As a complement to our free report paper on social learning in the association space, I thought I’d share some thoughts on social learning for associations and why it is so important. (For how I define social learning, see “How to Define Social Learning”.) The following points certainly aren’t exhaustive, but hopefully they will be enough to prompt some reflection and discussion. I encourage you to share your perspective on these points and make others in the comments.
1. It’s in the DNA.
Associations are, by definition, social organizations. They exist to connect people with common aims and interests. But the value of connection isn’t in paying your money and getting added to the membership roll. The value is in the knowledge that can be gained through sharing experiences and resources with others in the association’s network. This is social learning, and excellence in facilitating it is at the core of the value associations offer. For organizations fretting about “relevance,” I’d argue that your capacity for fostering social learning is the first place you should look for possible improvements.
2. It’s simply more effective.
Arguably, most of the behaviors that support successful learning are inherently social in nature. We model the behavior of mentors and avatars to build new skills and behaviors of our own. We demonstrate actions, repeat new information, and teach others as part of solidifying our own knowledge. The social context in which we learn is usually what supplies relevance—a critical element for adult learning, or andragogy—and it is by wrestling with ideas and information in a social context that we make sense of them, modify them, and make them our own. Yes, we can and sometimes must learn in relative isolation, but social interaction is usually the glue that makes learning stick.
3. It’s a catalyst for innovation and impact.
Association education is often quite conservative in its aims. Organizations strive to preserve a body of knowledge, build on it where appropriate, and pass it on. While social learning undeniably supports these goals, you could argue—and I think many organizations implicitly do—that it is a “nice to have” rather than a “have to have.”
That argument fails, though, when it comes to more progressive aims. If, through your educational efforts, you seek to solve tough emerging problems, discover new opportunities, and lead your field or industry to a brighter future, social learning simply isn’t optional. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that we are much more effective in solving complex problems and generating breakthrough ideas as a group (see, for example, “10 Lessons from the Smart Swarm”). Effectively teaching individual learners is a great goal, but if you want to move the dial across your entire field or industry, you are unlikely to do it without an effective social learning strategy.
4. It connects you to “the other 80 percent.”
In Leading the Learning Revolution, I wrote:
…as much as 80 percent of our learning happens in an informal manner, and a great deal of it is based on our interactions with other people. Why does it matter? It is very often in the context of this other 80 percent that we make decisions about more formal learning opportunities. If you are not there, not engaged, not providing value, then the chances that a prospect will come to see you or your organization as the source to go to for more formal, paid learning experiences diminishes dramatically.
If it isn’t clear already, this point should make it clear that social learning isn’t just about using social tools within formal learning experiences. Indeed, it’s not even mostly about that. It’s about thinking of your entire, extended stakeholder base as a social learning ecosystem. This mindset is fundamental to achieving the sort of impact and innovation discussed in the last point, but as this point suggests, it is also fundamental to marketing your products effectively, generating ongoing demand and revenue, and, yes, staying relevant.
5. It’s available to your competition.
Let’s face it: These days pretty much anyone can put the mechanics of membership into place by leveraging a variety of low-cost or no-cost technologies. Similarly, even solo entrepreneurial subject matter experts (eSMEs) now have amazing opportunities to organize events, launch learning communities, and sell online courses. Most organizations are seeing higher levels of competition for their educational products and events than ever before. Successfully competing is now much less about logistics or the size and quality of your catalog—though these remain important—and much more about the quality of the ongoing relationship you establish with your customers and prospects. In short, mastering social learning is essential to competing effectively.
Those are my thoughts on the importance of social learning for associations. What are yours? Please comment and share.
P.S. – For tips on implementing social learning, see this great guest post from Maddie Grant on “Social Learning for the Education Department.”