In this article, you will learn about Social Learning theory and the advantages and disadvantages of applying this learning technique in your organisation. You will also read examples of ways you can integrate social learning into the workplace to encourage and improve success in your learning environment.
Social learning is learning by observing other people with the goal of adapting one’s behaviour in social contexts. People typically don’t adopt worldviews that make the most logical sense, but we are influenced to adopt behaviour that earns the least amount of criticism in our unique environment.
It is human nature to want to be accepted by others, so we automatically observe how others behave and what the consequences are in order to adapt our behaviour. With social learning, we use this technique to adopt the behaviours with which another person has been successful in order to achieve the desired result. While social learning is usually associated with learning specific content, it is actually a process that we naturally use subconsciously every day of our lives.
The term social here refers to the fact that one questions and adjusts one’s behaviours based on observation of other people in a social setting to achieve a desired outcome. Motivation, work ethic, and learning techniques are examples of observed behaviours you can imitate to achieve a desired result. Behaviours learned through social environments can have a circular impact and inspire others in the same social setting.
Social learning works by observing the behaviour of other people. The consequences of specific situational actions are observed, then that behaviour is mirrored depending on the outcome of the consequence. In this way, people learn which behaviours are socially acceptable and which behaviours are usually criticised. Observational learning allows people to adapt and approach situations more confidently quickly.
Next, we assess whether the observed person’s behaviour fits our personality and whether the results and reactions of others are desirable. If we decide that we would like to be praised and recognised for something, we analyse how the observed person came to this result. There is often not enough data to know on which factors the desired reaction depends. Therefore, it is often necessary to observe similar situations repeatedly to develop a better understanding.
After observation and assessment of a particular behaviour, imitation follows to achieve the desired consequence. Imitation can only happen within our personal limitations, e.g. physical traits, characteristics, and experiences. In most cases, the consequences of a behaviour depend on several factors. The views of the other person, place, time, one’s character, the situation, everything can play a role in how others react to something. Therefore, it usually takes repeated positive feedback for a behaviour to become a habit, but it only takes a little criticism to avoid it in the future.
A large part of social learning is based on the idea that people want to identify with others and their achievements, or earn the appreciation of those role models. As it is understood in social learning, identification is comparable to the Freudian notion of the Oedipus complex. A part of this concept is about internalising or adopting the behaviours of other people.
While the term imitation refers to only a single aspect, identification is about several learned behaviours coming together. Imitations, such as language use, attitude, habits, or views, help people achieve feeling similar to role models.
It is important to emphasise that while social learning is based on imitating another person’s behaviour, it can have completely different consequences. People are individuals, and so are the results of behaviour. Social learning should serve as a way to help you see if others’ successful behaviours work for you as well. However, it should not become a direct comparison of results. It is about trying new techniques, habits, and behaviours for yourself, but you should not expect to get the exact same results as your role model. Social learning is not about becoming a different person or modifying your personality to be more like someone else. It is about improving your skills and thus becoming better than you were yesterday.
There are various approaches to social learning that have been formulated and tested as hypotheses by several scientists and experts over time. However, the actual term was coined by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura. Social learning is based on Social Pedagogy, which also focuses heavily on children’s education. The first mention of a children’s character influenced by society’s social environment was by 18th century Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that human beings are fundamentally good but are unnaturally altered by society.
Building on this, Social Pedagogy emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in Germany through the known educationalists and philosophers Karl Mager, Paul Natorp, and Herman Nohl. They took ideas from great philosophers such as Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Plato and studied and defined the influence of the social environment and society on human beings and their development.
Social pedagogy is the idea that the upbringing of individuals is the responsibility of both parents and society. It is a relationship-centred approach of using learning, interpersonal connection, and well-being to overcome social inequality, also on a community level.
American psychologist Robert Richardson Sears investigated how children acquire values, views, and beliefs, and the influence parents have in this process. Among other things, he focused on stimulus-response theory – how people react to certain external stimuli. Reactions Sears investigated included aggression, resistance to temptation, and culturally determined values such as traditionally accepted gender roles. The influence of parenting methods, such as reward, warmth, punishment, and power structures, were also considered. This research provided an important foundation for work on social learning theory.
Bandura’s theory emphasises observing, modelling, and imitating other people’s behaviour, attitudes, and emotional reactions. It is about the influence of both environmental and cognitive factors on learning success as well as the overall behaviour of a person.
His theory is based on two concepts of behavioural psychology:
Based on these two concepts, Bandura put forward two hypotheses:
In contrast to Skinner, Bandura considers humans to be active information processors who think about the relationship between their behaviour and its consequences.
A person does not constantly observe their environment and learn. It requires an upstream thought process that activates learning through observation. We do not actively observe others in order to learn until we have concluded that our previous behaviour needs to be changed in a particular context. This process of considering whether or not we imitate a behaviour is what Bandura calls the mediation process.
According to Bandura, there are 4 processes that influence learning:
Learning through observation is a fundamental component of the human mind. Young children use this technique to imitate and understand the behaviour of other people, especially their parents. Later in life, children, adolescents and even adults continue to use other people as role models to influence their actions and behaviours. This includes parents, teachers, influencers, or even friends. We observe their behaviour and classify it into learned categories. For example, authority, dominance, and strength are classically masculine attributes, while empathy, gentleness, and subtlety tend to be classified as feminine, even though these are all gender-independent. Nevertheless, children automatically imitate the behaviour that society or their environment considers appropriate for their gender.
Initially, children imitate people who are more similar to them, i.e. initially of the same sex. The reactions of other people are then decisive in determining whether this behaviour is retained or relearned. Humans are always looking for recognition, so they choose their behaviour whenever possible to be praised for it. We also observe the reactions that are triggered by behaviour. The more we want to identify with the other person, the more likely we will imitate their behaviour. In technical jargon, this is called vicarious reinforcement.
However, reward and punishment only work if the type of recognition meets the person’s needs. Otherwise, it does not affect his or her behaviour. In the context of a workplace environment, offering someone the prospect of a promotion will not result in a behaviour change if the person is satisfied in his or her current role.
In 1986, this social learning theory was further developed into the Social Cognitive Theory. It states that learning occurs within a social framework. This social framework involves the constant change of individuals, shared interactions within an individual’s environment, and observing others’ behaviours.
Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky formulated his own theory about social learning. His focus was about how conversation and community are integral parts of learning. He thought that without the input of other human beings, we would not develop. This also includes the importance of the spoken word for learning and thought processes.
Vygotsky’s theories are more known in the field of collaborative learning.
Krumboltz is a known American psychology professor at Stanford University. He is not directly involved in the scientific hypothesis of social learning, but his name is often mentioned concerning professional social learning. He became best known for his work on social learning theory in relation to career development, on which he worked for two decades with other experts. Two hypotheses emerged, one of which is related to social learning.
This concept describes the basis on which we make career decisions. According to Krumboltz, there are four factors that we incorporate into decision-making processes. These factors influence each other in thousands of ways in unpredictable ways, shaping our beliefs and how we view the world and ourselves. These four factors are:
This theory supports and promotes social learning as an important factor in forming one’s own decisions since observing other people makes up a large part of our daily experiences. The point is that people should not commit to a career path, but act, perform, and learn. Based on the resulting experiences, our paths can be adapted and changed. The world, our work, and we, as individuals, are subject to constant change through learning and experience. Our path through work and life must also be able to change flexibly to address this.
Social learning also brings professional and psychological risks, which should be mentioned.
There are various ways in which social learning can be implemented in companies. If social learning techniques are naturally integrated into everyday life, it can be a time-saving way to learn. Social learning can also be an enormous relief for people who learn well in social settings, which offers additional benefits to companies who are looking to adopt this learning concept into their organisation.
In order to use social learning in corporate learning, various options involve varying degrees of effort.
The most obvious method is to form learning groups, as is often the case with face-to-face seminars. Several people are in the same room, learning about a new topic. There are different ways to learn more effectively through social interaction and observation:
This classic application of social learning is still the basis of schooling in most educational systems for children.
There are various ways to incorporate group learning into an organisation.
This is a special form of a learning group. One of the most effective methods to ignite one’s creativity and find innovative approaches to solutions is the so-called “spitballing”. Several people throw ideas and immature thoughts into the room and thus open a discussion. In later stages, this technique develops into more specific brainstorming, where well-founded ideas are further thought out in concrete terms and ultimately develop into strategies, processes or even products. There is no need to have a specific goal in mind at the outset, just a topic or problem.
Such sessions can be of any length and scope, with small groups of knowledgeable people being the most effective. Still, outsiders can often bring fresh ideas that others can’t see because of technical blindness. Even two colleagues at work can use this technique to reassess acute challenges and seek solutions. Occasionally, such sessions result in disputes, but if conducted in a civilised and professional manner, they can be enormously helpful in solving problems.
The point of such sessions is to think and discuss outside of otherwise pervasive structures and rules, to create space for innovation and creativity, and to learn from other employees.
Human behaviour is predictable in many areas. This knowledge can be used positively to promote learning. It is human nature to want to compare oneself with others, be better than others, or simply keep up.
With the right learning technology, things like gamification and internal networking can be used to share your learning progress with others.
Benchmarking also creates an internal competition that encourages other employees to acquire new skills to have a say, see themselves ranked higher than others, or catch up with colleagues’ progress. It is important to keep the meaning and rewards of results within reasonable bounds so that motivation to learn does not turn into competition and envy, affecting morale and ultimately damages productivity.
Benchmarking is all about comparing things, people, performance, results.
Leading by example is a unique form of internal benchmarking. It is not a novelty that superiors always have a specific role model function in addition to the distribution of work and leadership tasks. Many employees hope to move up to this or a comparable position themselves one day, so they automatically pay attention to how their supervisor behaves. At this point, social learning takes place quite naturally. The more positive, likeable and popular a superior is, the more likely their employees are to try to analyse and, if possible, imitate their behaviour.
When managers and people in senior positions do something, it is usually observed. Therefore, to motivate colleagues to learn, supervisors should use the available learning opportunities themselves and communicate this openly. Successful people, especially those in a person’s immediate environment, are always copied. To put this idea into practice, if a manager learns for half an hour every day, the employees will also learn more to adapt and strive for success.
People often associate social media with social learning. However, social media is not a form of social learning but a tool for facilitation. Because of the ubiquitous presence of technology and the internet, social media and video platforms give us the opportunity to share our experiences and knowledge with the whole world in the form of videos or texts. People from anywhere can learn from our experiences at any time. This concept has become so powerful that younger generations prefer it to the tried and true direct interaction with other people. However, many things are lost in the process, such as interpreting tone of voice, facial expressions or subtle cues.
Even in companies, intranets and chats can stimulate exchanges between colleagues who are otherwise physically distant and unlikely to ever meet in person. This supports and accelerates social learning, as long as it does not become the sole source of learning. Care should be taken to always view social media as a tool, not a universal solution.
Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter do not just provide content for diversion. Specialist groups, explanatory videos or forums for solving complex problems enable social learning even beyond the boundaries of the company or entire countries. As long as sensitive information is not shared, this can be incredibly helpful. In addition, sharing one’s own experiences on social media and forums has a practical side effect; it strengthens the company’s reputation as a subject matter expert and also offers new marketing options because it increases reach.
Social media gives us a myriad of ways to interact with other people around the globe on a professional level. Every company and person has to find the most useful options for themselves.
Sharing information doesn’t always have to involve social media. Many people spend a lot of time searching the internet for educational opportunities and informative content. There is now more learning content out there than anyone could count, let alone consume. Finding valuable information in this mass of data is not always easy.
So it pays to encourage sharing of such sources within your organisation. Regardless of the form of sharing, motivating employees to consume blogs, technical articles, videos or podcasts on relevant topics and share the best of them with their colleagues can be a great way to share knowledge and encourage skill improvements. An internal library of external knowledge sources can be just as valuable as a collection of eLearning content. If you can measurably incorporate these external sources into your learning platform, it’s even better. This way, you can additionally see which sources are most popular and draw conclusions about your learning content.
Social interactions with others have been an integral part of our being since the Stone Age. It is a constant need to communicate and exchange with others to feel accepted and comfortable and learn. Even completely mundane conversations can contain added values that help us move forward in life. The more companies encourage employees to interact with each other, the happier they will be, and the more often they will learn something from those interactions. When people work physically close together, they automatically talk about it when there are problems. Employees help each other find solutions, improve their work or make processes more efficient. The more opportunities there are for the contact between team members, the better the exchange works in a professional environment.
General exchange doesn’t have a fixed learning goal. Simple conversations between colleagues can benefit learning and increase social skills. Any kind of social activity within an organisation can serve as a starting point for this.
In addition to classic group projects with regular meetings, there are many more ways to collaborate in teams without leaving the workplace in today’s digital age. There are numerous software solutions such as Google for Business, Microsoft 360 or Dropbox that enable teams and workgroups to collaborate on the same documents at the same time, and contribute their knowledge and expertise. This saves time because everyone can work on it simultaneously, and it allows colleagues to work together effectively even if they are working in separate countries.
Using the communication tools included in digital solutions, such as Hangouts, Teams or Slack, spontaneous video chats and meetings on current topics and challenges can be implemented immediately and spontaneously, even if it only takes a few minutes. This type of networking strengthens the sense of community and reduces the inhibition threshold to approach previously unknown colleagues for information exchange.
Although Knowledge Management is mainly supposed to make use of internal information as effectively as possible, there are social learning benefits included.
Many organisations already have systems and platforms that manage content and report back usage data when it comes to learning. This makes sense for a controlled learning environment, but it usually excludes the interpersonal part. Modern learning platforms or learning ecosystems, like Valamis, enable collaborative content such as digital group work and collaborative learning paths and courses with fixed participants and known colleagues. These platforms allow employees to work together on learning tasks, exchange ideas, and enhance the learning environment.
In addition, platforms such as Valamis enable a social learning network. Employees can recommend content to each other, track their colleagues’ progress, exchange specific information, and even compete against each other in leaderboards. This makes it much easier to follow a colleague’s steps toward a promotion, bonus, or skill. Instead of envy, you give employees a clear path by which they can also achieve their goals. Platforms like Valamis are continually improving to be a one-stop-shop for all possible kinds of social learning in a digital solution.
Combine features like personalisation, analytics, or skills matrices with sharing or integrating external learning sources, using digital collaboration tools for group tasks, incorporating content from other social media, and enabling video or chat sessions for brainstorming. You can have powerful solutions that combine many proven and modern social learning approaches to improve your organisation’s chances for success.