· 2 min read · Features

How can organisations harness the potential of social learning?

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What are the practical applications for social media in learning and development? How can the skills be developed to encourage collaboration and build communities? These are just some of the questions learning and development (L&D) professionals need to consider when implementing social learning within their organisation.

Social learning is, essentially, developing knowledge and behavioural change through social interactions, connections and observation. It can be very effective as part of a wider learning strategy. However L&D professionals need to understand how it can be applied across their organisation in order to evaluate the process critically and achieve the desired outcomes.

Social learning shouldn't be viewed as an 'add-on' but be incorporated into an existing learning programme to ensure integration and coherence with the overall learning strategy. It can form part of a blended learning approach combining online with face-to-face training, thereby providing realistic practical opportunities for learners and teachers to make learning useful and sustainable.

Everyone can input and have their say in the training process via the use of social media. The time lag (asynchronicity) allows people to spend time reflecting on what others have said before making a response and can therefore lead to deeper reflection and learning. The flexibility of participation means a wider group of people can be reached, both in terms of ability and location. The online element also allows participants to undertake additional research before contributing to a discussion, for example by looking up recent news stories or research related to the topic in question.

Once training has taken place, the discussion remains available for review online at a later date, and can be referred to on subsequent occasions, enabling information to be accessed when it is required and when skills need refreshing.

L& D professionals can drive interaction and participation on social platforms with the use of 'e-moderators' who can steer the topic, facilitate discussion and debate, and summarise the key points. This valuable interaction helps to build up a sense of community and shared learning. However, 'e-moderators' need to be trained in when and how to contribute to discussions; how to draw out pertinent points in an online discussion; how to engage your group in order to be an effective resource.

Take care to choose a topic that is suited to the medium of social learning. While it is important to have interesting and engaging activities to stimulate discussion, topics must be chosen in a considered way. A level of debate and challenging each other is required to make an effective discussion, but controversial or emotive topics should be kept for face-to-face training when any issues can be addressed directly there and then.

Finally, as with any learning process, it is essential to measure the effectiveness of social learning in order to evaluate whether it has achieved the objectives and delivered a return on investment. This can be carried out via 'end of course' evaluation as well as ad hoc feedback from those involved in both training and e-moderation.

If social learning is implemented effectively, it can be used to maximise knowledge sharing across an organisation and build a culture that makes training fun, productive and commonplace.

Nancy Ouma is Assessment & Training Manager at VSO, an independent international development organisation, which works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries.

Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, is a leading thinker and practitioner in the area of Working and Learning in the Social Workplace. In her consultancy practice, Jane works with organisations who want to help their employers work and learn effeciently in the social workplace.

They are both speaking at The World of Learning Conference & Exhibition, which takes place at the NEC in Birmingham on Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 September 2011.

Registration for the World of Learning 2011 is now open at www.learnevents.com, where full details about the event are also available. For the latest news and updates about the World of Learning 2011 follow the exhibition on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Learn_EventsUK, and join the World of Learning Conference & Exhibition group on LinkedIn.