Social learning: What it is and how to apply it in the workplace
Instructional Design

Social learning: What it is and how to apply it in the workplace

A few thousand years ago, Aristotle called humans “social animals.” This observation still stands — especially in today’s workplace where social learning is applied without even trying. But then, something unexpected happened.

When remote working became the norm for so many companies due to the pandemic, new challenges arose with it. How do you keep your employees engaged and motivated? How do you maintain your company culture?

Offering continuous employee training, especially reskilling and upskilling training, helps immensely with the above. But the danger of your staff feeling isolated, lonely, and bored when they try to study by themselves at home, remains very real.

Enter social learning.

Social learning is a learning and teaching strategy, backed by many cognitive scientists (and old Aristotle). In this article, we’ll delve into what social learning actually is and isn’t — and how you can use it to battle isolation in this new, remote workplace.

What is social learning?

The social learning theory was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura and his doctorate student, Richard Walters, in the 1950s. The simplified social learning definition goes something like this: humans learn better when they learn together.

As a process, learning is facilitated when people are in groups of at least two. Bandura and Walters found that by exchanging knowledge and perspectives and mentoring one another, people can learn faster and more effectively. Plus, they tend to retain information better.

This happens because learners can observe each other’s actions and their consequences — and make decisions based on these observations.

Social learning also makes an important point about engagement: learners are not passive recipients of information. (As anyone who’s sat through a long Zoom presentation can attest to.) For people to learn better, their cognition, environment, and behavior all need to mutually influence each other.

Social learning theory and remote learning

With the rise of social media and online learning, the social learning theory became prominent once again.

While cost-effective and efficient, online learning means that users engage in the learning process alone. Or does it? In the past decade, social media channels have proved that people can definitely make substantial connections and interactions online. And in an environment of constant COVID-induced lockdowns, these interactions are important to one’s mental health.

So how do you combine the social learning theory with remote learning? Easy: you just need to bake some social elements into your eLearning process. According to this Training Magazine article, social learning has been one of the big trends in eLearning for 2020.

As we’ll see below, this can make all the difference when trying to apply social learning into the workplace.

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What are the benefits of social learning?

The application of the social learning theory in the workplace brings several benefits — both for the company itself and for the wellbeing of employees.

Improve information retention — and, in turn, your training ROI

The numbers support Bandura’s social learning theory: on average, learners retain 5% of what they hear and 10% of what they read. It doesn’t sound like a lot, right? But as this eLearning Industry article points out, those numbers change greatly when learners become more actively involved. In fact, about 50% of the material covered through discussion and interaction is retained.

As for the kind of learning that takes place through on-the-job experience? More than 75% of that is retained.

We learn by doing — and by interacting with others.

Complement your manager development initiatives

It’s not just employees who need to be stimulated and engaged to perform better.

Gallup estimates that the cost of poor management approaches $7 trillion globally. That’s 9% to 10% of the world’s GDP. Poor management leads to lost productivity and disengaged employees — it can undo everything your employee training program has achieved.

How do you fix that? By making your managers part of the social learning model.

Offering training for managers is a no-brainer for most companies, but a common mistake is to keep that training in a separate bubble. Think of it as a yoga class. If the yoga teacher is good, they will allow students of different levels to join and suggest adaptations of each pose to suit different capabilities. This allows everyone to learn together and actually make progress faster.

Sure, you may not be offering leadership and managerial training to everyone at this point. Although you probably should. But by including the managers in the social aspects of the learning (e.g. gamified leaderboards, ability to comment and discuss in forums), you strengthen the team bond. When a manager doesn’t feel far removed from the team they manage, they manage that team better.

Maintain an A-team, and boost employee retention

As you know, employee retention or attrition depends on the company’s management and working environment. Focusing on employee development and their social wellbeing via implementing social learning, helps with that.

Your employees remain engaged, become high-achieving, and will naturally want to stick around in a company that takes their continuing development as individuals and professionals seriously.

Plus, building a reputation as such a company will help you attract top talent.

Identify and address knowledge gaps

When people learn together, they cover more ground. And faster. By offering opportunities to your employees for participating in group discussions, activities, and learning through play/gamification, you prevent knowledge gaps.

If an employee doesn’t know something, they can reach out to another employee who does — and who can pass on that knowledge in a way that will be much better retained.

Foster a strong company culture

This goes without saying but bringing people together and creating connections, especially now that so many are working remotely, does wonders for morale. Having a closely-knit team is the first stepping stone to shaping and maintaining a great company culture.

Which you know you need if you want to have engaged and productive teams.

Social learning in the workplace: what it is and how to apply it

How to adopt social learning in the workplace

Now that you know how important social learning in the workplace is, let’s look at how you can practically make it part of your day-to-day.

Create opportunities for teamwork

The first step to fostering a social learning spirit is to encourage teamwork across the board.

Employees should not be afraid to reach out to one another to help them with tasks — it should be something that comes naturally. When assigning projects, make a point of bringing employees together to work on them whenever possible. This is especially important when it comes to employees who work in different departments and wouldn’t normally collaborate.

By creating opportunities for teamwork, you allow people to approach a project from different sides. And that can only be a good thing

Make that teamwork an essential part of eLearning

Baking social learning elements into your eLearning process is a game-changer.

B2B Integrity-based sales and growth expert Ian Altman warns in a Forbes article that there is a difference between “online training” and “online communities”. An eLearning program that offers no opportunities for learners to communicate is not an effective eLearning program.

Channels within your training program that allow people to come together and learn from each other increase the chances of getting better pass rates and overall engagement.

Through features such as forum discussions, gamification aspects such as leaderboards, and messaging capabilities, an LMS becomes a new kind of social hub for learning. Learners can discuss and help each other understand certain questions or concepts — and develop critical thinking through discussions.

This goes for all kinds of learning content.

If you’re doing instructor-led training sessions, allow people to message each other directly during the session via Zoom. If you’re offering microlearning via short videos, allow people the opportunity to comment. If you have gamification elements and leaderboards, allow people to personalize their avatars and “compete” with each other.

For lengthier courses that require more complex studying, create a “study partner” structure and group assignments. It may seem challenging since so many people are studying remotely at their own pace, but even asynchronous communication is better than no communication at all.

Know your (social) tools

Your employees will come together on social media to discuss (read: diss) aspects of the company or their coworkers at times. There is no way for you to control or stop that.

What you can do, however, is create other avenues of conversation.

Use social tools such as Slack, or the messaging functions in Zoom and project management tools like Asana or Sure, people will talk about work there, but you can also create spaces just for “water cooler” conversation (i.e. the necessary exchange of cat gifs).

If you offer your employees more “legitimate” spaces where they can co-exist and communicate in an informal and fun way, they won’t have to do so behind your back.

Adopt continuous, feedback-based performance management

In a setting that promotes social learning, communication should flow in all directions. That means offering your employees (and managers) consistent and actionable feedback often.

It also means consistently taking feedback from them.

This SHRM article talks about the importance of survey tools as a way to promote transparency. Survey tools can indeed be an integral part of your eLearning process as well as your day-to-day.

But if you have a smaller team, you could also set up a weekly brainstorming session. There, employees can share thoughts and ideas of things they could have done differently or feedback on how they feel about the way projects are being handled.

Of course, you can do this remotely by setting up a specific Slack channel, using the “Campfire” section of Basecamp, etc.

Social learning theory: 3 common myths

The ancient world had its myths. The medieval world had its legends and folklore. And our world, business or not, has its share of misinformation. So, in their section, we’re busting three common social learning myths:

1. Social learning is a trend

Trends are usually newly introduced and temporary. But social learning might be a lot of things but we can hardly call it new, and much less a “fad.”

Social learning, as a pedagogical theory, has been brought forward by prominent 20th-century teachers and psychologists, with the most famous probably being Albert Bandura (of Stanford University). At its most basic, it is the idea that people learn through observing and interacting with others in a social context.

Social eLearning on the other hand is relatively new, but that’s just because eLearning itself is a new-ish development, speaking in historical terms.

2. Online social learning must involve social media

Short answer: No, it doesn’t.

Long answer: Sure, Facebook, Twitter, even TikTok are some of the biggest social networks. But social, whether it is “social media” or “social learning”, describes a way of doing things — not a particular implementation or brand name.

That said, a social learning program could definitely make use of Facebook groups, Twitter threads, or any other well-known social media service. In fact, this is a very good way to take advantage of existing, highly successful (and highly familiar) social networks, and ease learners in.

But it doesn’t have to. A custom social learning environment, one that only includes your students, is also a great way to add social learning capabilities to a learning program.

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3. Social learning is only for younger learners

Sure, a Gen Z learner can definitely hammer 20 responses a minute on Twitter and Instagram when they have literally grown up with these. But that doesn’t mean that social learning is only suitable for the younger demographic.

People of any age can and do learn things socially — and people of any age can take advantage of social learning within an online learning program.

Besides, do you see any shortage of 40 and 50 and 60-year-olds on Facebook or Twitter? Rather the opposite. So what makes people think that dealing with a social learning module in their eLearning portal will prove particularly challenging for them?


Applying social learning at work ensures better information retention, continuous engagement, and a more stable company culture. It also helps people forge connections that can be instrumental both to team morale and personal wellbeing.

But to successfully adopt social learning in the workplace, particularly in an eLearning context, you’ll need help — and the right tools.

Investing in an LMS that has gamification, discussion, and messaging functions is a great first step in the right direction.

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