When noted psychologist and Stanford professor Albert Bandura was growing up in a Canadian village about 50 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, his educational options were limited. The youngest of six children born to Polish wheat farmers, he attended a country high school with only 20 students and two teachers. In later years, he talked about how he and the other students had to “take charge of their own education.”
These early academic experiences may have contributed to the eventual development of Bandura’s influential ideas about self-directed learning, observation and imitation. In his 1977 book Social Learning Theory, he wrote: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
While the concepts of self-reliance, individual efficacy and modeling that informed much of Bandura’s theory remain, the term “social learning” has undergone a drastic transformation since his treatise. In the last decade, globalization and the rampant availability of highly interactive technologies have altered the modern definition of social learning and its practice.
In their book The New Social Learning, authors Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham define social learning as “people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.”
Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at communications company Telus and one of the speakers at our CLO Symposium last fall, goes a bit further. In a recent blog post he described social learning as an “exchange of ideas, knowledge or information typically characterized by friendly interaction through online services that provides supplemental understanding, often via personal and professional networks.”
Social learning has always been a part of the workplace. It occurs every day at meetings, in discussion groups and during lunch. But technology has amplified the informal learning taking place and provided unexpected answers to some of the most pressing educational challenges organizations face today.
Today, people talk, ask questions and engage via Facebook, unconstrained by geography or time zones. They look up ideas and micro-share on Twitter. They create media-rich virtual communities or immersive environments that enable communication collaboration and sharing between knowledgeable people who would never have been able to connect before.
There are many benefits to incorporating social learning into training and development. It expands opportunities to connect expertise and talent, makes informal learning available on a larger scale and offers valuable learning at the moment of need.
But social media technologies need to be an integral part of work, embedded into the organization’s learning cycles and into the business of doing business. The chief learning officer’s job is to figure out how social learning works for his or her organization.
Though decades have passed and technology has evolved, Bandura was on to something. People will learn what they want when they want, either because of or despite our best efforts to design and deliver learning.
The special report on social learning included with this issue provides valuable input and ideas I hope you can use to make social learning a potent tool at your enterprise and create the culture of innovation and collaboration so critical to business today.