Social Learning in the Workplace 1

In this series of E-Learning Curve Blog posts, I’m investigating Constructivist aspects of workplace learning. As I will discuss in a later article, I believe that workplace learning – knowledge working – is intimately bound within the organisational context: knowledge workers use their skills and experience to innovate solutions to real-world problems, and social learning is a mechanism to do this.

One of the primary conditions of knowledge working is the social aspect – knowledge workers typically collaborate with their peers, whether they are individuals with similar skill assets, such as application development teams working in an agile software development environment, or in project teams which require knowledge workers from different disciplines (technical architects, business analysts, and product consultants, for example) to cooperate in the implementation of the solutions on a customer site. Within any given organisation then, knowledge workers evolve a culture – what Bates and Plog (1990) define as

the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted through learning [my italics]


…to enable groups to perform tasks within the context of the organisation. Recognition of the social and interactive nature of knowledge working is one of the key drivers for the workplace learning. At any given time, individual workers in an organisation have more or less tacit and explicit knowledge on a given topic than their co-workers, and collectively a very high level of expertise across a range of topics exists.

This bank of information can be leveraged for the benefit of the organiztion as a whole, via a social approach to learning. Training professionals can create an learning environment that integrate Jonassen’s eight characteristics for constructivist learning and where an individual’s expertise could manifest itself through various artifacts of learning (presentations, demonstrations and so on) and through debate and discussion be transmitted to their peer group. This combination of artifacts and dialogue creates a socially mediated environment where new knowledge is constructed for both the individual learner and for the group; as John F. Kennedy asserted in 1962 “a rising tide lifts all boats” (Oxford Library of Words and Phrases, 1981, p.141).

This methodology aligns with the Social Constructivist approach to learning. As Lev Vygotsky, one of social constructivism’s main proponents asserted, learning is mediated through social interaction of learners and what Driscoll (1994) called More Knowledgeable Others (MKOs) – more experienced peers, mentors, instructors and so on. At any point in the learning process, the learner experiences threes states:

  1. Knowledge, skills and tasks already learned, that can be performed independently by the learner
  2. those that cannot be performed even with help
  3. those that fall between the two extremes – activities that can be performed with help from others




Bates, D, G. & Plog F. (1990) Cultural Anthropology. 3rd ed. Berkshire, McGraw-Hill College

Brown, J. S. Collins, C., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. [Internet] Educational Researcher 18(1), pp. 32-42, Jan-Feb 1989. Available from: http://tiger.coe.missouri.edu/%7Ejonassen/courses/CLE/index.html [Accessed April 12th 2017]

Characteristics of Constructivism (2004) Internet. Available from: http://www.worc.ac.uk/LTMain/LTC/StaffDev/
[Accessed 7th January 2017]

Exclusive Interview with Professor David Jonassen (2001) IN: elearningpost [Internet] Available from: http://www.elearningpost.com/articles/archives/
[Accessed 12th March 2017]

Oxford Library of Words and Phrases, Vol. 1. (1981). Oxford University Press.


  1. What you describe here is what is known in the US as “the water cooler effect.” I find it interesting that many service organizations (I think of call centers for example) do not want their employees to “waste time” away from their tasks by socializing. However, many times these informal discussions in the break rooms or around vending machines can give workers a different perspective, adding to their knowledge.

    In fact, a friend used to work at IBM where they were trying to figure out how to harness the water cooler effect among distributed groups as they found these teams did not have the same level of innovation. They concluded that there needed to be some online social interaction. This might be why they decided to have “office spaces” in second life.

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