Why practitioners will need to take a more supportive role in the new world of collaborative learning

The future of L&D needs a practitioner who can support employees’ efforts to learn collaboratively, says Jane Hart, Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. But reaching this point will take a concerted focus on their own personal development, she tells People Management

‘Social learning’ is the L&D buzz phrase of the moment. How do you define it?
The whole concept of social learning has become very hazy and misunderstood. My position is, we’ve always been social learners - we’ve learnt together with people, in our families, from day one. There’s nothing new in the concept of people learning from one another. 

The new definition that’s appeared recently is, learning from others through social media. But it’s the learning bit I focus on, and I don’t think this equates to training or education, which is how most people think of it. Social learning comes mostly from working together with colleagues in the workplace - which can now be underpinned by social technologies. I believe that the real social learning at work happens through social collaboration – learning as a result of working together with people. 

How will this affect L&D’s role in organisations?
It’s going to be a huge shift, as L&D professionals need to realise their roles are no longer solely about organising courses but about helping people do what they already do, better – ie learning from one another. So if people are already collaborating together, L&D practitioners can help them use new technologies to support this. It’s fundamentally about helping organisations make that mindset leap away from thinking they just need to organise everything everyone learns, towards understanding that learning is something that they need to enable and support every day. 

Is it tricky for L&D professionals to get to grips with this shift in their role, from designing courses to supporting learning? 
Absolutely, but the world of work is changing: we’re moving from a command-and-control approach to supporting more autonomous and self-organised ways of working. In many ways, this shift in L&D practices is no different. However those L&D practitioners working in organisations where there is still a strong command-and-control culture will find it more difficult to encourage social learning.

Managers are also going to need to take more responsibility for developing their people and building social teams. L&D professionals can play a big part in helping this happen, but to do that they will need to have good social skills themselves. You can’t just tell someone to be social: you have to show them how to be social. So L&D professionals will need to have had a lot of exposure and experience ‘socially’, either on the web or in communities of practice so they can do that job effectively. Taken altogether, it requires a big shift, both mentally and in terms of job role. 

How are organisations already making this transition?
I’m seeing more and more organisations who are recognising that enterprise social networks (ESNs) such as Yammer haven’t been exploited very much. Some are now taking the initiative to help build social organisations by inspiring the use of the ESN - perhaps in a slightly more structured way - through challenges and activities that allow people to see the potential of these tools for working and learning at the same time. 

It’s very much about seeing learning as an integral part of working life: learning is not something extra to work. Social and collaboration tools mean you can support and embed learning within the work, so it’s no longer something you have to go and sit in a classroom for - it just happens as a part of life and work. But this mindset change must start with the L&D practitioners themselves. 

What can professionals do to improve their own learning?
I run a lot of online social workshops, and it is true that it tends to be the same type of people who participate - those who are very enthusiastic about pushing themselves forward. It seems ironic to me that, on the whole, the learning profession doesn’t seem to be one that thinks it needs to continue to learn and improve itself.

But L&D needs to embody the change that’s already happening in organisations – that people are already learning in new ways. To do that they will have to model the change in their own practices, and recognise the importance of conscious, ongoing, updating of their knowledge of what’s happening in their industry and profession. It’s no longer possible to keep up with everything by just attending a conference once a year.