The problem with social learning is in the word

The problem with social media and social learning revolve around the very word that defines the two, that being “Social”.

The very use of the term, “Social”, ¬†usually means that the concept is firstly misunderstood, secondly not taken seriously and thirdly seen as a time-waster.

If we can talk about a generation as being related to social media platforms, then the pre-Facebook, generation see social media as being the realm of teenagers to post photos of their dinner (at best) or at worse .. well let’s not go there.

However, even if there is any truth in this perception, the received wisdom has cut deeply into the psyche of generations, resulting in the devaluation of social media as a valid and valuable tool for business and especially for learning in business.

One of the overriding errors is to linguistically combine Social Learning with Social Media as a fixed and rigid entity, that is to say considering social media as social learning – is missing the point completely.

Social Learning is what Learning is – in fact, as I have argued before, I believe that all learning by definition is social, but I do not believe that social media is social learning, but a relatively small entity that can be leveraged as a tool to enhance and facilitate social learning.

In order to learn, we need to be able to share in some way, which is what some people do with social media, so it fits the bill up to that point. There are, however, a plethora of other tools, maybe not so shiny and bright and buzzing [sic] as some social media platforms, but they work, and that is the point.

So that is how it happens in the big wide world, social learning rules, yay!

Now let’s turn our attention to what happens in the workplace, and this is the key to the future, our future, the future of business and the future of learning.

In the past, people who climbed the dizzy heights of the corporate ladder, often did so for two main reasons;

1. They knew the right people

2. They were the purveyors and keepers of knowledge.

There are obvious exceptions, but knowledge was often synonymous with power, we even invented little adages to prove this – ‘knowledge is power’! Do we still believe this?

Today, and this is why social learning, with all its allied tools, and why not social media – really start to make sense, in fact more than that, become irreplaceable, as the crowns of the old purveyors of knowledge start to slip.

Gone are the models of ‘one-to-many’ learning models, that are seen in schools, universities and, to some extent in business, to be replaced by the ‘many-to-many’ model, learning with and from others – social learning.

It has always been recognised that the greater part of learning in any context happens informally – that is to say outside of formal learning establishments and this is not a trend that is going to stop anytime soon – it will, inevitably increase.

How can we be sure of this?

Is there not a doubt that this ‘recent’ trend for social learning will die a death?

No chance, we are, in some way, condemned to embrace and leverage all that social learning can offer – we have no choice, and I’ll tell you why I believe this – it’s all to do with change, but change at a speed that we have never before experienced.

The point is that today, in universities, students are learning to solve problems that don’t yet exist, technically, with technologies that haven’t yet been developed, so the idea of one person, a teacher for example, being in a position to teach in these circumstances is improbable at best.

We may also be touching here on the way that learners prefer to learn – the ‘post Facebookers’ and the ‘Facebookers’ have a completely different approach to the concepts of social learning. In my experience, 90% of what I would call ‘traditional learners’, when given a choice of what or how they can learn a specific subject, will very often retort, “I don’t know, you’re the teacher”. Which, not only sets all sorts of alarms off in my mind, but tells me a lot about their level of commitment and engagement in their own learning process.

In business social learning will be very difficult to sell, to all but the most savvy HR director or CEO, as the methods of calculating the advantages and benefits are less palpable than traditional, “bums on seats” and formally evaluated training / learning methods. The savvy leaders will, however, see the benefits in terms of the bigger picture and the long-term benefits of what social will undoubtedly bring to the organization in terms of; knowledge management, attracting new talent, adjusting more rapidly to new technologies, enhancing communication and internal collaboration, reducing emails, improving institutional learning, improve customer services etc.

There are obvious risks to the democratisation of social learning and social media in business, which often boils down to a cultural and a management issue.

The culture of the company can view the use of social media as being wasting company time and could ban the use of it in work time, whilst almost encouraging the use of emails in the employees own time – double standards? The culture of the company, although ostensibly encouraging a culture of sharing, may actually be hampering organic sharing (and learning) through rigid hierarchical structures and outdated rules and regulations.

I terms of management problems, there are many examples of inappropriate social media usage, by large organizations, this will inevitably happen, but we can all learn from this, can’t we? One of the lessons for organisations worried about secrets being divulged, or the odd loose canon going off is a clear social media / learning policy to guide usage.

There are risks whenever people have access to information and there are many ways to mitigate the risks, stopping access to tools is not a mitigation action, if people want to use the tools they will, if HR and management can help channel this use for the good of the organisation then some sort of win-win situation will surely happen.

Social media is here to say, it’s almost a certainty. It may not, in the future, be the same shape as we see it today, but social media as a tool to enhance and become an integral part of social learning can only increase, those who bury their head in the sand may avoid it for the time being, but the clock is ticking.

Some managers and ‘leaders’ may be able to delay it, but that is all they can do. However, this will ensure that their organisation stays on the back foot for longer and catch-up time may be longer and cost more than expected.

The problem is the general meaning that is put onto the word social, in academia the word may be understood in its pure form, in the mainstream it is associated with free-time, but also enjoyment – learning is rarely considered in the same vein, unfortunately.

The long and the short of it is the word, ‘social’ has different meanings for different people and different sectors of the population, let’s hope that it becomes a colocation with learning, as in social-learning.

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