Interview with Marcia Conner, co-author of The New Social Learning



Connect. Collaborate. Work.

Seems simple enough? Then why is it so hard to do this in the work place? It doesn’t have to be – you just need the right approach and social media can help. The second edition of  The New Social Learning was just released at the end of October.  And in this newly revised and updated edition, Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner dispel organizational myths and fears about social media.

By sharing the success stories of socially engaged companies and people, the second edition persuasively makes the case for giving social media a place at the conference table by encouraging knowledge transfer and real-time learning in a connected and engaging way.

I am thrilled that I was able to interview one of the authors of The New Social Learning, Marcia Conner. Prior to this book release and interview I came across Marcia on Twitter. She is a funny, spirited and passionate person who really wants to make a difference in the work place and the way we connect and share.

1) Can you define Social Learning for my readers that may not be aware of what it is?

Marcia: Social learning is joining with others to make sense of ideas and the world around us. It’s learning with people, in person or afar assisted by social technologies. Modern social tools can now augment learning by bridging distance and time, enabling people to easily interact across workplace, passion, curiosity, skill, or need.

We experience social learning when we go down the hall to ask a question of a colleague and when we post that same question on Twitter anticipating someone will respond. It can be self-organizing, informal and ad-hoc, or orchestrated by facilitators interested in encouraging others to learn.

Humans have been learning socially since they developed the capacity to communicate. Think smoke signals, carrier pigeons, notes passed in class, hand written letters, morse code. No one would confuse those with training, nor argue they weren’t instructive, helping people learn. A class on how to write a letter would be considered social learning no more than an instructor-led or self-directed course on how to use LinkedIn–yet each could incorporate opportunities for students to make sense of the materials together. Tony and I, in the book, describe “the new social learning” as not just the technologies of social media, although it makes use of them. It’s not merely the ability to express ourselves in a group of opt-in friends, either. The new social learning combines social media tools with shifts in organizational (and national) cultures, shifts that encourage ongoing knowledge transfer and connects people in ways they find enjoyable, relevant, and in the context of their lives.

Given the loss of our friend Jay Cross last week, I’m reminded of something he said that we quote in the book (that you can use how you see fit). 

“To learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks,” said Jay Cross. “Learning is social. Most learning is collaborative. Other people are providing the context and the need, even if they’re not in the room.” [From C. Malamed, “Informal Learning: An Interview with Jay Cross,” The eLearning Coach,] 

2) What made you decide to release a second edition of The New Social Learning?

Marcia: The world has changed so much since we wrote the first edition six years ago, when mobile and social technologies were still new and unproven. A few years ago leaders began asking Tony and me questions about how to ensure people were benefiting from social learning approaches, rather than those we used to hear asking if it was something they should consider.

In the second edition, we wanted to focus on how to take social approaches to the next level, realizing leaders no longer needed anyone making the case that social media was invaluable for learning. It was time to share new approaches to measurement, tried and true implementation practices and which traditional training and management behaviors to avoid in leaders’ quest to lead into the future.

3) How has social learning changed the workplace? 

Marcia: Social learning itself hasn’t changed the workplace. Unless people in your workplace aren’t allowed to interact with one another, they’ve always been learning socially. Sure, that’s been supplemented with some training or more formal approaches to instruction, but the primary way people have learned through the ages is informally and together.

Worldwide, people now have more access to mobile phones than they do to running water. Across the globe, people rely on mobile and social technologies to connect and collaborate, share information. and often create change. It barely registers when we engage with co-workers who live on the other side the world. We unite around ideas and experiences without regard for geographic boundaries. We’re connected with colleagues and friends across the planet as easily as if they were down the hall.

4) What argument do you give to CEOs or leaders that don’t want to incorporate social learning in the workplace? 

Marcia: I’ve worked with corporate executives for over 20 years and have never heard even one of them object to people using available modern tools to learn more, faster, and with greater ease. Never.

Popular opinion about the value of mobile and social technologies has shifted dramatically in recent years. Most CEOs, along with the rest of us, would feel lost without the swift connections social media tools afford. Leaders see that thousands of organizations and the millions of people within them have made this shift, strengthening and widening a global culture of learning–and that’s called “getting work done” rather than “learning” — and it doesn’t’ require “training.” With the assistance of social tools, people ask important questions, observe subtle patterns, and connect previously disconnected groups. We, collectively, are stronger for it.

The people who have challenged the workplace value of incorporating social and relationship-oriented approaches to learning are those who believe they have a right or obligation to control how (and what) others learn. They usually work in the Learning & Development corner of the organization or for a vendor who sells into L&D. Rather than argue with them, I ask them how they, as individuals, learn and if they learn best when someone else controls the message and approach–or if they themselves prefer a more social interactive interpersonal way to learn.

When they reflect on their own experience, they usually begin to articulate for themselves the value of learning in less controlled environments, in favor of more context-driven models, from and with those they trust and respect, in relationship with one another. Then they begin asking for the techniques they should use to bring social media into their traditional programs, which is still more control-oriented than it should be most of the time, but it’s a start. If educators would take the time to consider deeply (and begin to unravel) the control they believe they have, no argument would be necessary. What would be needed instead is career counseling, support groups, and an expanding opportunity for everyone in every organization to think of themselves as educators and learners.

5) What can CEOs and leaders do to help create a social learning environment at work? 

Marcia: The leaders who have had the most success fostering vibrant learning cultures assuage the fears some employees have that leadership isn’t really in favor of working in new ways. They do this not by talking about it, rather through their actions. Enlightened CEOs and leader models for others how learning can be—how learning should be—and how learning will be far into the future. By learning non-stop from peers, employees, and the world around them, and letting others see both the process and what’s being learned, they are showing there’s so much for all of us to learn. Few things convey we care more than paying attention and upping the knowledge store of what together we know. When people are engaged and attended to they feel good, perform well, and the whole organization will be better off for it. That’s the sort of environment wants.

The best way to get started on the path to social learning (no matter our role in an organization) is to think about what we want to learn, make a commitment to learning it in front of others, and to share what we learn along the way. This becomes a generative cycle that will keep us informed and curious for the rest of our lives–and will foster a culture where people learn quickly and can take action quickly because they’re well informed. People aren’t just consuming information, they’re making sense of it together and improving it as they go forward.

6) How do you win over employees that are resistant to change and accepting this new social dynamic?

Marcia: I can’t remember the last time I met someone who didn’t have too much to do. We are all overburdened by our obligations, the requests for our time, and the information swirling around us. It’s no wonder some people can’t imagine how they can be expected to add “being responsible for learning what you need to learn” along with everything else.

The key to adding this to our daily mix is to use social approaches to replace activities that no longer work. Take for example spending half of all meetings updating one another on what we’ve done since we last met. Instead, convey (and glean) that information across your company’s social network. It will take far less time and likely help you prepare for the meeting simultaneously. Boom! That’s at least 30 minutes you’ve now gained in your day to do something more important. We feature in the book several companies who adopted this new practice with great results, some of them even tracking how much money it’s also saved.

7) Any tips on creating a social learning environment that is successful?

Marcia: Encourage people to look at how they work today and what they could do more effectively if they used social tools instead of their current practices. These shouldn’t be learning-focused specifically, rather any outmoded policies and activities that are wasting more time than they’re creating. By freeing up people’s time and attention, they’ll appreciate the new approaches and without even realizing it, find themselves learning along the way.

About Marcia

Marcia Conner is a SupporTED Mentor and a fellow at the Darden School of Business. She is one of the co-authors of The New Social Learning, now in its second edition. Learn more about the book at and connect with the authors on Twitter @NewSocialLearn

About the Book

The New Social Learning would make a great Christmas gift! Give it to your employees, boss, manager and family members who love reading non-fiction and business books. Pick up several copies on Amazon.

This book lays the foundation for improving the way you engage with colleagues, collaborate with teams anywhere in the world, and build workforce capability.Explore case studies from leading companies such as Boston Children’s Hospital, National Australian Bank, LAZ Parking, Sanofi Pasteur, Cigna, CENTURY 21, and Roche Pharmaceuticals.

Take the next step to connect skills and knowledge—and move your own organization forward—as you reclaim and revolutionize workplace learning.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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