CAREER ADVANCEMENT / JAN. 17, 2014
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The Most Useful Informal Learning Is Social Learning

Over 70% of what we learn in life and at work is learned informally and socially claim proponents of informal learning. For most of us social skills are gradually acquired and refined through life experience, rather than etiquette classes. And some of the most critical skills to workplace success—communication, collaboration, teamwork and even technical skills—are cultivated through invaluable and ongoing informal workplace learning: mentoring, coaching, peer reviews and job shadowing.

Employers, workers, labour unions, educators, governments and civil society recognize that work-related informal learning plays a large role in the day to day lifelong learning activity of adult learners.

The ‘Social’ Dimension of Learning in the Workplace

Many research studies have underscored the social dimensions of learning, and the importance of learning from coworkers. Past surveys, such as the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, have shown that socially-oriented learning activities, such as ‘learning by watching’ and ‘getting help from others’ were also quite common.

A pulse survey by the Cara Group Inc., a consulting firm specialising in custom learning and performance solutions for Fortune 500 organisations, revealed that the informal learning approaches that are most useful in the workplace are those that are social and interactive. These include employee/team initiated sharing sessions/collaboration, mentoring and coaching.

The study which surveyed 125 learning and training leaders at businesses across the U.S. reported that just 47% of respondents agreed that social/ networking communities were one of the most useful tools for supporting informal learning in the workplace. This was the lowest ranking of all the workplace tools/approaches, which also included employee/team initiated sharing sessions/collaboration (75%), mentoring (61%), coaching (61%) and performance support materials and systems (53%).

Social Media are key to Professional Development but how ‘Social’ are They?

The advent of Web 2.0 technologies, many of them based on the principles of social networking, has the potential to accelerate the quantity of informal learning being done in a shared or social manner.

The majority of participants (82%) use social media to advance their own professional skills and resources. Another 81% believe that social media offer vital learning opportunities to their workforce.

The vast majority of respondents affirmed that social media tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Wikis and blogs are changing the way people access information. An interesting point raised by a few participants was that “people tend to trust their networks”. This means that through social media resources, individuals can choose their own experts, decide who they trust and seek out information and ideas directly. 

According to participants, face to face interactive and collaborative social learning approaches are the most useful in the workplace. Social media however, is more physically isolating, placing the learner in front of the computer screen but not face-to-face with peers managers and colleagues. It can be collaborative and virtually social but it lacks the features of in-person communication.

As with all training mediums, there are limitations and ironically, social media’s limitation is a social one. It does not allow for some of the most effective informal learning interactions, such as the eye contact and social cues, which are essential to learning things like behaviour and language.

It is finally clear that informal learning approaches which are social and interactive in nature are the most useful in the workplace, as they expand individuals’ ability to network effectively and access subject-matter experts.

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