In the Moment

Social Learning: An innovation gamechanger

Erika Bailey

I have been interested in how people learn for about 35 years. Some of you may be thinking: Seriously, Erika? Since you were 7? Well, OK when I was 7 I was thinking about how my makeshift classroom of stuffed animals learned, but the intention was the same–to optimize learning in whatever context we find ourselves.  My newest sojourn into the world of learning has led me into the concept of social learning.  As it turns out, the whole concept and the science behind it underpins the culture and change work I’ve been up to of late. Let’s explore this a little, with the help of an expert on the topic.

Alex Pentland (whose book Social Physics: How good ideas spread–The Lessons from a New Science I have been devouring of late) defines ‘social learning’ as follows:

  1. “learning new strategies (e.g. context, action outcome) by observation of other people’s behaviour, and including learning from memorable stories; or
  2. learning new beliefs through experience or observation”

Mr. Pentland goes on to note the critical nature of social learning in idea flow. In my own work, I have seen social learning at work when teams who are not formally connected to “change work” start behaving in ways first demonstrated by the change initiative’s “core team”.  Some recount how they were part of a direct conversation with the core team members about a new way of doing things. Others heard things in passing about what the core team was up to, how it was working, and how it wasn’t that difficult to change.

The new groups “tried on” the new behaviours and acted their way into new ways of thinking.

Suddenly, this is just the way they do things there, and most of them can’t recall when or how things changed.  By watching the patterns from outside the system, however, it is clear that social learning played a part in their successful adoption of new ideas.

As much as what people were learning, it is important to note how they learned what others were doing. A typical strategy for disseminating the learning of one group to another is to tell them, going something like this: “We did it. It worked. Now you too should do it. Here’s how you should do it.” What that approach does is boost the knowledge and awareness of the second group. Awareness is good, but it doesn’t do the job of shifting behaviours. The other thing it can create is something like a social immune response which sounds like “that won’t work here.  You don’t know us.  What you’re suggesting just won’t go with the work that we do.”

What does seem to work is askinginviting, and demonstrating what’s possible:

  • Asking: “How does this problem show up where you are? What do you do about it? What’s in your way from doing better? who does it better? What can we do now/ later to move the dial on what we want?”
  • Inviting: “Would you like to try out this thing we’ve tried over here?  It’s worked really well for us and would be interesting to see if it works well here.”
  • Demonstrating: “Here’s how we did it. What do you think? How would that work here? How wouldn’t it work here? Is there any bit of helpful good you can apply here now? Anything this excites you to do?”

Any learning program that you intend to have “stick” would be well bolstered by some element of social learning, especially if it involves a desired behavioural change. Though it is true that some of it will “just happen”, you can be quite intentional about encouraging social learning. Here are some tips:

  • create attractors where people gather, talk, and share ideas about what they are doing
  • get yourself a coach with a systems view of your organization to help you see opportunities for learning and dissemination of practice
  • broadcast the story of the what and the how of your efforts across your organization
  • create safe spaces for people to try on new behaviours and refine their technique

In closing, I have 2 challenge questions for you:

  • How might you design and support an organizational system where social learning is encouraged to thrive?
  • What sorts of innovation might that unleash by engaging the network in this way?



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