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John Costello


Chief Technology Officer

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Blog: Does social learning really work?


Have you ever been reluctant to seek assistance from someone inside your organisation, perhaps afraid of losing face because you need help?

High performers communicate with their colleagues
In a series of experiments, MIT Professor Tom Allen1 found that people are more likely to look outside their own organisation for ideas, while at the same time these ideas sourced from outside are less useful than those sourced from inside the organisation.
The paradox is described succinctly by Allen, “Those information sources that reward the user by contributing more to his performance are used less than those that do not”.
I was reminded of this paradox during recent conversations at the L&D connect unconference and during a meeting with an R&D team at a multinational electronics company.
The scenarios described in these conversations were similar; individuals reaching out to their network, reading the literature, attending conferences to seek information and ideas, while in the organisation there existed a rich, untapped resource of people and ideas.
It is essential to take new knowledge and information into an organisation. However, most of the time, most of us should also look to our colleagues if we want to achieve superior results.
Risk adverse behaviour and the cost of loosing face
The paradox can be explained when the decision process of the information seeker is examined in more detail. Gerstberger and Allen2 examined the cost, as well as the benefits, to be expected from an information source.
Asking a colleague was perceived as high cost, as it was an admission that you needed help, didn’t understand something you may have been expected to know and the risk of losing face was perceived to be high. In contrast seeking information from outside was perceived as low cost.
Interestingly they found that the decision makers were risk adverse, focusing only on the cost of the information source. In fact the higher benefit of sourcing information from a colleague had no impact on the decision.
This risk aversion is a common finding in the psychology of decision making and helps explain the apparent paradox described by Allen.
Social engagement – Lowering the perceived cost of consulting colleagues
In another study Allen et al3 looked at the role of informal relationships on communications networks in companies. He concluded, “Simply stated, people are more willing to ask questions of others whom they know, than of strangers”.
His advice to management is to increase the number of acquaintanceships within the organisation. He recommends an active program of transfers of personnel between different parts of the organisation and also support for cross functional projects where acquaintances can form.
There is a lot of discussion at the moment in learning and development circles about social learning and it means different things to different people. John Curran wrote a good summary of this in his recent blog post ‘What is social learning?’ .
Some see it as learning through social media content (i.e. youtube etc) and others that it’s about learning from each other on social networks.
I suggest that company social networks can contribute to social learning by building acquaintances and lowering the perceived cost of consulting colleagues on important work related tasks, leading to better outcomes and higher performance.
Building trust
You could counter that real relationships, and high bandwith exchange of information, require face to face communication. I have personal experience of work relationships beginning on-line and then moving offline for high quality exchange of ideas and building deeper relationships.
My point is that the online relationships allows people to gain enough trust in one another to make it more likely that they will progress to an off line relationship and to helping one another out with ideas and information that benefit the organisation.
This tweet from @MervynDinnen highlights the point "Friendships are made eyeball to eyeball not on social media says @ProfCaryCooper – ignoring that many take online relationships offline"
The research that I have cited is quite old, however I believe still valid. I have heard Tom Allen speak several times in recent years and he has continued his research in this area right up to this day.
I’ll be attending ‘ConnectingHR Unconference – The Power of a Socially Engaged Organisation‘ on the 16th of May 2012, and I hope to learn more on this topic there. It would be interesting to hear your experience. Can social engagement reduce the risk of losing face and boost performance?
  1. T.J. Allen "Communication networks in R&D laboratories", R&D Management, 1971, vol 1, 14-21
  2. Gerstberger, P. G.  Allen, T. J. (1968) ‘Criteria used in the selection of information channels by R&D engineers’. Journal of Applied Psychology, V01. 52.
  3. Allen, T.J., Gerstenfeld, A., Gerstberger, P. G (1968) "The Problem of Internal Consulting in the R&D Laboratory", Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, Working Paper No. 319-68.

John Costello, chief technology officer at online career development tool provider, careergro.

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One Response

  1. Looking else where

     I totally agree with the point that people are all to ready and keen to look outside of their company rather than implementing ‘home grown’ strategies. It is as you have said far more convenient and easier to look within your company/division for ideas and to get your creative juices flowing.

    Dave Evans Commercial Director at accessplanit Specialist in Course Registration Software and training management software

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John Costello

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