Social Learning: The Secret Ingredient for Successful Workplace Learning and Development

Social Learning: The Secret Ingredient for Successful Workplace Learning and Development

As workplace learning remains a high priority in global companies, nearly half of American workplace learning in 2016 was delivered electronically. The convenience of the digital platform makes tailored learning accessible: employees can learn the very specific skills they need right now, delaying additional training until they need it. As companies allocate training dollars, continuous, on-demand learning provides the effective skill development many seek.

This individualized approach may be efficient, but is it sufficient?  

Edward Hopper_Office in a Small City

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953, [Fair Use] via

In a fascinating study, scholars Scott Sonenshein, Jane Dutton and Adam Grant looked at how people perceived their personal growth at work. They interviewed employees in three organizations (two for-profit and one non-profit), asking them to share stories of growth and their explanations for that growth. For these 55 employees, growing reflected the unique “organizational context” of the workplace: for one company, growing was expressed as achieving; for another, learning; and for the third, helping. These characteristics echoed the overall culture of each organization and linked individual accomplishment to collective efforts. But employees in all three companies described the characteristics in deeply social terms: contributing to group performance, helping others, or learning new skills in a peer environment safe enough to make mistakes.  

This social learning is the secret sauce for sustainable growth and development. Through interpersonal engagement, employees explore new ideas, reflect, refine and embody collective ideals to shape and follow their personal development journey. This growth not only fosters a sense of accomplishment, greater satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem, it also contributes to the social resources accessed by, and available to, everyone in the organization.

At Books@Work, social interaction forms the bedrock of our work, and not surprisingly, drives its outcomes: opening participants to new experiences and points of view. A participant reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures commented on her discoveries in discussing the book with her colleagues: “[We got to hear other] experiences [from] participants who were women of color and they had specific things they wanted to talk about. [The book] establishes a way to look at things differently and learn and grow and expand but it does that in a safe way.”   

This collective learning only deepens over time and consistent exposure to others. Another participant sheds unique light on the impact of his learning (on himself and his team):

“The people who are shy are encouraged to speak up more. . . even before their thoughts are fully formed. Just to say what’s on their heart and how they’re feeling, and how the story makes you feel, and abandon this idea of trying to have the right answer.”

As a decidedly not-shy team member himself, his continued reflections reveal a deeper growth in self-awareness and interpersonal engagement, an insight he could only have developed in relation to the others:

“I’ve learned to just communicate through active listening. . . I feel like I was always aware of my air time, but it was aware in a way like, if no one else is talking, well then I can jump in. And now, if no one else is talking, I’m going to encourage someone else to talk, rather than just fill that time, fill that air. So I think there’s a thing happening in our community where we’re all kind of seeing where we fit and encouraging each other. . . So there’s a balancing happening, which is nice and allows for some more diverse dialogue.”

Although technology and digital learning brilliantly grant us access to the nugget of knowledge we need right now, we are not islands. We encounter each other, we bump heads, we disagree. Our unique perspectives shape the way we perceive the world, independent of the diverse perspectives and styles of others. Opening ourselves to these other views through social learning and emotional engagement enhances our ability to apply new knowledge, navigate the workplace and grow into our best selves and workplace contributors.

Image: Jamie Wyeth, New Growth, 1971, [Fair Use] via

Learn More About Books@Work or Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.