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Social learning: We’re better together


Before children even start school, they have already learned a lot just by observing and imitating: How to draw a sun, how to ride a scooter, how to sit at the table and eat so that mom doesn’t tell you off. In technical jargon: Social learning. Social learning is therefore not a new concept, it simply makes use of the most natural form of learning we know of as humans. In this article, you’ll find out more about social learning, what benefits you can derive from it for your company, and how the learning method can be integrated into everyday working life.


What is social learning?

Social learning is not a new concept; it is as old as humanity itself. As children, we begin to imitate our caregivers through observation. Later on, the skills of evaluation and identification come in to help us to find a place in society, to form opinions and develop self-esteem—a process that we use naturally and unconsciously every day of our lives. As social beings, we usually pursue the goal of adapting our own behavior to social contexts in such a way that we find acceptance in our individual environment.

However, when we talk about “social learning”, we usually mean a learning method in which we use this natural process to acquire new knowledge by talking with colleagues, managers, coaches and mentors. The importance of social learning is also demonstrated by the 70-20-10 model, which proposes that we gain 20% of all our knowledge through social interaction—especially in the workplace.


The four components of social learning


Social learning is based, among other things, on the conscious and unconscious observation of others. We observe the consequences of certain actions and learn which behaviors are socially acceptable and which are not.


Of course, we also assess whether a particular behavior we have observed fits in with our own personality, values, and world view, and whether the reactions the observed person experiences are also desirable to us.


Observation and assessment are followed by imitation. Of course, imitation can only happen within our individual limitations, such as physical characteristics, abilities and other traits.


The most complex part of all of this is identifying with other people, achievements, opinions, and values, and perhaps even the desire to earn the recognition of role models. It is therefore not just about imitating a single behavior, but becoming aware of and shaping one’s own personality—holistically or only in certain respects.


The two most important social learning theories

Over the years, scientists have developed and tested various theories on social learning. The term was originally coined by the Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura, who focused primarily on social learning as part of childrearing.


cf. Albert Bandura, 1977

Albert Bandura’s theory states that people do not constantly learn organically from their environment, but rather that an upstream thought process is needed to activate active learning through observation. This thought process only begins when we come to the conclusion that our previous behavior needs to be changed. According to Bandura, this consideration of whether we want to imitate a behavior is called a “mediational process”.


Awareness: In order for us to imitate a behavior, we must first notice it—usually because it stands out from the crowd.

Retention: Furthermore, we can only imitate a behavior if we can remember the behavior that we noticed.

Motor reproduction: The question then arises as to whether we can actually implement the behavior we initially noticed and memorized, i.e. whether we have the necessary qualities to do so.

Motivation: If all three of the previous points are fulfilled, our motivation determines whether we will actually imitate a behavior, depending on how desirable we consider the consequence to be.

cf. John Krumboltz (1976-1996)

John Krumboltz, an American professor of psychology at Stanford University, developed a theory on social learning in relation to professional development, and career decisions in particular. According to his theory, we include four factors in our decision-making processes. In contrast to Bandura’s theory, these processes do not build on each other chronologically, but rather influence each other unpredictably in a variety of ways.

Self-observation generalizations: We consciously and unconsciously consider our abilities, strengths, weaknesses and achievements, and base our future thoughts and actions—including career decisions—on them.

World view generalizations: Through conscious and unconscious observations of our environment, we form our view of the world and hypotheses about how (our) world will develop in the future.

Task approach skills: Similar to Bandura’s point about feasibility, we use our self-assessment of genetic factors, environmental influences, skills, and experiences to define whether and how we will solve a task.

Actions: The more we learn about ourselves and the more aware we are of ourselves and our environment, the more our (career) decisions are influenced.

Nadine Pedro
[Translate to English:] Nadine Pedro, chemmedia AG

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How companies benefit from social learning

Learning naturally

The biggest advantage of social learning is that this learning method is actually practiced consciously and unconsciously by everyone on a daily basis as a matter of course. Accordingly, it is not a question of implementing a new learning method and/or tools, but merely promoting natural processes.

Low costs

Bringing employees together, creating networks, and actively encouraging social learning naturally requires a certain level of commitment, but the costs are not comparable with those of a seminar. 

Sustainable knowledge management

You’ll be surprised how quickly information spreads about which person in the company is the person to ask about which topic. If social learning is not only tolerated, but encouraged, a mentor network is created very quickly that may even partially replace other sources of learning. Even better, this passing on of knowledge means that important information is retained even if individual employees leave the company at some point.

Increased employee loyalty

Further training is one of the most important measures available when it comes to retaining employees in the company over the long term. Social learning therefore not only supports employee retention through training, but also strengthens the bond between employees. 

Problem solving in real time

Pretty much every modern learning method aims to provide knowledge at the specific moment of need—in other words, precisely when employees need it and have the opportunity to apply it immediately. Social learning offers quick answers to problems in a natural way, simply through collaboration with and access to colleagues, regardless of whether they are in-person in the office or digitally. In this way, employees get answers quickly and consolidate their newly acquired knowledge immediately by applying it—the most effective and natural way to learn.

More effective onboarding

Onboarding can be implemented very effectively before the actual work begins with the help of eLearning, and thus the information remains accessible at all times. Nevertheless, the social component should not be underestimated: We can take things that are shown to us in-person through interaction with other employees on board much more quickly—be it a common route to the canteen, how to use the coffee machine, or the morning processes at the start of the work day. Not to mention the fact that in-person onboarding naturally also helps people to feel at home quickly in their new workplace.

Better learning outcomes

Social learning produces demonstrably better learning outcomes than formal learning—not only because we are better able to remember explanations from colleagues, their tone of their voice, actions they demonstrate or perhaps a joke they make, but also because social learning usually puts us in a situation in which we can immediately apply newly acquired knowledge ourselves. The combination of these factors ensures that knowledge remains accessible over the long term.


Possible negative effects of social learning

Social learning can also have negative effects if used too much. It is therefore important to look for tools and opportunities to monitor the effects with at least a critical eye. This is where the biggest challenge of social learning lies. In contrast to other (digital) learning methods, social learning can only be measured and analyzed to a very limited extent. Only ever use social learning in combination with other learning methods, and look out for the following signs:


Personal anecdotes and thematic digressions are sometimes essential for social learning, especially in the age of New Work, where boundaries between our everyday working and private lives are increasingly blurring, and knowledge often has to be adapted from other areas. It may be necessary to moderate group discussions if groups noticeably and repeatedly lose focus.

The aim of social learning is to learn through observation and imitation, and thus achieve personal learning outcomes that in turn contribute to the company’s long-term success. However, this constant orientation toward role models can lead to frustration and disappointment—after all, we almost exclusively orient ourselves towards people who are “better” or “more successful” than ourselves in a certain aspect. For people without a solid sense of self-worth, this can impact their mental health. This makes it all the more important for social learning to only be used in combination with other learning methods.

Progress comes from unconventional ideas or—to put it another way—from “unorthodox” thoughts. Social learning, however, aims to do the opposite: Imitating desirable and accepted behaviors that have positive consequences—whether this means familiarizing yourself with and using software, or learning a particular management style, for example. In the long term, and if the focus on social learning is too strong, the learning method can have a negative impact on the company’s ability to innovate.


Four ways to implement social learning in your company

1:1 conversations

Perhaps the most obvious way to promote social learning is to encourage employees to actively exchange ideas, and to emphasize that the mutual exchange of knowledge is desired. You should therefore emphasize appropriate places where you consider such an exchange to be beneficial. A simple way to show that this method has the same value as traditional training is to create a corresponding category in the learning management system. This enables employees to consciously schedule and track time given over to social learning.

To this end, it is of course necessary to grant the same time freedoms that formal training would receive. In addition, suitable premises or appropriate digital tools are needed to bring employees together.


Learning groups

Learning groups are an effective method of social learning when they are based on exchange and discussion, i.e. not a group simply coming together to attend a presentation or seminar. Learning groups are therefore ideal when several people have to solve the same challenges or want to improve their skills. The more varied their prior knowledge, the more effective the learning process. Also, learning groups should always be integrated into everyday working life to ensure they benefit from all the advantages mentioned above.



If you consider social learning theories alongside the findings on gamification, it becomes clear how motivating competition and comparison can sometimes be—after all, it is in our nature as humans to measure ourselves against other people and want to keep up. The easiest way to stimulate this competition in a positive way is gamified learning, i.e. learning that includes game-based elements such as leaderboards and badges.

Gamification is easiest to implement digitally, but badges and leaderboards can of course also be awarded and visualized in analog form. Even simple quizzes, used instead of tests to check knowledge, are an easy way to stimulate internal competition.



Older employees generally have a great deal of specialist expertise and experience, and are therefore one of the best sources of knowledge. Mentoring offers the opportunity to promote the transfer of this knowledge to young specialists in a targeted manner, and thus keep the knowledge within the company. Unlike coaching, which is topic-based and time-limited, mentoring aims to establish a long-term and personal relationship between mentors and mentees. Ideally, the exchange of knowledge should be in both directions, as younger specialists can pass on their skills in software and digitalization to their mentors.


Promoting social learning with digital learning platforms

If you have been asking yourself up to this point how social learning can be implemented in practice, here is the—fortunately very simple—answer: Learning management systems.

Learning management systems not only serve as a “collection platform” for providing all eLearning content, but can also be used as a social network in which employees can exchange information wherever and whenever they want to. Comments, voice notes, video conferencing, mentoring sessions, learning groups… each of these features can be specifically integrated into employees’ learning paths, provided that professional software is used. Additional calendar functions help with planning.


The bottom line.

Social learning is the most natural way of learning, and one that we already practice consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. This makes it easy to integrate into everyday business life and improve learning outcomes. Social learning does not require elaborate implementation, simply active promotion. There are many tools available for implementation. Professional digital learning platforms offer a wide range of functions that enable social learning to take place even when in-person meetings between employees are limited. So when choosing your learning platform, be sure to look out for features such as social interaction, video conferencing and learning paths.

Magda Lehnert | Blogger
Magda Lehnert

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