Social is at the core of learning, both formal and informal. It can seem trivial, but instead it’s fundamental. While learning doesn’t have to always be social, there are times when it makes the most sense. And it helps to understand why, and when, social learning makes sense.

Some argue, of course, that all learning is inherently social. Even when reading on your own or doing asynchronous courses, they argue, you’re using socially-created materials. As a counter, I might think about one experimenting and discovering on one’s own through trial and reflection, but you could argue that the use of language, ala our working memory, is inherently social. But these distinctions aren’t necessary for us to find insight and value from social.

The underlying processes

So, what’s happening when we learn socially? At core, I suggest it’s about the exchange of representations. They may be linguistic (text or speech), visual (diagrams, photos, animations, or videos), numeric (spreadsheets), or what have you, but they’re externalizations of our thinking. And that externalization is critical. It’s a recognition that our cognition is distributed socially, as well as representationally.

Have you ever had a thought? Well, of course you have. But then, have you ever tried to capture that thought, writing it up or documenting it in some way? If so, you’ve likely had the experience that when you tried to get concrete, you realized that there were some missing elements, and you had to think more about it. That “thinking about it” is processing, and processing is one of the keys to learning. You need to think about things, whether connecting them to each other or to other familiar things. That’s elaboration, and the depth of processing is one element that’s attributed to the ”stickiness” of thoughts. So even just the process of creating the representation is valuable.

Now, if someone else accesses those representations, they’re processing as well. And if they respond and have to get concrete about it, they’re processing more. And if the original author processes that response, well, you can see where this is going. Importantly, the way one person views a concept is unlikely to be exactly the same as someone else, so seeing a different perspective is valuable and helps decouple personal views and generate a greater comprehension.

Now imagine that there’s a project where several people are tasked with collaboratively generating a solution. If they each think about the problem alone and generate ideas before coming together, their ideas will be optimally diverse. If you don’t allow everyone time to think for themselves, the first commenter can constrain the thinking of others—an important barrier to successful brainstorming.

As with the individual case, when everyone processes others’ contributions, more processing happens. And when each responds, ditto. And so on. What happens is that the people are getting smarter through the process and the product is getting better, too! This is the benefit of collaboration.

Formal and informal

So, how does that play out for organizational learning? The two models above can play a role in formal or informal learning. And both are useful to organizational success.

For formal learning, you can have folks respond to questions or challenges. Ideally, they submit their response before being allowed to see others, which should be a feature of a discussion board capability in a decent LMS. Further, you can have learners respond to each other’s submissions. This way you are getting the benefit of seeing other’s viewpoints, as well as your own.

The group project takes this one step further; you don’t just have to see what others think, you have to negotiate a shared understanding. That means that not only do you have to take other opinions into account, you have to work together to figure out a reconciliation. That requires not only interpretation, but integration.

Applying this to organizational initiatives, we see the same benefits. If you “show your work”, people can track what you’re doing and be aligned. If they comment, they’re contributing to the success of your initiatives. This requires some cultural elements, but those are part of an opportunity for L&D, as well.

In groups is where the most important work of organizations is done. Problem solving, research, design, etc., all benefit from pulling from a group. There are factors that improve the outcome, including having diversity in the group in many ways—viewpoints, skillsets, knowledge—though you need some shared commitment to the work. And, again, you need the right culture to optimize the outcomes. The right processes help, as well.

Making it work

One element that emerges from the above discussion is the importance of culture. If you’re in a “Miranda organization”, where anything you say will be held against you, you won’t contribute. And contributing is key to getting social to work.

There are two major ways of contributing: cooperation and collaboration. Collaboration is the group effort described above. And individuals need to conduct their individual thinking before sharing. If sharing isn’t safe, it’s not going to happen. If you don’t get the benefit of everyone’s best efforts, you’re not getting the best outcome.

Cooperation is where there’s no mandate to contribute, just an expectation. You don’t have to contribute, but you should if you can (and it’s fine if you can’t). Here’s where you weigh in o someone else’s contribution, contributing constructively. And, importantly, people feel free to ask questions, and to answer them.

There are associated skills. For one, knowing to have everyone individually consider topics before sharing. Similarly, there are ways to ask for, or offer, help such that no one is inclined to engage. All discussions have to be respectful of the individual; you can weigh in on the idea, but not the person. There may be times when interventions are needed, but such actions are done offline.

Thus, there is a clear role here for learning & development. The shift is from dispersing information to facilitating the processes where learning happens. Ensuring that the social infrastructure is developed to be constructive is one of the most important contributions to organizational success. It’s time to step up to the plate and ensure that social is considered, and when relevant, done right.