Social Learning

Being something of a Systems Thinker, I often find myself reflecting on events to see if I can understand the cause and effect relationships that drive the outcomes we attain. Working in the field of education, that interest has caused me to look deeply into the way individuals learn and how different modes of teaching achieve different outcomes.

When we think about training we typically think in terms of training classes, academic courses and the ubiquitous two day workshop. Despite the prominence of these forms of training, learning actually happens through other channels as well. One of those alternate mechanisms is the process called “social learning”. Social learning is the learning that occurs when we observe the behaviors and actions of those around us and use those observations as a model upon which to base our own behaviors.

Social learning is a powerful force that often gets little attention and very few organizations leverage the power of social learning to help drive the development of skills. That’s something of a shame because where social learning is leveraged the results can be really quite startling. Over the years I’ve seen a few organizations that have successfully leveraged social learning to great effect and social learning is probably the single most effective learning tool organizations have at their disposal.

Organizations can leverage social learning a in a number of ways. For example simply arranging staff assignments so that junior staffs have exposure to role models against which they can emulate their own approaches is a method through which social learning can be leveraged. One organization I visited had done just this. They had identified a number of Project Managers who had the skills and knowledge to be highly effective in their roles. The organization then arranged for these role models to work alongside those who were just starting their careers in the Project Management field. Going beyond a simply coaching program or a hierarchical supervisory model, the organization wanted the young Project Managers to actually work alongside the more experienced people so that they could see how the senior resources thought, how they made decisions, how they established priorities and how they managed situations. The effects were impressive and the two layer structure and buddy system they used allowed the junior Project Managers to actually see the more experienced players performing their roles, rather than just talking about their roles as happens in most coaching environments.

Off course social learning has two sides to it. When structured properly it can be a powerful tool to help people develop skills that would otherwise take years to develop. On the flip side if an organization has done little to establish professional levels of practice, the message that quality and professionalism are not important to the organization will quickly spread. If the bar of acceptable behavior is allowed to slip too far it can have a contagious affect that inhibits the development of skills by establishing a cultural norm that says that poor practices are acceptable to the organization.