Social Learning as an Enabler of Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership at its very core is about the act of being “leaderful” no matter the role that we play in an organization. As an organizational philosophy it promotes agility, innovation and shared learning. Formal leaders play a critical role in empowering their teams’ success through the sharing of vision, modeling the values, the coaching and management of performance and of building trust. It’s about setting the guide lines, providing the resources and allowing your people to soar. The end result, that elusive lagging indicator many of us know as employee engagement. And better still employee engagement that has at its heart shared ownership and targeted performance outcomes. All good for your stakeholders whether they be clients, shareholders or employees.

Transitioning from a more traditional hierarchical leadership model to a distributed one requires a mind shift on many levels – think change management in all its glory. It’s about the systems, the processes, and the people all wrapped in a communication plan that helps bridge the gaps in both knowledge and willingness. As I work with my own organization to bridge those gaps I am sure I will be inspired to share many learnings but today I want to specifically focus on social learning as a powerful enabler.

Social learning at its core is about observing and learning from others.  A child learns to walk, talk, etc. by watching the ‘experts’ around them. Similarly, in the work place we learn about the organization, the cultural norms and expectations, and organizational specific process from those that are already doing the job – from the experts. We observe, learn and mimic in a bid to reach fully performance and also to fit in. We want to belong.

Social learning is therefore not a new concept. What has changed in the last decade is the way in which we utilize or deliver social learning. Technology allows us to meet, share documents, share thoughts, learn, socialize, and share photos, send links to great information, funny stories, and video clips. Virtually.  It allows us to build connections.  And for the skeptics out there – the connections can be very real. Thirteen years ago when I was expecting my daughter in July of 1999 I joined an online community of moms who spanned the world – our common point of interest was the fact that we were all expecting babies at the same time. Thirteen years later many of us are still together. We have long left the original board – some of us connect through a private Facebook page, others have stayed connected through an email group, some we have met in person and others we know  simply through our ongoing virtual discussions. Together we learned about raising babies, navigating the school years and now we are in the territory of teenage hood. We also talk about ourselves, our lives and issues. We support those that need it, celebrate with each other and cry together as life throws its many challenges our way. We are stronger people, better parents, and more knowledgeable human beings all because we had a connection simply known as our July 99ers.

Imagine the connections and learning that could take place if you could harness that effectively and transport it into your work place. The key ingredients for success include:

  1. a strong and powerful reason to meet
  2. the technology that allows it to be safe and fast
  3. a willingness to share openly of your knowledge and talents so that others can learn from you
  4. An openness to learn from others
  5. Great content. The material need to be meaningful.

Communities of practice in the workplace can be used to discuss real time issues and share best practices. It’s a place where like-minded people who are geographically dispersed can come together to work, to socialize and to learn at a time and place that is convenient for them. Innovation, agility and shared outcomes become very real and very manageable. And it is here that I had my little ‘huh’ moment. The very things that technology enabled social learning encourages are the core of what distributed leadership is about. The opportunity is there for us to marry the two in a way that progresses and allows us to realize the full benefits of both.

I am on a path of supporting my organization to embrace distributed leadership. We are in the early stages of our journey but the future is exciting. I see social learning as an interesting tool in our cultural and learning tool box. I would welcome dialogue from those of you that are using social learning in the workplace to shift learning outcomes, to influence culture and to tap into the wealth of knowledge that our employees bring to the workplace.

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