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Jonathan Marshall


Head of Learning, Diplomatic Academy

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Learning groups: seven things we’ve realised about social learning


Social learning can empower teams to not only learn better, but more collaboratively by taking ownership of their learning journey. Here's what we learned by implementing a social learning strategy with a huge global workforce. 

People are used to going on courses. They're used to experts, trainers and senior people standing at the front of the room and talking. This is the image people have in their mind when you talk about learning/training. 

We’ve all spent thousands of hours in classrooms, doodling and yawning, so we all know what learning looks like – don’t we?

When the Foreign Office’s Diplomatic Academy decided to launch its new foundation level, we decided to try to stimulate learning groups across 200+ locations in a global workforce of 14,500 people. 

No trainers, no formal courses, no experts on planes. We wanted teams to organise the face-to-face element for themselves, based around the e-learning, online materials and guidance.

Here are seven things we learnt about social learning - some of them the hard way. 

Make it good, basic and incomplete

You’re not delivering this learning, you’re providing the means for others to deliver it. You’re supplying the bricks and the scaffolding, but they’re building the house. 

An example: we gave our embassies a template for running a workshop on understanding parliament. It included slides, graphics, videos, links and a quiz - but we also built deliberate gaps into the design. 

We asked embassies to find a local member of staff to lead a discussion on the local parliament, and to find a colleague who’d worked with MPs to talk about what they learnt. We asked them to connect their workshop to a forthcoming visit by a UK parliamentarian.

You’re supplying the bricks and the scaffolding, but they’re building the house. 

In the jargon, we encouraged 'co-creation' – or to put it another way, we gave them the flatpack from IKEA, not the ready-made desk. 

After some initial nervousness (one typical refrain was, “but we’re not trainers”), this worked really well.  Keeping it basic meant it wasn’t too intimidating, and keeping it incomplete allowed it to be adapted to local priorities.

The power of guidance

Before their confidence builds, teams will value all the hints, tips, templates, suggestions and examples of best practice you can give them. 

Invest in a really clear and attractive format for this guidance. Paradoxically, the clearer the guidance, the more confident they will feel in moving beyond it. 

We were worried about too much hand-holding at the beginning, but we shouldn’t have; people are very happy to ignore your advice, but they want it to be there, especially if they’re fitting this new thing around very busy jobs. On the IKEA analogy, your guidance is the crucial Allen key.

Cherish the champions

When it comes to champions, you know the sort of people you're looking for - they're the people who organise the social events, the leaving cards, the charity events, the cake sales. Without them a team is much poorer. 

There’s a type of person with the enthusiasm to set up and maintain a learning group – probably a lifelong learner, the sort of person who can start an online course and get beyond week one – and these are the champions you need. 

Where someone had been told to be the L&D champion by their ambassador, it didn’t really work.

We have a global network of L&D champions, but we realised the job title isn’t enough. 

Where someone had been told to be the L&D champion by their ambassador, it didn’t really work – but where they volunteered, or where someone simply picked up the role without the job title, they were unstoppable, and a superb source of honest feedback. 

Don’t rely on grade, position, anything like that; search out the best champions, and invest in them with awards, special conferences and all the 'thank yous' you can muster.

Block the lurking lecturers

Some people seized rather too enthusiastically on the idea of 'self-facilitated workshops' to grab the role of lecturer for themselves.

One well-meaning facilitator reported that our workshop timing could be much shorter, as he’d “scrapped the group discussion bits – they didn’t seem to add much value” and “cracked through” the material in half the time. 

Do everything you can to promote the idea of a shared experience, especially through design. People who share are great, people who dominate are not.

Offer glamour and biscuits

Even the best social learning initiative won’t sell itself. Use every trick in the book to create publicity, stimulate curiosity, and make sure people can get something out of it for themselves. 

We created an awards ceremony for learning groups and invited Prince William to present the prizes. 

We created a City & Guilds Diploma for those who wanted a qualification (our minister asked us to make the certificate even more impressive – he’d obviously got the point).  

If all else fails, offer biscuits.

We also encouraged ambassadors to open and attend learning groups. Not all of our ambassadors are glamorous, possibly, but all of them are leaders, and the role modelling benefit is obvious.  

If all else fails, offer biscuits.

You’ll need special arrangements

Some groups will be disadvantaged by an approach which relies on local teams sparking into life. 

Two groups stood out for us: those staff who needed to work through the whole of foundation in a year to pass the diploma as part of their eligibility for promotion; and staff in small posts, where it was genuinely more difficult to gain the critical mass needed for a learning group. 

For our promotion candidates, spread across multiple teams in London, we established an 'accelerated' learning group with a dedicated facilitator. 

For more isolated staff, we’ve found it more difficult. We’ve encouraged experiments with 'virtual' groups, but the truth is we haven’t got the perfect working solution yet.

Social learning: part of the solution

Look at what your leaders worry about, then look at how social learning can be the answer to your leaders’ prayers. 

For instance, our leaders are often concerned about the disjointedness of their embassy team. There are so many barriers and differences: people from different government departments working in different offices, physical security restrictions, the mix of local staff and diplomats.

There are language, hierarchy and cultural differences. In a small team it’s essential that people know and understand each other. 

Regular learning groups offer the chance for people from different sections to mingle. Teams can take the lead on their own subjects. 

When we surveyed our leaders, a high number reported a positive impact from foundation level, and 78% of those cited an 'improved culture of learning' – even more than those citing 'improved knowledge and skills'.

Regular learning groups offer the chance for people from different sections to mingle.

Those are just seven of the things we learnt. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we built foundation level on a grand theoretical analysis - it was a pragmatic response to a broad learning need in a very diverse and global organisation. 

We were influenced by the success of learning sets and active L&D committees - and by earlier experiments with helping L&D champions to become local facilitators - but it’s fair to say that Kurt Lewin, Albert Bandura, Lev Vygotsky and others were overlooked in our initial discussions (although not Reg Revans). 

There is a future article to be written about the relevance of social constructivism, peer and social learning theories and cooperative or base group learning. 

For the moment, however, we’re happy that the team in Mogadishu managed to get through much of foundation level in the garden without disturbance from incoming mortars. Even the close protection guys got involved. Now that’s social learning.

Interested in this topic? Read Activate & amplify: Making social learning work.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I especially appreciate the candor and realistic approach “it was a pragmatic response to a broad learning need in a very diverse and global organisation”.

  2. I enjoyed reading this
    I enjoyed reading this article, it resonated with me wholeheartedly as I am processing whether learning groups could potentially take off in my organisation. Can you elaborate a little more with your virtual learning component? What tools did you use, how was it received globally?
    Would appreciate any advice you are happy to share.
    Thanks Linda

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for the
      Hi Linda, thanks for the comment. We were also uncertain whether learning groups would take off, and they haven’t in all parts of the organisation, and some groups started and then ran out of “oomph” – but overall we feel it’s been a success – and probably the beginning of a long journey..

      On the virtual learning, we provided a curriculum structure of 40 separate units of learning, divided into eight modules (themes like Security, Prosperity, UK and the World etc). Each unit represented an hour or two of learning and consisted of a blend of: e-learning (maybe 50-60% of total), other digital resources (docs, slides, videos, links) and workshop guides for people to run their own sessions locally. Example of a “self-facilitated workshop” was a workshop on Parliament – we provided some slides, some video of Ministers and MPs talking about Parliament, a background doc, a quiz and a suggested workshop structure – whilst encouraging our Embassies to adapt it as they saw fit, using local knowledge and making it relevant to local work as far as possible.

      I could go on and on..!! – but hopefully that gives an idea.

  3. Good points here, thanks for
    Good points here, thanks for describing the challenges you faced and where you still face some challenges. Refreshing.

    I’d take a little issue with volunteers vs appointees. My experience is that busy people are the ones you want involved and often they have too little time to do the job they already have. Volunteers can be individuals with time on their hands because their colleagues have already discounted the value of their freely offered advice. They may be more like the person you mention who ‘cut out all the discussion’ – in other words they love the sound of their own voice to the exclusion of everyone else’s.

    Clearly I’m not suggesting press ganging individuals to do extra work when they’re already over-stretched, but identify those who have expertise and knowledge to share and help them negotiate the time to be available to support – certainly to get things going in the first place.

    It’s also reassuring that your take on ‘social’ is something other than twitter feeds or people uploading YouTube videos or instagram-ing their breakfast.


    1. Thanks Robin, yes that’s a
      Thanks Robin, yes that’s a really good point. Learning groups benefited hugely from the contributions of very busy, expert and senior people – I think the trick is to make all the logistics really easy for them (just turn up) and to invite them to talk about their special insights – whether into a technical subject or a competence like leadership. Everybody likes talking about what they’ve learned, people usually enjoy the chance to reflect, and people usually really want to share insights with colleagues – in an altruistic way (ok there’s a touch of ego as well, we’re all human) – but you really need to provide the platform and clear away all the hassle involved in setting it up.

      On L&D Champions as an organisational role, we’ve seen failures when people who aren’t particularly interested or motivated have been asked to be the driving force of a learning group – but spectacular results when the role is picked up by an enthusiast. So different things I think.

      Thanks again!

  4. Great blog and perfect timing
    Great blog and perfect timing as a few of us are starting a new Dip Practice Learning Group. Happy to share how it goes. We’ve already had a few of these discussions and will aim off a gradist approach to membership. What other pitfalls are ahead? What other great learning is ahead? We’ll see – I’m very keen to avoid a presenteeism approach and free up ideas to work on real world problems.

    1. Hi Ian, we’d love to hear how
      Hi Ian, we’d love to hear how the group goes if you’d like to share your experiences in an article or blog in the future?
      It’s great to see Jonathan’s piece generate so much discussion, and we’re trying to get more personal experiences and learning experiments on to the site 🙂

    2. Thanks Ian. Brilliant
      Thanks Ian. Brilliant initiative, really hope it takes off.. – happy to chat about it!

Author Profile Picture
Jonathan Marshall

Head of Learning, Diplomatic Academy

Read more from Jonathan Marshall

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