Where Social Learning Thrives

To benefit from social learning, build a culture that makes learning fun, productive and commonplace, a culture where learning is part of everyday work. Marcia Conner and Steve LeBlanc look at where social learning thrives.

Social learning is not just the technology of social media, although it makes use of it. It is not merely the ability to express yourself in a group of opt-in friends. Social learning combines social media tools with a shift in the corporate culture, a shift that encourages ongoing knowledge transfer and connects people in ways that make learning a joy.

Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder. It is inspired by leaders, enabled by technology and ignited by opportunities that have only recently unfolded.

If a culture is focused on service, the most pressing question is, "How can I help you?" How can I help you succeed? How can I help you ask strong questions, take wise risks and deliver great content? How can I help you prosper? Most importantly, how can I help you learn and make new connections? How can I help you serve the larger group, of which we are both a part?

Yet in most classrooms, young people are prevented from helping each other learn and succeed. In some communities, concern for property values and yard maintenance outweigh assisting neighbors. In many companies, talk of competitors and departmental politics overshadow someone's need for mentoring or gaining fresh perspective. Over 60 years ago, W. Edwards Demming encouraged management to drive out fear and break down barriers between departments, and still worry and walls are the two constants that most organizations share.

Part of why we are not better at helping one another learn and grow is that our attention is spread thin. There is so much going on. We haven't built this notion of serving into the business cycle; into our daily work. Nor have we dismantled the myth that fear and embarrassment somehow motivates people to learn. By choosing wisely where we place our attention, we have more attention and enthusiasm to give. Or as Clay Shirky put it at Web 2.0 Expo NY, "It's not information overload. It's filter failure."

Social learning is accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity. No one gets offended when we don't follow a project outside our domain. No one notices when we temporarily filter out the rants of people beating their own drum.

It's the technology of social learning, and social media in general, that allows us to regulate our attention to those areas where we can gain the highest return on investment, and put our best contributions out into the world. It's the culture of social learning that helps identify how those contributions are important to us all.

Requests for help, feedback and insight can be made without burden, without coercion, without fear. It takes time, though. You don't simply announce a culture of service one day in the hope that everyone will figure it out.

Growing a culture of service is more like planting a garden than building a shed. A garden requires tending, whereas a shed is built once. A social learning culture requires design, training, guidance, leadership, monitoring and celebrating successes, large and small. People need to know where the organization is headed and why it matters. It's not easy for people to make the shift from a culture where they fear they are not good enough and need to improve, to one where they feel safe enough to want to improve for the enjoyment of it. Some will think it impossible for a whole culture to shift from fear-based fixes to joy-based learning, from coercion to inspiration. Others have witnessed it and will cheer along.

The trail is being blazed by some unexpected players, including IBM Lotus and the CIA. We do not know all of what it takes to make this cultural shift work. There is still a kind of magic in the soup. But from our own work and the illustrative examples from groups like the 2.0 Adoption Council, we are seeing stunning examples of where it works. When done well, the results are nothing short of magical.

Think of asking someone out. A trip to Spain is a larger request than a local dinner, which is larger than meeting for coffee. The larger the request, the more pressure and the more difficult it is to back out. The smaller your request, the more fun you make it to participate. Whether courting customers, friends or romance, demonstrate your interest by listening and connecting. Help them succeed.

The easier the tools make it for people to tell us what they need, the easier and more enjoyable it is to be genuinely helpful. The technology and culture of social learning can create an environment where you are enthusiastically supported, where your sense of wonder returns and creativity blossoms — where people thrive.

[figure=inline-large] [img]multisite_files/fastcompany/inline/2010/02/1546824-inline-3318401167lassikurkijarvib.jpg[/img] [/figure] This article was written collaboratively with Steve LeBlanc (@sleveo), public speaker, corporate trainer and holistic healer who sees opportunities everywhere for learning and helping people connect.

[Photos: Flickr userlassi_kurkijarvi]

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  • rakovic

    Great insight on a very important topic! I could not agree more. Building your own knowledge center in a thriving learning community seem as though it will replace 'social' as we know it today. Often great discussion begin with great questions. We've been looking at http://www.kutpoint.com/ as it's the closest solution to how Quora works (which everyone loves). Would be great to hear your experience using it as well.

  • Chuck Finlayson

    I love the emphasis on simplicity and ease of use.  "The easier the tools make it for people to tell us what they need, the easier and more enjoyable it is to be genuinely helpful."  We've been looking at http://www.bloomfire.com for our social learning platform and would love to hear of how to best get social learning into our culture.

  • Steve LeBlanc

    @Thomas Ho: When Marcia and I wrote this article, we debated various uses of the term "barriers to entry". Your question gives rise to one of those uses. I'm pleased that you care enough about your students to pose such a question when you have already created such a remarkable class. Your question posed here goes to the very core of social learning.

    You may not have put in place any additional barriers to students helping each other. However, if they grew up in a regular school in the US, then they already had those barriers coming into your classroom. They brought with them momentum on the idea of "every man for himself". You don't turn around years of enculturation by simply granting them permission to help each other. You don't shift years of self study to an engagement of group support by simply saying, "Come on folks. Help each other out." Most colleges place far more emphasis on grades and cheating than they do on learning the art of collaboration and social learning. We cannot assume they know how to do these things, or even why it might be useful. We need to lower the barriers to entry to helping each other. We need to make social learning both easy and compelling.

    My suggestions:
    1. Create a class project where you ask about their resistance to helping each other, their barriers to entry into collaboration. It could be a class discussion by wiki, a chalk board or an open thread on a forum, but not a microblog. They need to be able to see all the answers at once. They need to see how their particular concerns are not unique, that they are indeed shared by many. Also find out who finds it easy to help out and what their thought process is, as well.

    2. Make the first steps of participation so easy that it would be hard for them not to do it. Something as simple as placing a meaningful comment or suggestion on each of the others students sites. There would be no grade for that, but there would be a minimum requirement for what qualified as a meaningful comment or useful suggestion. A class session on the art of meaningful comments would be enormously helpful to their education. Celebrating great comments would also serve. By giving them an easy first step, they get over their fear of starting, which for many is the biggest barrier.

    3. If you feel particularly daring, they might even begin to post on their sites (and social media) the very kinds of help they are needing. Beyond just asking for how to do things, have them also ask how they might improve on what they've already done. By actively soliciting feedback from the group, you make everyone stronger. Asking good questions is an art and can be cultivated. Using common sense, you will have to moderate out the snarky comments that are too critical and block those questions which clearly ask for information provided in the homework.

    4. Be exceptionally clear where the line is between helping others and cheating. Why? Because if there's any doubt at all, people will avoid helping others, if only to play it safe. Give them extreme examples of helping, examples which might appear to be cheating. After seeing your sanctioned examples, they will feel more comfortable with their own gentle contributions.

    Hope this helps. Keep us posted.

  • Thomas Ho

    In MY classroom: http://cit49900.LearnStream.in...

    although my students are NOT prevented from helping each other learn and succeed, I'm beginning to realize I have to be much more proactive to encourage them to do so. Part of their grade is earned via personal branding:


    BUT your post has helped me to realize I need to cultivate a CULTURE for social learning in my course and among my students. Any help in doing so would be greatly appreciated!

  • Kate Bedwell

    Iggy Pintado has a lot to say on the topic of social learning or as he calls it 'learning connection' in his book Connection Generation.


    I'm working for a creative company that works hard to make our work an atmosphere of sharing ideas and information, highlighting the relevant connections to me, the employee.

    Day to day, I enjoy the rewards of sharing what I know to improve everyone's life around me.

  • Dustin Mattison

    Ideas are the new currency. Driving innovation and new products/services to market is about tapping into the collective conversation to extract the best ideas. Competition is no longer company vs. company, but network vs. network.

    Companies need to break down organizational barriers and functional silos to ensure the right people and departments are working together seamlessly.

    What is needed is open innovation: http://logipi.com/public/item/...

  • Joan Azarva

    I think this is the kind of learning that Jonathan Mooney would have appreciated when he was in school. This is a great article!

  • Dan Rockwell


    Love your post, can't wait for "The New Social Learning."

    Joy-based learning! Where is the joy? I can hear people say we can't have a balanced learning experience if all we do is follow our bliss. Any thoughts on this?

    I'm all in when it comes to fall your passion. In order to fully follow it, I must learn. I have to connect with others who have gone before and I have to blaze my own trail.

    I wrote about follow your passion and gave an eye opening example of how to identify it at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpre...

    Thanks again for your interest ideas. I still have questions but I'll hang back and learn.


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  • harry styris

    Organisers of a singing event being sponsored by professional services firms in the West Midlands hope to raise £25,000 for youngsters with learning disabilities.The Y Factor, which takes place at the Glee Club on March 24, presents an opportunity for would-be singers to make their mark on stage, while raising money for Mencap.

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