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Why Social Learning May Be Key to Solving Workplace Problems

A group of people holding cell phones together.

​Employees have always leaned on colleagues to help solve problems at work. Employers can take advantage of that and encourage social learning to help employees do so more easily.

Social learning is the collection and sharing of information learned from peers and from social media. And it may be the way a fast-growing segment of the workforce prefers to learn. According to How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America, a report by Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Brookings Institution, Millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2020. Experts predict this group will be far less likely to relate to training manuals, silos or "top-down" learning.

With social learning, said Iain Scholnick, CEO of Braidio, a social learning platform based in San Francisco, employees can use social media to find colleagues with similar experiences and informally circulate helpful information about what consumers want, fix issues that may arise and advance their organizations. 

For example, a salesperson can search the store's social media (Twitter feed, Facebook group or LinkedIn forum) to determine whether the problem with a returned item was due to human error or a known factory defect. That information then can be updated on social media for other store locations for future reference. 

"I want to be able to solve a problem when I need to solve a problem, not do training six months before the problem arises," Scholnick said. 

"The problem [with silos] is that you take that 'top-down' learning experience, then engage with customers and peers. But your learning changes based on day-to-day workflow," Scholnick said. "You start to add to that learning [based on interaction with customers]. You start to realize, 'this is what's really happening with the customer.' So how do you get that information … back to the company? You can't."

According to the 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte, a New York-based professional services network, companies are changing their communications platforms due to their workforce's reliance on social media for immediate answers. 

The survey of over 10,000 HR professionals and business leaders across 140 countries found that 32 percent of companies are becoming more team-oriented and connected with social media to keep up with a more digital, diverse and social technology-savvy workforce. 

"High-performing companies often first develop these flexible models at the 'edge' of the company," the report stated. "To make further progress, they focus on building a new leadership mindset that rewards innovation, experimentation, learning and customer-centric design thinking. In short, if what a company needs to know and do is constantly changing, then the organization's structure must change as well." 

Here are steps the report suggests that organizations take so they can move toward social learning platforms:

  • Embrace the speed of change. Think about ways typically slower operating models can be sped up to keep up with digital demands. Keep in mind that strategy, connectedness, customers and talent pools are continually changing.
  • Make talent mobility a core value. Executives should move from function to function to understand the newer and more agile career models. Support team fluidity so that members can quickly return to their home team or move to new teams after tasks are done.
  • Form an organizational performance group. Get feedback from group interviews and analysis, and get a grasp on how higher-performing teams, projects and programs work. A more bottom-up model for business units can be achieved by looking at company job titles, reward systems and career paths.
  • Examine new communication tools. Explore other technologies like Workplace, Slack, Basecamp, Asana, Trello, Workboard and others. Then make them the standard in the organization's core ERP/HRMS infrastructure.
  • Adopt continuous, feedback-based performance management. Embrace steady feedback to encourage higher and continuous goal setting, project changes, and the feeling of reward for workers' "work," not just their "job." Employee survey tools are good for immediate input for manager performance. These tools also promote transparency. 

Drawbacks to Social Learning

The egalitarian nature of social learning—so attractive to Millennial workers—can be its downfall, as well. "Without an 'expert,' discussions can go awry rather quickly if not guided in the right way," said Tyler Riddell, vice president of marketing for eSub Construction Software, a mobile and cloud collaboration platform based in San Diego.  

"The biggest downside I see of social learning is individuals learning 'the exception' before learning 'the rule,' " said Sherry Engel, vice-president of learning and talent development at MRINetwork, a Philadelphia-based executive and recruitment organization. "When onboarding a new employee to a new skill set, you typically need to lay a foundation of knowledge. That is best done through a formal learning program. Once you have the basics, you network and share best practices on how to maximize those basics, what exceptions you can make to those basics, etc."

Nate Masterson, director of HR at Farmington, N.J.-based Maple Holistics, said if there is a problem with social learning, it is because there was already a problem within the organization itself. 

"There is only a downside to social learning if your organizational culture is toxic or if specific employees are dealing in the exchanging of bad or harmful ideas," Masterson said. "Ultimately, social learning works in all ways—productive and meaningful ideas can be shared in the same way that harmful or toxic ideas can be shared. This risk can be mitigated by conducting a careful hiring process and bringing only high-character employees on board." 

Others warn not to throw away top-down learning entirely. 

"I think it is still best to initiate top-down learning every now and then as not all of the new skill sets will be taught if we solely depend on social learning," said Lee Ryan, owner and designer of Design Room, a web design company in Kildare, Ireland. "We will only be launching top-down learning when it is in dire need at the company."

 Aaron Hightower is a freelance writer in Detroit.

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