Pros and Cons of Social Learning Theory in Business

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Pros and Cons of Social Learning Theory in Business

Updated February 26, 2020
While the traditional learning model has been the standard for many years, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding social learning and how it affects business training initiatives.
We all have memories of sitting at our desk and listening to the instructor talk about everything from history to physics. Then we dutifully hurry home and study for hours from a textbook in order to score high on the accompanying test.
This format has given way to new ways of learning where teacher’s communicate via blogs, post training videos online, and update course material on team training sites.
As a Learning & Development professional, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about and whether or not social learning is something you should be implementing into your corporate training regimen. This blog will discuss the pros and cons of social learning as well as a few key SharePoint solutions for this educational movement.

First, let’s discuss what social learning is and isn’t. With the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it is easy to intertwine social learning with social media. Social learning is not a new concept, and in fact, it has been around since the 1960s when psychologist Albert Bandura first introduced the idea of observational learning. In essence, it is learning that happens outside of the formal structure of a classroom and thus centers around sharing, collaboration, and co-creation.  We learn every day in our daily lives from the people we meet and the experiences we have—it doesn’t have a start and stop point, but ever evolving.

Social media on the other hand are the tools that help facilitate social learning. We can now upload tutorial videos on YouTube or a presentation on Slideshare. This “new” way of learning represents a fundamental shift in how people work – allowing them to learn non-stop, from every nook of the organization and every corner of the globe.

Let’s take a closer look at Bandura’s social learning theory — one that is perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development.

The Three Core Concepts of Social Learning Theory

1. People can learn through observation. The most famous example of this is the Bobo doll experiment where children observed an adult acting violently toward the doll. Later, when they were allowed to play with the doll, they began to mimic the aggressive behavior they observed earlier.

2. Mental states are important to learning. Bandera believed that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor that influenced learning and behavior. Intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal reward, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment were a key component.

3. Learning doesn’t necessarily lead to a changed behavior. While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.

There are a variety of factors involved that contribute to whether or not social learning is successful.

  • Attention - In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that detracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning.
  • Retention - Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
  • Reproduction - Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
  • Motivation - Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled.

Now that we have a solid understanding of social learning theory, let’s dive into some of the keys pros and cons of the theory.

Disadvantages of Social Learning

  • Loss of control. Social learning requires that everyone in a company know that they are responsible for both teaching and learning. Learning experts worry about the quality of sources. How “expert” are the experts?
  • Limited data to show social learning works and there is ROI
  • There is a belief that social media hinders productivity. Social media = wasting time.
  • Discussion quality is limited to the engagement, preparation and knowledge base of the students contributing (if the information is too new, students likely lack context)
  • Without an “expert”, discussions can go sideways really quickly if not guided correctly.
  • Observational learning won’t work if ALL the following factors aren’t present: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.
  • Security risks. Perceived threats to enterprise information assets.

Advantages of Social Learning

There is a reason that social learning has taken a hold on the learning and development community. Some ways it has been implemented include trainers engaging with employees via a blog or coworkers using internal social networks or wikis to share their thoughts, ideas, and best practices.

Other highlights:

  • Improved learning retention. Studies show that only 20% of what we learn is through formal means and the remaining 80% by informal methods, such as social learning.
  • Reduced training costs
  • Productivity and efficiency gains. Social learning provides a network of “mentors” and supports a culture of continuous learning. The interconnected, interactive nature of social learning exponentially amplifies the rate at which critical content can be shared.
  • Engaged employees stick around. Social learning options are an ideal way to respond to employees’ desire for development, because in addition to providing the knowledge and growth they crave, it also builds a sense of connection and belonging within your organization.
  • Social learning helps people become more informed, gain a wider perspective, and make better decisions by engaging with others.
  • Social learning is collaborative, immediate, relevant and presented in the context of an individual’s unique work environment. Learning can happen anytime, anywhere.

As you can see, there are risks and benefits associated with social learning, as with all things. However, there is no denying that there is a huge shift in the learning space and many feel that utilizing multiple training methods, including social learning, is the key to survival in today’s shifting business climate.

More and more boomers are retiring every day, leaving companies with a big skills gap problem. So, appealing to Millennials and Gen Z will be important.

Administrators responsible for recruiting, managing, and developing employees should be thinking about how to adapt to this generation and how they like to learn, how they use technology, and their preferred means of communication. This will be essential in creating training curriculum and development programs.

Shifting toward learner-centric training is a wise move and takes into account their needs, versus just the company's. This includes social learning, mobile, on-the-job training and mentoring, micro-learning and virtual reality (VR) to name a few.

There will always be a need for formal and informal training in the workplace. But, the key is to optimize a perfect blend of the two in order to achieve your training and development goals.

Utilize Social Features in SharePoint

If you’re ready to begin adding social features into your training plan, look no further than SharePoint.  This is an often overlooked tool that is a part of your Microsoft Office suite and offers many new characteristics that compliment informal learning methods and enterprise social networks.

Properly applied, SharePoint enhances corporate learning and development and makes the learning professional’s many tasks much lighter and the learner’s success far more likely.

Some of the useful social features include personal My Site pages, micro-blogging, community sites and discussion forums. Many of these features also have a strong influence from other top social networks – i.e. hash tags, social tagging, and newsfeeds.

Read our free white paper to learn more about social learning in SharePoint.

Key Consideration:
Technology, Selection

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