Social learning has taken on a kind of religious fervor among learning practitioners during the past couple of years—and not without good reason. It often creates more powerful and enduring learning experiences; it helps people establish and leverage social connections to accelerate the distribution and sharing of experiences, content, and guidance; and it allows learners to be more productive, learn faster, and work smarter.

With all the interest in Social learning, it’s easy to lose focus on what matters, and to assume the end game is the technology. Leading practices are emerging, and they underscore the criticality of strategy formulation, community design, rewards and incentives, content quality, and benefits tracking.

A well thought-out strategy

Your organization probably already has a learning and development strategy in place. Now, there is a desire to introduce social learning. Will the existing strategy need to change? Think about it for a second. The power of social learning is in the hands of the employees, not the learning and development staff. Employees will generate and deliver most of the content. Employees will decide what and when to learn. Employees will create and manage their own learning communities. Employees will judge content quality. Given this increased role and responsibility of the employee over his or her learning, is the existing strategy fit for the purpose? I would venture to guess “no.”

There is no one “right” social learning strategy, and there is no one right way to develop one. The approach to strategy development depends on several factors such as your organizational structure, existing learning programs, organizational learning culture, and the value executives place on informal learning. The best approach to strategy development, from my experience, is to develop one that is business-driven. The strategy should integrate social learning into the mainstream of the organization by aligning it to important company goals such as increased innovation, increased collaboration across traditional organizational silos, improved employee engagement, reduced reliance on the aging workforce, reduced time to performance, etc.

A social learning strategy should paint a compelling picture of the future state, clearly articulate the business case for change, and outline the roadmap for how you will get from “here” to “there” (including what must change, stop, and continue). Engage with the business to understand the cultural challenges and work-environment realities. Create a “relationship map” for each of the existing community networks to understand who makes decisions, who influences attitudes and behaviors, and who holds most of the connections. Document concerns, uncertainties, and expectations of stakeholders and community network members. This information will help you decide how to make membership valuable, keep members hooked, and unite the community.

Social learning strategy components

  • The business need, business goal alignment, and expected benefits.

  • Governance model, policies, rewards and incentives, and roles and responsibilities.

  • User Stories to help stakeholders imagine and see “how it looks in action.”

  • A list of expected challenges, uncertainties, and risks with a supporting mitigation plan.

  • Defined methods and tools to monitor and evaluate Social learning behaviors and the benefits realized.

  • An end-to-end high-level approach and process definition for “implementation and support.”

  • Benchmarking data (in order to validate the overall strategy and approach).

  • A list of critical success factors and key planning assumptions.

Mature community networks:

Social learning, at its core, is a network of communities. This network is usually formed and accessed through the use of social media. The community network provides the “path” for an effective flow of information. Pushing or pulling information through formal organizational structures is often not very effective because such structures do not accurately represent how people really work and collaborate. Instead, they usually represent the formal accountabilities and headcount allocations.

A community network is the primary source of advice, methods, leading practices, lessons learned, and innovation. It’s the “repository” of content, experience, and intelligence that enables people to learn, develop, and excel at work. The effectiveness and usefulness of the community network is a function of its size and make-up. A mature community network is one that has adequate reach and a sufficient number of active consumers, creators, connectors, carriers, and caretakers.

Table 1.


Role Description

Key Skills and Capabilities


The person who looks for and uses content, information, and social connections.

  • Self-Directed: Able to identify and pursue learning needs without too much formal structure and rigor.

  • Media Savvy:  Able to use social media in a natural way.

  • Insightful: Able to filter meaningful information, patterns, and commonalities from multiple streams of data.

  • Group Oriented: Able to build collaborative networks and leverage the collective intelligence.


The person who creates, shares, improves, and discusses content and information.

  • Attentive: Able to respond to requests and to reach out to others in a meaningful and timely manner.

  • Designer: Able to format and package ideas and information logically, concisely, and understandably.

  • Researcher: Able to augment and enhance the ideas, stories, and information created and shared by others.


The person who helps others to find the content, information, and people they seek or need.

  • Broker: Able to persuade others to collaborate.

  • Conductor: Able to simultaneously coordinate with many people.

  • Switched On: Able to understand the political dynamics and cultural values in various communities and networks.

  • Networker: Able to form and sustain networked relationships.


The person who helps creators to transmit and promote their content and information to others.

  • Communicator:  Able to transmit an idea, story, or information into a variety of viewpoints and perspectives.

  • Trend Spotter:  Able to notice new and emerging ideas that deserve mass awareness and adoption.

  • Marketer:  Able to select and use media and channels for promoting content and information to a target audience.


The person who manages the learning community.

  • Ambassador: Able to represent the community and portray its goals, purpose, and policies.

  • Advocate: Able to intercede and act as a mediator on behalf of a community or an individual member.

  • Cultivator: Able to put into motion and institutionalize community values, policies, procedures, and practices.


Caretakers, or community managers, are emerging as a leading practice, as organizations realize that social media are an important enabler, not the end game. Having a thoughtful guide, beacon, and evangelist is widely recognized as a critical driver of a successful online community network. Community managers provide oversight on usage and policy compliance, manage content, manage community engagement, track and report trends/needs/benefits/impact, help resolve issues, and help create and maintain a culture of openness, collaboration, and knowledge sharing. The community manager is ultimately responsible for building trust, and this leads to a community of people who are willing to spread the word, help others fix a problem, forge new connections, and share their knowledge and experiences.

Most community networks are either “horizontal” or “vertical.” Horizontal community networks are comprised of people who work according to end-to-end methods, on methods that cut across regions, departments, or business units, and methods that require a high degree of collaboration and consistency. Examples are supply chain management and project management. Vertical community networks are comprised of people who share a common job-role focus and who tend to work within the same department or business unit. Examples are engineers and sales representatives. Horizontal and vertical community networks are either self-forming or hosted and orchestrated by the enterprise.

Motivated community network members

Community networks are useful and create value for the organization when its members are intrinsically motivated to participate and contribute. Members of a community network must have a desire to network, collaborate, and share information or the community will not thrive and will not drive business value. What will intrinsically motivate community members? Which types of rewards are cost-effective?

When I talk with organizational leaders about creating healthy learning communities I am often asked, “How do we motivate and make them participate and contribute?”

One fundamental problem with this type of discussion is the notion that there is an “us” and there is a “them.” This position assumes that “we” are better than “them” and “we” must force “them” or make “them” participate and contribute in the learning community. “They” do not understand what to do, or “they” are too selfish to contribute, share, and help other community members.

The organizational leaders I speak to often suggest different ways to incentivize community members like the provision of gift points and other little presents to motivate them. What about the old adage, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink?” Do you believe we are able to “make” community network members participate and contribute through a “carrot and stick” strategy? Are rewards and punishment schemes affordable and sustainable?

Rewarding community network members for networking, collaborating, and sharing information at expected levels (or punishing them for failing to meet such levels) might have the opposite affect from what you intend. A rewards and punishment scheme, by design, is manipulative and might destroy collaboration, blindly promote a single solution, deter risk taking, and reduce creativity. Contingent motivators (i.e., “if you do this then you get that”) will be better for tasks that are mechanical, routine, rule-based, and that are organized around a clear destination or outcome. Contingent motivators are often detrimental when applied to cognitive tasks that require creativity, the resolution of complex and novel issues, and where the final destination or result is unclear.

What should we do if we want to intrinsically motivate and encourage members of a community network to participate or contribute? What else can we do besides roll out a rewards and punishment scheme?

A new operating model is required and we should stop looking for sweeter carrots and sharper sticks. We should look for ways to increase learning autonomy, performance mastery, and community engagement.

Learning Autonomy: One way to increase learning autonomy is to permit the community network members to have more governance responsibility and more say over what, where, and how to learn. Do not create and assign targets for members to fill up defined subject areas with content. Allow community members to network, collaborate, and share information on anything that they want.

Performance Mastery: One way to increase performance mastery is develop more community connectors and carriers. Not every community network member needs to be a content creator. Effective Social learning communities need only 10% to 20% of the members to regularly create and share content.

Community Engagement: One way to increase community engagement is to demonstrate how increased engagement leads to more success on the job. People who share their expertise will likely receive feedback and ideas from other people. This feedback might help the individual to more quickly and more effectively shape, grow, and refine their knowledge and skills. Sharing expertise might also lead to new connections, and this might reduce the time it takes to find leading practices, validate new ideas, and get advice. People who are engaged will become “smarter” and more “connected” and this will lead to great success for the individual and the organization.

Great content

Everyone participating in social learning has the freedom to create and publish content. A major concern or fear expressed by business leaders is that social learning will create an unusable mess of low-quality and inaccurate exchanges and content. Creating and delivering content for a blog, Podcast, discussion forum, or slide presentation in ways that are useful to the content consumer is not so easy. Being an expert in a particular area does not necessarily make you an effective communicator of content. Content creators need guidance and support such as templates, standards, good examples, coaching, and training. What consumers need would benefit from content aggregators, a content curation service, content ratings and comments, and access to content creator profiles.

In the early days of a new social learning initiative, you might need to take some extra steps to ensure a steady stream of useful and high quality content. Doing so will increase traffic to the “online portal” and create momentum for further content creation and sharing. Consider assigning some subject matter experts to the business-critical community networks with an explicit responsibility for creating content, commenting on content, rating content, and moderating discussion threads.

Meaningful metrics

Learning via social networks and other Web 2.0 tools is anything but formal. Yet, when it comes to measuring its value, a structured approach should still apply. Traditional training analyses, such as Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation, were designed to assess solutions that are delivered in a linear manner. Since social learning is generally informal, integrated with the workflow, and driven by the employees, these traditional assessments will not work. Instead, one has to look at higher and broader areas of value, and there are three key ones: financial performance, individual performance, and group performance.

Financial performance

  • Are we generating greater diversity of content at the same or lower cost than before?

  • Are we reaching more unique users at the same or lower cost than before?

  • Are we more efficiently using subject-matter experts and content developers at the same or lower cost than before?

  • Are we reducing time for development or time for delivery?

Individual performance

  • Are we reducing the total errors made and instances of people repeating mistakes?

  • Are we helping people to find needed experts, answers, and relevant content in less time?

  • Are we improving the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of our workforce?

Group performance

  • Are we creating a more nimble enterprise and a more engaged workforce?

  • Are we accelerating and improving group decision making?

  • Are we generating more innovative ideas?

  • Are we improving the alignment of teams with business strategies?

  • Are we improving the speed and quality of communications?

  • Are we seeing more occurrences of effective collaboration?


A new generation of learning is here. Today, employees are working in a very fast-paced environment and they need learning that is immediate, relevant, and delivered in the context of their work. Social media won’t do the job alone. Organizations must embrace social learning and adopt the leading practices presented in this article if they want their employees to keep their company on the cutting edge. Social learning works when it is born from a well thought-out strategy, is made up of mature community networks, is fueled by motivated members, is a resource of great content, and is guided by meaningful metrics. Take some of the ideas presented in this article and start implementing them now.