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Bola Owoade

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Book Review – The New Social Learning By Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner


The New Social Learning


With a 4.5 rating on Amazon and 15 comments written in the book, some from heavy weights in the industry, this is a well lauded book. Whether you see that as hype or not, this is definitely a book worth reading. Even 4 years after it was published, social learning still seems like an enigma to a lot of us in learning and development. There are more questions than answers. What is it? When and how would you use it? Can it be managed or evaluated? Is it just a fad? Or is it just about technology? Maybe it's more appropriate for generation Y and Z? This book answers some of those questions. Written by Tony Bingham, the current President and CEO of ASTD and Marcia Conner, it puts forth a convincing argument as to why social learning should be embraced using theoretical facts and practical examples from case studies. The first chapter in the book sets out to define social learning, explain why it is important and identifies what is driving it. Using interesting insights from other thought leaders and evidence of changes happening around us the authors put forth a case for social learning in a writing style that flows and is engaging. From reading the book one gets the notion that the two authors are writing from a vantage point of deep experience and a passion to see learning and development have a greater influence in the workplace by embracing social learning. The book has:

  • A table of contents
  • Foreword by Daniel H. Pink
  • Introduction by both authors
  • 7 chapters
  • Afterword
  • An appendix
  • Session on notes and resources
  • A bit about the authors
  • An index
  • 193 pages

The book also has an accompanying website at

Following is a brief overview of each chapter.

Chapter One - The 36,000 - Feet View: This chapter opens with a narrative of an executive who realizes that being a successful leader now requires collaboration and engaging with others. It then moves on to discuss how the workplace has changed which in a way is a compelling reason for adopting social learning. Other topics discussed are what is the new social learning? Why is it happening now, which outlines three factors driving social learning. An important question is also answered - Is social learning really learning. Appropriately following that question is a session on answering critics who may oppose the idea of social learning. The chapter concludes with a social learning case study from the CIA.

Chapter Two - Paving Online Community Roads: Starting from this chapter to the last one a case studies about how social learning has been applied are discussed. The first one is from Deloitte about an internal online community that was set up to foster collaboration called "D Street". While it does not go into any technical details about how the online community was set up, it presents some overview information about why it was set up and the impact it has had. The authors use this as an opportunity to also discuss how to make a case for online communities within an organisation. There is also a session titled responding to critics  which is a feature of every chapter.

Chapter Three - Share Stories Around, Up and Out: This chapter is all about sharing, particularly using video. There are a lot of ideas on how to use video and examples from companies such as TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, Marathon Oil, and Nokia are used to explain how video is used to build a case for media sharing and how video is used to support problem solving and make tacit knowledge explicit. The section on responding to critics helps to dispel some of the myths around using video while recommendations gives some ideas on what to do to start implementing the use of video.

Chapter Four - Microsharing For a Healthy College: If you don't believe in using Twitter then this chapter might just convince you to start doing so. A strong and rather compelling case is put forth on the contribution that microsharing can make to learning and development. The case study of how Mayo Clinic in the USA uses microsharing is very interesting, and it shows how organizations even very large ones can use microsharing to their advantage. Even more beneficial is advice given in this chapter on how to ask good questions with Twitter and recommendations on how to participate in microsharing. And off course the bit on how to respond to critics is very valuable.

Chapter Five - Growing Collective Intelligence: Wikipedia is the worlds largest online collaborative encyclopedia, but how about having some kind of Wikipedia for your own organization where people can collaborate on creating information and learning on all sorts of topics important to the organization. The authors use the CIA as an example to show the resourcefulness of having wikis internal to an organization. Wikis can become a repository of information and learning that can help people to be more responsive in their work because they have quick access to crucial information. A term used to support the advantages of using wiki-like tools to creating information collaboratively is Collective IQ, defined as a measure of how well people work collectively on important problems and challenges.  Such tools enable people to work together on solving problems and also provide a single destination where people can bring their ideas together. The tool the CIA created was called Intellipedia, and the creators of the tool offer some advice on qualities that can help such tools succeed which is presented in this chapter. Again some advice on responding to critics and recommendations are given towards the end of the chapter.

Chapter Six - Immersive Environments Refine Learning: This chapter deals with an area that most learning practitioners know about, but might not have worked with yet, at least from my point of view. Immersive environments as explained here refers to virtual environments where close to real life situations can be simulated to help people practice skills and responses to situations. Examples of Chevron, an oil company dealing with a refinery shutdown, Loyalist College in Canada helping students to learn about managing border security and Defense Acquisition University, part of the U.S Department of Defense building an immersive environment to help students learn about acquisition processes using avatars. Various aspects of immersive environments are explored such as virtual words (think second life), simulations, and multi-player games in virtual environments. The goal of using immersive environments as explained by the authors is to get people to learn collaboratively in these environments by solving problems, learning how to respond to situations and using feedback. Virtual environments can be used to simulate situations that either can't be replicated or would be more risky in real life and this makes it advantageous in scenario learning. Objections against using it might come in the form of :it's too sci-fi, too expensive and it's not natural, but these are dealt with by the authors. Recommendations on how to get started using the technology to aid learning and development conclude the chapter.

Chapter Seven: Connecting the Dots at In-Person Events: This is the last chapter which starts by using the Handheld Learning Conference to explain how people use social media to engage, connect and learn. Combining online communities, social media tools such as Twitter and the use of video, people attending a conference can connect to each other before meeting, discuss conference topics online and record what they are learning for later use. Interestingly how people now respond in conferences is also discussed. Have you ever experienced speaking to a bunch of people and they are busy looking at their phones and tablets? This can seem unnerving for the speaker but they might be tweeting what the speaker is saying, doing online searches or just recording information. How to deal with scenarios like this is discussed and some of the advantages of this behaviour such as real time participation, real time focus and real time innovation are highlighted. An aspect I found very interesting were some ways discussed to capture knowledge from a conference for later. These included, just-in-time books compiled from speaker content, tweetbooks consisting of tweets from an event, live blogging and live video blogging. The chapter ends with the usual: responding to critics and recommendations.

The book has an Afterthought section. These two statements from the Afterthought kind of sum up some sentiments captured in the book:

  1. Social medial has arrived, regardless of your participation. People are social and will connect with the technologies. You have two choices for involvement - get in the way or get on board. In other words you can't avoid it so it's best you start using it.
  2. Start from where you are. Do what you can. Ask for help. Really that means start NOW!

For me this was a thought provoking book and it prompted me to look at using tools like Yammer, WordPress and YouTube in my organization. So do I recommend the book? Yes, definitely. Reading it will give you some ideas about what people are doing and how you can start incorporating social media into your learning repertoire if you have not already started.

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Bola Owoade

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