Where have all the learning spaces gone?

16 May
May 16, 2013

Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+.  The list of social media sites continues to grow at an alarming rate and this merely underlines the power of social media in today’s business world.

But stepping aside from the virtual world, I’m left wondering where the real learning spaces have gone to, and this is the subject of this week’s post.

Where have all the learning spaces gone?

I’m wondering where we learnt before these wonderful social media tools were developed?

We learnt in the churches and the pubs and the markets.  We exchanged information in the coffee shops; indeed the coffee houses of London birthed entire industries.  The Lloyds of London insurance market famously began in Edward Lloyds coffee house around 1688 in Tower Street, London.  His establishment was a popular place for sailors, merchants and ship owners, and Lloyd catered to them with reliable shipping news.  The shipping industry community frequented the place to discuss insurance deals among themselves.  It was a place for social learning.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned “The New Social Learning” by Bingham and Conner as being one of the books that is really showing up on the learning and development radar.  According to page 39:  “In a landmark study, Richard J Light of the Harvard Graduate School of Education discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students success in higher education – more important than their instructor’s teaching styles – was their ability to form or participate in small study groups.  People who studied in groups, even once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.”  Note what’s being said here; studying in groups, not networks or remotely but together, socially – in learning spaces!

Learning in spaces

Some years ago a Japanese company was working on a bread maker – this was to be the next big kitchen consumer item.  The scientists knew exactly how bread was made, they had the chemical recipe ready and all that stuff.

But could they get it to work?  No way; they just couldn’t.  In the end they had to go and talk to a master baker, and guess what, there were some key things that they just didn’t know about or understand, things that only a master baker knew.  And when they’d taken this tacit knowledge into account they were able to alter the design of their bread maker so that perfect bread was made each time, every time.

I appreciate that people reading this post will claim that what I’ve described is knowledge transfer, but bear with me.  Within so many of the social networks, what’s exchanged IS knowledge rather than learning.  As with the above example, the learning only took place when other conversations were allowed to happen; when people spoke and looked at each other and asked questions and then turned that knowledge into something real.

Sumeet Moghe who blogs as “The Learning Generalist” talks in one of his excellent posts about how we should remember that social learning is not all about the technology, and we seem to have missed this at some point.  There is so much talk about social media/learning tools because they are new and funky and cool.  They certainly transcend geographical and political boundaries (which is a real help), but they are not the be-all and end-all of social learning.

According to Sumeet, there are seven ways to facilitate social learning without an over-reliance on technology.  I’ve also added some additional notes to support Sumeet’s thinking:

  1. Change team spaces to encourage conversations, sharing and collaborative problem-solving.  The respected pharmaceutical company Novartis has designed its Basel offices specifically to encourage sharing and conversations via people rather than technology.  HP famously used to sound a bell for break times so that people would talk to each other and spread learning.  John Caudwell, the ex-owner of Phones-4-U used to turn off email at his head office so that people would communicate face-to-face as he felt this built deeper relationships and better business
  2. Adopt brown bag lunches where people can share the latest and greatest that they’ve learnt about in recent days.  Dell has used this for years with stunning results.  Think of this as an informal corporate show and tell.  You get to learn, you get to meet people and you get to eat!
  3. Pecha-Kucha nights (20 slides with no more than 20 seconds a slide) provide a forum to share their ideas in a fun way, in a short amount of time.  It really focuses the mind!  The e-Learning Network tried this recently with great results and in the North West of England the creative people are beginning to embrace this approach
  4. Open Space conferences can be a light-weight mechanism for people to pull learning in a group setting
  5. Offsites are a great way to socialise and learn from a large number of people with varying expertise.  Apple famously did this for years and Hewlett Packard barbeques were legendary!
  6. Bar Camps and similar unconferences are excellent ways to self-organise learning amongst large groups.  Check out “Bar Camp” in Manchester and see how the digital community is learning from each other
  7. Internal conferences can also be a way to have people share good practice in a contextualised setting for learning

So, seven simple examples which will enhance social learning and not a Tweet in sight!  Sumeet’s also done a great presentation dealing with social learning without the technology, which you can view from this link.

I’ve realised that great social learning has to be just that; social.  I’m starting to believe that the “cubicle culture”, the Twitterverse and other new tools are actually shielding us from having the social conversations we derive so much from.  3M would agree; in a Business Week article they said “The real work of collaboration happens face-to-face.”


I still remain unconvinced that social meda tools are the sole route to social learning.  By all means use social media tools but keep in mind that it’s ultimately the people and places that really put the social in social learning.  Take time to get away from your computer and smartphone and get talking face-to-face.  Discover the richness we have to offer each other.  Laugh and joke and meet up at work, at home, and in between to share and learn.

Call to action

Do the unthinkable – unplug from the grid for a few hours.  Share a coffee or pick up the phone and say hello to someone.  You’ll be surprised how thrilled they’ll be that you bothered.  Go and meet friends and colleagues and make your learning experience truly social.

And finally

Tuesday (14th May) was Mark Zuckerberg’s birthday.  Mark was one of the co-founders of Facebook arguably one of the biggest drivers in the social media world.  Thanks Mark from bringing us this great tool, but wel also know that you love to meet people and work in the real world.  Long may it continue!

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