Research Shows Companies Should Encourage Social Learning

by Jeffrey Roth

Knowledge is attained very differently today than it was in the past. Modern students sit in classrooms for hours at a time as information is fed to them through lectures and PowerPoint presentations. How different this type of modern information transmission is from that of centuries past when behaviors and theories were learned by observation and practice. It seems that, as time progresses, education is becoming increasingly less hands-on. In other words, learning has gone from being informal and organic to formal and structured. This is as true in the workplace and corporate classroom as it is in educational institutions.

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Employees Learn Best When They Learn Informally

Informal learning is the polar opposite of formal learning. In the article What Is Informal Learning?, Jay Cross explained, “Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs. Informal learning is like riding a bicycle: the rider chooses the destination and the route. Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride.”1 Simply put, informal learning is caught rather than taught. For example, informal learning happens effortlessly when people:

  • Read a statistic or story on Facebook or another social media network
  • Have a conversation with a coworker about how to perform a job task
  • Communicate with a peer or supervisor via email, video conference, or realtime chat
  • Peruse someone’s profile on a social media site
  • Observe the opinions of others in a forum
  • Receive mentoring from a supervisor or coworker
  • Read an informational blog post
  • Become knitted into a company’s culture by attending work-related social events

Humans used to learn primarily informally, or socially. Today, the emphasis has shifted from organic learning to traditional, classroom-style knowledge acquisition, which is by no means a bad thing. However, when it is enforced and informal learning is ignored or discouraged, companies pay the price of low levels of information retention and skill development and high levels of employee disengagement.

Social learning is as powerful as it is undervalued and underestimated. In fact, it accounts for at least 75 percent of the knowledge people attain in the workplace. This statistic is supported by a survey conducted by Jane Hart2. The survey revealed that the average employee learns through the following methods, to the following percentages:

  • Experience on the job – 45%
  • Networking – 30%
  • Workshops – 10%
  • Training programs – 8%
  • Mentoring and coaching – 3%
  • Special assignments – 2%
  • Manuals and instructions – 2%

Obviously, the percentage of learning that takes place informally through experience on the job, networking, and mentoring and coaching is far greater than that of learning that results from training programs, workshops, special assignments, and manuals and instructions.

Hart is not the only one who believes we learn primarily through social means in the workplace; her sentiments are mirrored by many other individuals and organizations. Here are 3 examples mentioned in the article Where Did the 80 Percent Come From?  by Jay Cross and Internet Time Group3:

In 2005, Marcia Conner wrote, “Most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organizations today. In 1996, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally.”

In 1996, the Education Development Center, Inc., conducted a two-year study of workplace cultures. Corporations involved in the study included Boeing, Motorola, Siemens, and Ford Electronics. Where Did the 80 Percent Come From? stated, “One of the most noteworthy findings of the study is support for estimates from previous studies that ‘attempted to quantify formal training’s contribution to overall job knowledge: 70 percent of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with.’”

In 1999, researcher Allen Tough spoke on the importance of informal learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Speaking of a research project he had been involved with, he said, “We found about 20 percent of all major learning efforts were institutionally organized, or it was like a driving school instructor or piano instructor, something like that. It was one-to-one, but it was still somebody you paid to teach you, so it was a professional formal situation. And the other 80% was informal. We didn’t know what to call it. So we called it ‘professional plan’ and ‘amateur plan’, amateur being a positive word, not a put-down. That’s when I came up with this idea of the iceberg as a metaphor, because so much of it is invisible, because we were surprised to find so much adult learning is sort of under the surface of the ocean as it were. You just don’t see it. You could forget it’s there unless you keep reminding yourself that it’s there.”

In light of the well-supported theory that humans learn mostly through informal, unstructured means of information transmission, why is it that companies tend to emphasize formal training programs? Why have they not boosted their social learning campaigns? The answer is simple – they do not see what they have to gain from them.

What Do Companies Have to Gain from Social Learning?

Most company leaders have little respect for informal learning. Many wouldn’t even be able to define it if asked to. In their defense, there is generally a low level of awareness of social learning and its benefits for the workplace. This is unfortunate since increased employee satisfaction/engagement and a lowered bottom line result when workers’ needs for social learning are acknowledged and facilitated. Let’s take a closer look at these benefits.

Increased employee satisfaction/engagement

Not many employees can honestly say that they are satisfied with their work situations. In America alone only 30 percent of employed individuals are happy with their jobs4, according to GALLUP. The vast majority of individuals are emotionally disconnected from their work and only show up to earn a paycheck. Increased social learning campaigns can change this. When employees are given opportunities to connect and collaborate with peers and are released from schedules packed with formal learning activities, creativity often ensues, as does job satisfaction and engagement. As Bloomfire stated in the article 5 Tips to Increase Social Learning in the Workplace, “It (social learning) is more flexible and cost effective than traditional learning methods, encourages engagement and participation, and improves collaboration5.”

Lowered bottom line

An emphasis on social learning doesn’t merely benefit employees; it also decreases a corporation’s bottom line. The primary reason for this is that social learning avenues (conversations, articles, blogs, social media, email, etc.) are largely free. Formal learning methods (instructor-led trainings, for example) can be quite expensive. When companies begin to put at least an equal emphasis on both forms of learning, they free-up funds. This is partially a result of spending less money hiring in-person instructors and trainers. 

How and Why Informal Learning Becomes Restricted in the Workplace

Clearly, social learning is a human being’s preferred method of attaining knowledge, even in the workplace. Still, it is often frowned upon and, in some cases, restricted by organizational leaders. These leaders are unaware that by forbidding certain activities they discourage social learning, but their employees aren’t. Employees are acutely aware that during work hours they may be chastised for having conversations with peers, spending time on social media networks, reading blogs and articles, and participating in other social learning activities. To discourage or forbid these behaviors is to greatly hinder social learning. This can be seriously detrimental to a company interested in reaching its full financial and cultural potential.

Why do leaders discourage informal learning activities like those mentioned above? Because they are understandably afraid that employees will take advantage of these privileges. Social learning is enjoyable and typically preferable to formal learning. Naturally, some individuals are prone to spend too much time on social activities. However, to deny someone’s need to learn informally due to the irresponsible behaviors of select learners is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Company leaders will finally get the results they desire when they discover that informal learning need not be uncontrolled nor unintentional. 

Informal Learning Need Not Be Unintentional

Social learning happens naturally. However, this doesn’t mean that informal learning must always come about spontaneously. Social learning can be planned for, as contrary as that sounds. In fact, companies that don’t plan for informal learning will have no influence over at least 70 percent of the information their employees take in at work. It’s a safe assumption that no organization wants to have influence over a mere 25 percent of what its workforce learns in the office. Leaders who encourage informal learning as strongly as they do formal learning will influence 100 percent of the information their workers attain on the job. One way that leaders can allow, plan for, and champion informal learning is by implementing a social learning management system.

Learning Management Systems Naturally Facilitate Social Learning

Social learning management systems (LMS) are just that: social. At their core they are designed to naturally facilitate organic learning. Most cloud-based LMSs have built-in features that promote social learning and allow it to be measured and harnessed. These features include personal profiles (much like those used on social media networks), realtime chat, calendaring, video conferencing, blogs, and forums. Select LMSs give users access to social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube while allowing administrators to control how, when, and for what purpose these networks are used.

An LMS also facilitates unstructured information transmission via mobile learning. Mobile learning is informal to the core, yet highly effective. It enables employees to access work-related information and training materials anytime, anyplace, on any device. 

Two-Thirds of Companies Use Social Learning Technology

An LMS is a social learning platform technology at its finest. Amazingly, two-thirds of all companies use social learning technology. (This statistic will only increase as more and more leaders equalize formal and informal learning in the corporate world.) A recent study by Saba6 revealed that social learning supports an overall learning culture, and that “the evolution from social media to social learning is where forward-thinking companies are moving to accelerate the development of their people and better accomplish business goals. As employees and learning leaders become more comfortable with social learning and the value it can add to an organization, the challenges with adoption will ease, allowing for even more creative and productive use.” Insights such as these make it apparent that we are living and working in an exciting time in which workplace-based social learning is on the rise.

Discouraged or encouraged, social learning is going to happen in the workplace. The question is will company leaders provide their employees with outlets for it, or will they ignore workers’ needs by forbidding informal learning activities? Companies that choose the former will be rewarded with decreased rates of turnover, bolstered employee satisfaction, and highly skilled workforces. Organizations that opt for the latter will struggle with stunted company growth and frustrated employees. The choice is a seemingly easy one. However, habits engrained from years of shunning informal learning will make it difficult for some employers to jump on the social learning bandwagon.

Informal learning is a force to be reckoned with. If intentionally influenced and encouraged via social learning technology, this form of knowledge attainment will take a company to the height of its potential. This new era of social learning in the workplace demands that informal methods of information transmission not only be tolerated, but researched and expanded on. A company’s choice to embrace or reject informal learning and social learning technology may decide its future, for better or worse. Companies, choose well. 

The answers to all of your questions on what a social learning LMS is and how it can benefit you. What is an LMS?


  1. http://www.informl.com/2006/05/20/what-is-informal-learning/
  2. http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1009/elearning-guild-research-how-important-is-informal-learning
  3. http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/
  4. http://www.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx
  5. https://bloomfire.com/blog/5-tips-to-increase-social-learning-in-the-workplace/
  6. https://www.saba.com/us/press-releases/go/2013/new-study-two-thirds-of-companies-are-using-social-learning-technology/