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Online Social Learning Communities: Necessary but not Sufficient

As the Digital Era progresses, professionals at all levels and career stages need to develop and maintain a core set of digital competencies. These competencies can be developed informally, through online social learning communities, but they must also be developed through formal education and training programs. Academic and other organizational leaders must recognize that it is in their own best interests to make bridging the new (and expanding) digital divide a strategic and tactical priority.

In 5 Ways Social Learning Communities Transform Culture and Leadership, Meghan Biro asserts that “we are seeing the beginnings of an online social movement which will enhance traditional classroom education and breathe new life into the world of work” and describes some of the shifts behind this movement:

  1. Online learning communities are challenging the value of academic ‘brands’.
  2. Online learning communities have leveled the financial playing field and advantaged learners, not purveyors of degrees.
  3. Online learners are empowered, and they will change your culture.
  4. Leaders are born and made.
  5. Online social learning communities are changing the value of employer brands.

I love the term “online social learning communities,” which aptly describes the focus of the two digital communities I have founded: Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) and the Global Center for Digital Era Leadership (GCDEL). Like many early adopters, my knowledge of new technologies was informally acquired, through my own efforts – and mostly through cyberspace. As I’ve learned, I’ve shared that knowledge and expertise with others and have facilitated their ability to share as well. But as valuable as my informal learning has been, I know it’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people. I deal with digital rookies all the time, and I can personally attest to how challenging it is for them to develop and execute a self-directed learning plan. Many of them don’t even know where to start. I’ve explored the new Digital Divide and the need for Digital Era competencies, and I don’t believe we have the luxury of time for people to be self taught. The situation is becoming too urgent.

I’ve recently started talking about the flaws in our LIY (learn it yourself) approach to skill development. As Meghan notes, organizations are reluctant to invest in training and developing their staffs – and when it comes to digital skills in particular, there’s a prevailing assumption that people can figure things out on their own. They can’t – and they don’t – which creates tremendous inefficiencies and diminished effectiveness. This is as true for so-called Digital Natives as it is for Digital Immigrants.

Many early adopters and social technology mavens scoff at the notion of formal education and training in maximizing the use of new technologies. I’ve addressed that issue too, arguing that though formal learning is not a substitute for experience, it does lay an effective foundation that enables people to climb their learning curves faster and better.

The bottom line, as Meghan alludes to, is balance. We need both formal and informal learning, in whatever combination makes the most sense for an individual and an organization. The key, though, is to recognize and respect that learning MUST be a priority. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest should compel leaders to make it an operational priority.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

– Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD

Related Resources

The New Digital Divide: Thoughts for Leaders and Laggards

Digital Era Competencies: How Do You Stack Up?

Social Media Education and Training: Pro or Con? Please Discuss…

Social Media Education & Training: Where We Are. Where We’re Going.

A Master’s Degree Specialization in Social Media & Online Communities

What’s Your Social Media Sophistication? The SMQ (version III)

For even more resources, check out slides 35-42 from my closing Impact99 keynote, The Road Forward: Striving for Balance. More recent pieces can be found in the November and December blog archives.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I’m a big follower of the 2020 Workplace philosophy, based on the book. The outlook for formal training is bleak right now, but I believe that the role of institutions is to provide structure and frameworks, not necessarily training itself (other then technical training). We need to learn to capitalize on virtual learning and use social technology to share knowledge better. Social learning has a lot of promise for knowledge workers.


Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Terry. I absolutely believe both are necessary, and one of the challenges going forward will be to find the right way to balance and integrate formal and informal/social learning strategies and tactics.

Doug Tharp

I agree, that both are important, but we’ve got to rethink the way we do the formal learning portion. Too often we waste valuable time on providing information that isn’t really needed for performance and some learners have become really lazy about their own development and want to be spoon-fed every detail about what they have to do and where to find the resources they need to complete their work. There are certain skills that should be trained, practiced, and observed in a formal training environment, but if we improve the access and organization of informal learning systems and focus on actual skills needed for job performance, we can significantly reduce the amount of formal training needed. Also, from a managment perspective I think its time to incentivise self-learning/self-seeking of sklls and knowledge and those that aren’t interested in self-devlopment may have to be left behind when new leadership opportunities arise.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I just signed up for an online learning module through Coursera (hat tip to Steve Ressler for the recommendation) – eager to see how it goes.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Excellent points, Doug! Your comment made me think of issues like critical thinking skills and lifelong learning – and of course the old “teach a person to fish” adage… One of the most important things formal education can do is provide a foundation for future knowledge and skill development, particularly through self-learning. That’s been a deficit in our approaches for a while now, and it’s probably becoming even more critical as the Digital Era progresses.

I hope both you and Terry will share your thoughts on the “official” blog post too.

Good luck with the Coursera module, Andrew. We’ve been tracking MOOCs for a while now – it’s definitely a phenomenon to pay attention to.

Annie Sokol

I maintain we all learn differently, and both formal and informal training are applicable. Apart from formal online learning module, we can learn to do many things from the internet such as Youtube. As described in 2020Workplace, innovation and technology have truly transform learning and training. There are pros and cons for formal and informal training.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Annie and John. Annie, I agree there are many opportunities for educating and training oneself, but I encounter digital rookies every day who both “don’t know what they don’t know” and have no clue how to get started climbing the necessary learning curves. And given their rookie status, they probably even lack the basic foundation to make sense of what’s available to them.

John, I don’t disagree with the value of MOOCs for certain types of learning, but when it comes to skill development in particular I’m not certain they’re the best approach. Perhaps we’ll discover that what we need is to focus on both ends of the spectrum – large-scale knowledge transfer on one end and small-scale skill development on the other – instead of the middle-ground hybrid that dominates most education and training today.


I like the term as well. We use a variety of words describing GovLoop with the main being “knowledge network for government” but I also use online social learning community. What I’ve found as well is that different learners have different desires – some love our blogs and discussions, while others are more interested in more structured learning like our online training and in-person events and research guides. I think the most important item is that they all tie into each other & learners have multiple ways to engage

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Yes, Steve, a multi-media, multi-method approach to learning is key, especially when it comes to new technologies. Thanks for all you do!