interested in us.” When I heard that utterance, I knew it was the beginning of the end for ‘X’ in the role he was in. Social learning can rapidly escalate your ascension AND your downfall. I’m currently experimenting with fostering social learning in a new-to-me area. Drawn to it by compassion (as well as the professional challenge of it all), I’ve put a lot on the line to do so - more than two years of non-billable time so far. I’m applying all the KM and virtual team experiences I can recall / re-create / re-engineer into the process. Getting people on all sides to participate and talk with and then trust me has been relatively easy. Facilitating the creation and moderation of a digital environment for them to listen to, talk about and learn from each other’s experiences without my direct involvement has been thus far only modestly successful. Spanning the gaps between the societal ‘entrenched’ and the socially ‘disenfranchised’ requires stretching every psychological, technological and methodological sinew I have. In an environment where animosity overwhelms honesty and distrust decidedly thrusts itself in front of an otherwise rational mind, even modest successes are treasured. These successes have mostly been enabled via semi-private email, telephone and in-person avenues so far. Moving the dialogue into a more visible / sharable space is my 2012 objective. I want to enable people to be easily sifting through the growing groundswell of grumbles to find the golden nuggets that when applied in their own context, will work for them to reverse the tides of their ‘misfortunes’. Ultimately and perhaps unreasonably, I hope that Social KM can become a golden goose that helps turn grumbles into gold.  If the above raises any concerns for you, please let me know Kind Regards
The dynamic and innovative thought and action that leads small teams to greatness is the end result of communication with trust and a close operational space. When I was leading the Lessons Learned work for the US Army Intelligence Center, I asked a MAJ, just returning from an Iraq deployment, why his section was so successful. He said early in the deployment they shared the same physical space and there was quick communications with F2F as the root. This allowed for what I call in my experience knowledge seep, when you inadvertently overhear content that you can incidentally apply value and dynamically affect the knowledge trajectory. This would not have been achieved without the “within earshot” ability. Now how does a systematic and repeatable scenario come from this? It would take a relearning of the culture to adopt multiple layers of tools that perform similar function…no not email per say, but social tools like instant messenger. And this will have to be adopted and expected behavior doctrinally. I would say that’s the main reason special operating forces are so successful; small trusting teams with expected behavior explicitly and doctrinally enabled. Thank you for turning me on to the article on the learning generalist (my dad was right to ask, “Where do kids learn to work now a day?”) I have one to share also. I was fortunate enough this week to attend a live webinar hosted by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic around Cybecrlearning (they are setting out all the presenters’ recordings for further use). Thus is a great opportunity and societal need for KM to meld into the future of the world’s learning and innovation. Here is my prescription for workplace KM Utopia: • Give space figuratively and literally to conduct knowledge exchange • Provide authoritative guidance and endorsement that is known across the culture • All members of the culture have explicit responsibility to the intellectual capital; thus they are indoctrinated and trained and is a keystone in the hiring process • Reward proficient and innovative knowledge work • Establish learning as an organizational norm • Reward workers when they seek knowledge • Foster the norm of asking questions and allow pushback • Allow ease and clear pathway out for those who don’t want to play to quickly exit
Kent, Thanks for this new blog. I agree with the basic premise of your post. While we all learn in many ways, within organisations face to face learning in small groups is often the most powerful. However it is often tricky in a busy organisation to create sufficient time and space for this to occur, as the value proposition at the outset is often not clear. If the knowledge is not "just in time" it is rarely taken up, so I remain a fan of pull rather than push strategies. Andrew

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