Social Learning in Business

Mid last year, I registered for the ‘Gold Package’ on the Social Learning Centre, UK to undertake all their courses.  That registration was “worth it weight in gold” (pardon the pun) in my professional and personal development in the last year.  Certainly I have mentioned them in this blog many times so it goes to show the value that I hold for the courses that make you think, reflect and apply the learning in your workplace.

They’re like little nuggets of gold that you want to place in the hands of your colleagues in the Learning and Development, so that they, like you, can be mesmerised by the possibilities of how we learn socially at work – without the fear of what this may mean for the future of their profession.

To date, I have completed the following courses:

  • Personal Knowledge Management Workshop
  • From Training to Performance to Social 
  • Social Media for Professional Development
  • Online Communities
  • Professional Learning Portfolios Workshop and until recently,
  • Social Learning in Business

(I missed out on the Moving Training Delivery to Performance Support course out of my stupidity. I confused it with  ‘Training to Performance to Social”.   I realised too late that they were actually two different courses!)

The most recent course I completed was the Social Learning in Business.

Harold Jarche mentions in his blog, that this course centres on “core themes around social aspects of learning at work; narrating our work for others; communities of practice and understanding networks”.

The first week was on the definition and application of ‘Social Learning in Business’ and the reasons to focus on informal and social learning.

We were asked to consider our most significant learning experiences.  For me, my most memorable learning experiences came from my time in the Royal Australian Navy because of their use of ‘experiential learning’.

I remember experiences that immersed me into scenarios that I would come across in my every day work.  These were under real (or as real as possible) conditions, environments and constraints where I put all my formal training into action by applying what I learned to the scenario presented.  Under observation and guidance of the instructors, all of whom were subject matter experts in their own rights, they would watch, observe and take notes of my actions – and how I interacted with others.

I certainly didn't learn to fight fires in ship compartments by reading about it.

I certainly didn’t learn to fight fires in ship compartments by reading about it.

In all cases, the debriefs to these exercises were as long as the actual exercises themselves as we recounted, deliberated and discussed every decision, action, task, solution and reaction.  We would share the stories of how others had reacted and why they reacted this way; and then there was always some follow up action such as a completion or sign off of a ‘Task Book’ or write up a post-event report to share our learning with others.

I also recall that I learned a lot from listening and learning from experts.  They would jokingly call it “spinning warries” but there was a lot more to it then just telling a yarn.

The ‘warry spinning’ in most cases actually provided real life scenarios and actions people undertook that created mental pictures in my mind of how I could apply the same actions to various workplace scenarios.

To date, this experiential learning was and will always be, one of the highlights of my career because simply, I remember it.  It made an emotional impact.

Can you say the same of formal corporate training programs you’ve been through in your life?

I’ve seen that application of formal learning to work contexts are critical but too often companies focus on formal training and much less on the informal and the social.

The first week of this course made me reflect on the best way I learn.  I’m very much a self-directed and reflective learner.  In hindsight, maybe the Navy’s emphasis on experiential learning was a great fit for me and my learning style as many years later, I still seem to be recalling these experiences.

In the second week, we focussed on ‘narrating our work’ as an enabler of change.  In the past, when people worked together in the same place and time, they had conversations.  In this day and age of constant change and a dispersed workforce, narrating what we do and how we do it will create conversations that open the door for collaboration to occur.

For me, this wasn’t a new concept and I have been blogging now for a couple of years on Activate Learning Solutions (and much longer for a personal blog, Ramblings at but I reflected on why I started so late for my professional blog.


The reason was fear.

Blogging meant being open about your work and your actions.  It meant that the whole world could see what you were doing, why and how.  Social media policies at work put fear into me and I was careful not to mention any projects, people, company or make reference to any brand for fear or risk of security, privacy and reputation.  As a result, I concentrated on my personal blog and wrote about my leisure pursuits – but that was only a part of my identity.

I wanted to connect, share and learn from others in my field and that meant writing about it – albeit with some refrain and a general feeling of discomfort of being ‘found out’ if I happened to be writing about certain projects I was working on.

So I had the fear of the “open environment” or the fear of going outside the “firewall”.  I could create an anonymous blog and make no mention of my name or affilitations – but was I being true to myself? Would others trust me?

And what does this mean for employees narrating their work in a company with these restrictions?

Some organisations encourage blogging through platforms such as Sharepoint or Yammer and in my experience, despite some people believing that this itself is limiting (because you’re only connecting with people within your own organisation and not opening up to the wider world), I still see this as a positive step to get people to start narrating their work.

The challenge however is making the narration part of your work flow and not seen as additional to your work and this is going to take some getting used to for some people. In my early blogging days, this was seen as a chore but the more I wrote, the easier it became. Now, not a day goes by without me making some mental note to “blog about XYZ” and lament that I don’t have the time to write more (certainly if I did, I think my posts would be a lot shorter).

The third week we concentrated on ‘Communities of Practice’ and I reflected on my Communities of Practice that I have been involved with in my life.

Strangely, none of them have been at work instead, all have been outside my work through my Twitter or Google+ Communities.


I deliberated over the definition of ‘Communities of Practice‘ versus ‘Centre of Excellence’ because the latter are the new team names in my organisation’s structure.  Many departments have changed their names to “XYZ Centre of Excellence” but are they really?

Our work use both these terms interchangeably for one another and hence my confusion.

Etienne Wenger describes communities of practice as, “groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.”

However after reading Wenger’s quote, it’s pretty obvious that they’re completely different  in our workplace.  I wouldn’t say our Learning and Development Centre for Excellence is a Community of Practice because we’re not volunteers; we all are in the same L&D profession; we don’t interact as regularly as we would like; our passion varies with each individual and circumstance and we could do more to share.

We were placed in this “Centre of Excellence” as opposed to forming the community ourselves – herein, lies the paradox.

Organisations want ‘communities of practice’ but they control how its formed, what they do, how they operate and function.

Does this then engender the behaviours of a real community of practice? I don’t think so.

Another key highlight for me was reading an article by Pamela J Hinds and Jeffrey Pfeffer called, “Why Organizations Don’t Know What They Know: Cognitive and Motivational Factors Affecting the Transfer of Expertise.”

Despite the article being 10 years old, the authors claim that “sharing of expertise within organizations remains a challenge for managers”.

I see this daily in my role as a Learning and Development consultant.  One recent example is that a team leader lamented that her team was in dire need to develop skills in a work process but at the same time, due to a recent restructure, she lost her most valued, highly knowledgeable and experienced subject matter experts to other parts of the business.

So in effect, the people who could have stayed back to help others less experienced were transferred to other parts of the business to be learners of a new process themselves!  However this article gave me another hope for an alternative solution.

It claimed that “one set of limitations on sharing expertise is cognitive – that is, the way that experts store and process information may make it difficult for them to share expertise with others regardless of whether or not they are motivated to do so.  The cognitive limitations faced by experts come partly from the way they mentally represent the task.  As expertise increases, mental representations become more abstract and simplified…and that...”developing abstract, simplified representations of the task allows experts to process information more rapidly, view the task holistically and avoid getting bogged down in the details.”

This was my ‘A Ha’ moment as I had been using subject matter experts in my Specialist Coaching program to roll out on-the-job learning of work processes.  It confirmed my observations that experts sometimes simplified their explanations to their learners because they assumed that the process or task was self-evident to their learner – when in actual fact, the learner wanted the context and the concrete detail to make their own logical mental representations of what it was that they were being taught.

Subject matter experts had difficulty explaining their tacit knowledge – the knowledge they had built up over years of experience in the role and yet this is what the learner needed to know!

In the last week, we analysed our value networks.  I looked at my own professional learning network and tried to identify myself as a ‘Maven’, ‘Connector’ or a ‘Salesperson’ and this is what I wrote:


So this workshop has been beneficial to me in my current and new upcoming role.

The clincher was when I was asked to develop a business case for social learning on a new project that I’m working on.  This course armed me with the information I needed to write this case to seek budget and funding.

I strongly recommend the courses held by the Social Learning Centre.  All of them have been valuable to me and re-aligned my thinking about how adults learn, network and collaborate in this ever changing work environment.  Maybe they can be for you too.

About Helen Blunden

My unique super power is that I see learning experiences in everything I do. #alwayslearning
This entry was posted in Development, Musings, Work Narration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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