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Social learning theory: How to apply it in the workplace

Humans are social creatures by nature. But it’s about more than just wanting some social interaction from time to time. Some of our biggest learning events happen by drawing from social contexts. We’ll walk you through the theory of social learning and its effects on an organization.

Videhi Bhamidi

What is social learning?

Ever found yourself acting or behaving in a way you saw someone else do first? Chances are, you were engaging in social learning. Social learning is defined as learning that happens through the observation of other people’s actions. It’s essentially a cognitive process occurring in the learner’s social context through observation or direct instruction, despite the absence of direct reinforcement.

Social learning combines behavioral learning and cognitive learning. Behavioral learning is based on the belief that an individual responds to environmental impetus. Cognitive learning, on the other hand, is the idea that psychological factors contribute to learning.

What is the main idea behind the social learning theory?

The main idea behind the social learning theory is that we observe other people’s behavior with the intention or objective of adjusting our behavior in various social contexts. In other words, we adopt a behavior that is socially acceptable and is not criticized.

Unlock a culture of knowledge sharing

Get tips and best practices to foster social learning in your organization by building a knowledge sharing culture.

Social learning theory: Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura, the Canadian-born American psychologist, is well known for the social learning theory. According to Bandura, people make choices based on what they believe they’re capable of. Learning transpires through this belief, and social modeling from a person’s environment, cognition, and behavior.

What are the four steps of Bandura’s social learning theory?

Application of social learning theory involves these four characteristics:

  1. Attention: When we observe behavior that our minds see as different or unusual — behavior that grabs our attention — it becomes a source of learning. Drawing from our social context and seeing other humans normalizing a behavior helps us reinforce new insights.
  2. Retention: We process the information internally. Then, we recall it later on when we find ourselves having to respond to a similar situation.
  3. Reproduction: Whether the information involves skills, insights, or behaviors, reproducing it allows us to internalize it better.
  4. Motivation: Motivation initiates from observing someone being rewarded or punished for their action or behavior. This induces motivation when recalled in a similar situation.

Benefits of social learning theory in the workplace

In a workplace, the social learning theory can lead to several benefits, including:

  • Communication and Collaboration

    Social learning enables a culture of collaboration and learning from others. Ultimately, it can contribute to seamless and authentic communication among colleagues, which can foster a strong sense of team spirit.

  • Responsibility

    Social learning has the power to encourage and empower employees to take responsibility for their learning and even contribute to their peers’ growth. That’s because people invariably learn by observing peers and become driven in meeting their own learning needs. This self-learning empowers them to own their learning needs and, ultimately, their career development.

  • Motivation

    The desire to imitate in social learning induces feelings of motivation. This can lead to better organizational productivity, more opportunities for employee recognition, and – in the long run – better employee retention rates.

  • Multi-modalities and channels

    Modern employees go beyond the traditional classroom to learn a skill or knowledge. By opening up social learning, you expand the number of learning avenues your employees can choose from in terms of both formats and people.

Disadvantages of social learning theory

At the same time, there are also a few  disadvantages to the social learning theory in the workplace:

  • Promotes a single way of learning

    While learning from our peers can teach us a lot, it can also prevent a sense of innovation or individuality in a workplace. For example, in a classroom, it’s easy to look at a few high-achieving students and regard them as role models for academic success. However, this approach neglects the fact that people have different learning needs. How one person achieves success may not be the most suitable approach for another.

  • Restricts L&D’s innovation

    Similarly, relying on an established theory like social learning can also hinder L&D might from pursuing authentic and innovative learning experiences. Being flexible with innovation is key to meeting the varied learning needs throughout an organization.

  • Online privacy concerns

    Carelessly sharing knowledge among peers can compromise the privacy of company-specific information. For example, employees can internally share the latest updates around new products and business development with peers. But, if not governed carefully – especially when it comes to external sharing – social learning might risk information breach.

  • Difficult to measure learner progress

    Unlike structured learning theories like classroom training, social learning occurs organically in the flow of work, without formal measurements like assessments. This means it can be difficult to prove the ROI of social learning in tangible figures, making it hard to track learner progress.

How to apply social learning theory in the workplace

Stimulating employees to communicate and connect with peers is at the heart of social learning, which — if done correctly — can be established as a company-wide learning culture. One of the easiest ways to apply social learning theory in the workplace is to implement a culture of knowledge sharing.

Let’s look at a few best practices:

  • Make knowledge sharing part of business as usual

    It’s important to make knowledge sharing an essential part of the job description for employees. The more routine knowledge sharing becomes, the lower the threshold, and the more likely employees will take part.

  • Make knowledge sharing user-friendly

    The best way to share knowledge today is to use simple e-learning authoring tools and online platforms like Easygenerator. This enables employees to capture their knowledge, publish, and share it with their coworkers. To get the most out of knowledge sharing, it’s essential to have software with a zero learning curve; one that’s easy for anyone in the organization to master.

  • Lead by example

    As a manager, you have a strong influence over your team. Your actions speak louder than your words. That’s why it’s important for you not only to tell your team to share their knowledge but also to lead by example. Practicing what you preach will show other employees how seriously you take the expectations you set.

  • Share relevant knowledge

    Start by identifying what knowledge your colleagues are missing, and what they would most benefit from. That way, you can decide what knowledge is the most relevant and valuable to share.

Easygenerator can help you with your social learning strategy

Now that you’ve been introduced to the concept of knowledge sharing, let’s expand it to understand a highly successful social learning model — implemented using Easygenerator.

We call it Employee generated Learning (EGL), where any employee can share and create content on the topic of their expertise. It’s a classic bottom-up approach, entirely driven by employees and often known to save time and effort of L&D.

Social learning constructs of collaboration, peer engagement, and feedback are integrated into the model. But to bring it to life, you’ll need a rather simple-to-use authoring tool like Easygenerator. Our collaboration and publishing features provide seamless communication among knowledge creators, consumers, and reviewers. Contact us for a quick demo to understand how we’ve helped many MNCs get started with social learning using our home-grown EGL approach.

About the author

Videhi Bhamidi is a Principal Strategist overseeing the Didactics and Discovery projects at Easygenerator. With over 15 years of experience in e-learning, user-experience research, and thought-leadership projects, she is a regular contributor to L&D magazines. She is an Oxford alumnus and strives to fuse design, research, technology, and didactics in her solutions.