GUEST BLOG: How to learn from the experts (in your own company)

Encouraging your employees to share skills and knowledge with their peers is a great, cost-effective way to support the development needs of your organisation, without relying on expensive external training courses.

While 2011 is likely to be challenging, lots of businesses are gearing up for growth. For some this will mean a significant re-think about how they match the needs of their employees with the long-term objectives of the organisation. Giving staff a rewarding role that will benefit the business is key.

'Social learning' puts the emphasis on having a collaborative approach to learning within the workplace, which spreads knowledge throughout the building, fosters a strong team spirit and inspires confidence in your people.

What do you need to grow?

Whether your objectives are to market your organisation to a wider client base, improve customer service or launch a new product or service, the skills you need may already be in the building.

Where are you well equipped? Where do you need to build expertise? And, importantly, where do you have pockets of knowledge that can be shared more widely?

Try to think broadly here: even outside of customer-facing roles you may have people with the natural 'people skills' and problem-solving mentality that could really boost your client relationships.

When identifying the skills your organisation needs to grow, stay focused on your long-term business objectives and use that as a springboard. But don't do this in isolation. It's important that employees feel the benefits too, so try facilitating brainstorm sessions with different groups of employees to see where they want to learn and grow.

This works for small organisations in the same way as it does for huge corporations. Indeed, small businesses have a real advantage when it comes to social learning. Due to their size, owners will often have a better birds-eye view of their workforce and the individual skills of their people.

Be creative!

So how can you 'get social' with your development programme? Social learning is in fact particularly relevant for businesses at the moment, as it complements the growing trend for organisations to use digital and social media to communicate their offering, share their news and interact with staff and customers.

Indeed, on a wider scale, knowledge sharing websites such as Quora demonstrate just how social and collaborative our society is becoming. It is this kind of thinking that we need to take inspiration from and bring into the workplace.

You could, for example, create a 'training wiki' to encourage employees to share tips, knowledge and best practice. Google Groups offers another easy and cost-effective tool for employees to share ideas and information.

Make it part of your culture

Getting the right tools in place is just part of the challenge though. The best social learning programmes will be driven by the enthusiasm of employees. So, make sure you engage with your employees to create an open, collaborative workplace where peer-learning will flourish beyond the initial burst of activity.

Give people the freedom to find formats that work for them. For example, keeping learning sessions small and informal can help boost self-confidence, for both those gaining knowledge and those honing their coaching and mentoring skills.

Flexibility is key. A series of lunchtime sessions may be the answer - or a dedicated 'knowledge day' once a month.

Of course, the aim is to draw on the skills of everyone within the business but managers will have a particularly important role. They should provide support and guidance where necessary, but allow employees to develop and hopefully flourish at their own pace.

At the end of the day, social learning shouldn't be treated as a gimmick or a stopgap when budgets are tight. To really embed it in the workplace employees need to see the rationale behind the idea, how the skills they will share and learn will benefit their own development, and how it will make the business more successful in the longer-term.

And keep listening. Do encourage feedback, suggestions and queries. Peer-to-peer learning really defines the collaborative workplace so leaders have to be prepared to have an open dialogue at all levels.

Dr. Clifford Sparrowhawk is head of business development at IBP. His fondness for live music, West Ham United FC and writing only the first chapter of new novels is legendary.

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