Wouldn’t it be great if people used social media to talk about—and solve—problems they encounter at work, like figuring out how to use a new tool or defuse a tense caller on a hotline or explain a new feature of their company’s product to a potential buyer? What if people chatted about this stuff with their colleagues and shared tips and strategy?

Wait: They do.

People develop and use informal learning networks all the time to learn and share ideas and information. Isn’t that what eLearning is supposed to do, though—teach people the skills and knowledge they need to perform better in their jobs?

Of course it is. But learning networks don’t work in opposition to eLearning; in fact, they can actively support eLearning. Together, they can boost performance and employee morale while cementing team collaboration. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Of course, there’s a catch: The employer can’t make learning networks happen. Informal and social learning, even within the company, has to be organic.

Developing a personal learning network (PLN) is as old as joining a parents’ group, a book club, or a user group. A PLN is a fancy name for the basic human impulse to connect with other humans. It’s essentially a group of people with shared interests who socialize and learn from one another. People must make the choice to join and engage in a personal learning network; a PLN is an intentional way to find people with overlapping interests, knowledge, and questions and learn from and with them.

In the digital age, personal learning networks might be a little less personal, in that social media platforms make it easy to develop large informal or “professional” learning networks that know no geographical boundaries and can include colleagues and collaborators who may never meet one another in person. But the idea is the same: A learning network can arise around use of the same software tool, discussion of learning strategy or eLearning design and development models, or exploration of content on the same topic.

A learning network can be inside of a company or work group, or it can span the web—and the globe. A professional learning network might be more collegial than personal, but the goals are similar. Learning, sharing, collaborating—and maybe even having fun doing so.

Let networks emerge organically

Corporate eLearning managers can put this idea to work—ironically, by doing very little. There are not a lot of rules: Members might communicate in person, via email or chat, or via networking tools like Yammer or Twitter or Facebook. Networks can be open or closed, large or small, narrowly or broadly focused. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they spring up under the volition of and remain under the control of their members.

“It’s not about ‘doing social,’” Learning Solutions columnist and eLearning leader Jane Bozarth writes. “Communities emerge. People self-manage.”

When the boss gets too involved, mandates participation, or assigns tasks, the networking morphs into something else: work. Bozarth points out that the creators of Pokémon Go, the blockbuster augmented-reality game that is played on smartphones (millions of smartphones) all over the world, did not provide social tools or try to direct or control interactions among players. The social aspects developed naturally—and enormously.

In a post on the SHIFT eLearning blog, Karla Gutierrez describes these networks as “relationship building through technology.” She writes, “Even though we talk about technology with PLNs, they are much more about the connections and relationships we make.”

That’s why companies can’t “do social.” What they can do, as Bozarth writes, is support employees’ natural and positive inclinations to develop a work-related social network. Companies and managers can do so by:

  • Providing access to tools. Rather than assuming that all the time employees spend on social media is wasted time, provide access to tools and online spaces for work-related and eLearning-related discussions.
  • Curating content. Create a site for posting and sharing topical content, and allow employees to contribute content and comment on it.
  • Making eLearning a shared experience. Let members of a work group watch and discuss a webinar or engage in friendly competition with eLearning games and contests.
Create the spaces, enable the opportunities—then step back. Don’t micromanage; it might be OK to eavesdrop occasionally, though.